The manufactory was founded to the east of Paris in the disused royal château of Vincennes, in 1739-40. It was not until 1756 that it moved to the village of Sèvres, west of Paris, en route to Louis XV’s palace of Versailles and close to the house of his mistress, Madame de Pompadour, who was a great lover of porcelain and a great supporter of the manufactory.
Originally founded by Jean- Louis Henri Orry de Fulvy, the original intention was to make porcelain to rival that of the German manufactory, Meissen, the greatest porcelain manufacturer in Europe. Further royal privileges and royal investment followed and in 1759 the king bought out the other shareholders and became the sole proprietor. The factory remained a royal enterprise until the French Revolution when it was nationalised. It is still in production today.
Until 1769 Sèvres did not have the right ingredients to make ‘true’ porcelain as made in the Far East or Saxony (Meissen), but instead made its porcelain from a paste of frit (a mixture of white earths vitrified by firing) and clay, the so-called ‘soft paste’ porcelain (pâte tendre). This had a translucent, creamy-white colour and the lower firing temperature meant that a wide range of colours could be used for decoration which soaked into the glaze when fired. However, the disadvantage of soft paste was that it was expensive to produce, partly due to the technical complications of manufacture, and partly to losses in the kiln where it was liable to sag and crack. Firing cracks and blemishes were common, even on elaborately decorated pieces which were too costly to discard unless there was major damage. The cracks were often concealed on visible areas by painted and gilded decoration. Hard paste or ‘true’ porcelain was introduced in 1769 after the discovery of kaolin deposits (china clay) near Limoges and for 25 years both types were in production, but in 1804 soft paste production was finally abandoned.
Nineteenth-century British collectors typically favoured soft paste Sèvres and the Marquesses of Hertford were no exception; the majority of the porcelain in the Wallace Collection is soft paste. The collection is one of the finest in any museum worldwide.