The 18th century : the beginnings
Since the 18th century, when the first porcelain was produced, the reputation of Limoges porcelain has grown so much that the name of the city instantly evokes the art of porcelain.
Before this date, the history of European ceramics can be seen as a long period of research undertaken by the whole of Europe to penetrate the secrets of porcelain manufacture, discovered in China in the 6th century. The fascination it exercised is mostly due to the mystery, which for a long time seemed so miraculous, of how through the alchemy of fire, clay could turn into a white, translucent, shiny and melodic material.
Although the Europeans were already experts in some ceramic arts, such as glass or faience (glazed earthenware), they were missing an essential material, kaolin, which is what gives porcelain its whiteness, durability and translucency.
In the 18th century, usable deposits were finally found in Europe : in 1709 in Germany, then in 1768 in France, at Saint-Yrieix-la-Perche, near Limoges. This discovery was the trigger for the development of Limoges porcelain. Under the auspices of Turgot, the Intendant (tax collector) of Limoges, who saw it as a resource for the region, the first manufactory was founded in 1771, then from 1774 was protected by the Comte d’Artois, the brother of King Louis XVI and the future Charles X.
The production made use of the decorations commonly used for soft-paste porcelain during preceding years: patterns consisting of small bouquets of flowers. Gold lace thread was often used, frequently accompanied by a plain blue thread. The manufactory produced simple items, in small quantities. After the takeover of the Limoges manufactory in 1784 by the Sèvres Royal Manufactory, the shapes and decorations became more detailed and sophisticated.
Between 1771 and 1774, only porcelain bisque bore a maker’s mark. From 1774, under the protection of the Comte d’Artois, the initials of the prince, “CD” were systematically used, a mark that was retained until the manufactory closed in 1796. During manufacture, the objects were hollow-stamped and the colour mark was applied after the decoration, usually in red but sometimes in blue.
The first half of the 19th century : the founding fathers of porcelain
After the French Revolution, production resumed and the number of manufactories in the Haute-Vienne region multiplied. By 1827, there were already 16 manufactories, and by 1850, more than 30. Their history is very complex, as not only were there a lot of them, but they grew and declined in parallel with the political and economic crises.
A few notable manufactories were present in this period, such as the ones owned by Baignol, Pierre Tharaud, François Alluaud and the Comte de Bonneval. From 1830, whilst continuing to produce a lot of dinner services, production began to turn towards decorative art, under the influence of Parisian artists such as the bronzemakers Aaron and Valin.
The second half of the 19th century : the golden age of Limoges porcelain
The World Fairs were key to the development and emulation of the manufactories. From 1851, they marked their production so that it would be recognised by the thousands of visitors at these exhibitions. The technical mastery and expertise of the Limoges manufactories was undisputed. At this time, the companies were keen to develop the concept of “Limoges White porcelain”, to highlight the quality of the kaolin and the perfection of the manufacturing techniques. The pieces presented were indeed remarkable in their perfect forms and whiteness.
The most representative manufactory was undoubtedly that of Pouyat. Its masterpiece, the “Grain-de-riz” service, presented at the 1878 World Fair, was copied from a model by the famous Parisian artist Albert Dammouse. The technique used was called “cloisonné”, which consisted in hollowing out the porcelain and filling the holes formed by the translucent enamel.
The last quarter of the century was dominated by the Haviland manufactory. Félix Bracquemond, the artistic director of a research workshop opened by Charles-Édouard Haviland in the Auteuil district of Paris, introduced Japanese-inspired decorations to Limoges. Through his American offices, Haviland opened up the transatlantic market to all the Limoges porcelain makers.
In addition to the famous white porcelain, Limoges developed the techniques of high-fired porcelain, resulting in elegant, subtle colours.
Limoges porcelain from the 20th century to the present day
The first half of the 20th century was marked by the emergence of two styles : Art Nouveau and Art Deco. These styles influenced the porcelain makers, who worked closely with renowned artists.
Art Nouveau was introduced to Limoges porcelain by the company GDA. Siegfried Bing, the initiator of this trend, had noticed the company at the Chicago World Fair in 1892, and asked them to make the porcelain models given to him by the artists Edward Colonna, Georges de Feure and Paul Jouve.
Limoges porcelain reaffirmed its reputation in 1925 at the International Fair of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts, held in Paris. It gave its name to the style which grew in popularity from 1925 onwards : Art Deco. A number of manufactories then made use of renowned artists such as Lalique, Dufy, Sandoz etc. Some of the services produced were architectural in form, similar to the Cubist approach.
The Second World War had a brutal impact on Limoges porcelain and the industry had to cope with several challenges, including re-establishing its activity by adapting production tools to the new reality. In the mid-1950s, one of the most striking symbols of this recovery was the introduction of gas-fired kilns, brought about by the need for reconstruction. At that time, over 30 porcelain manufactories were active in Limoges, and the recovery in the economy benefited all these businesses. However, in the 1970s, international competition drove them to adapt their production.
By using renowned artists, the Limoges manufactories opened up to the world of design, introducing art into everyday life by creating objects to match the new lifestyles prevalent in Western society. Both Raymond Loewy and Roger Tallon made unusually shaped porcelain models, Loewy, for example, with his service for Air France in 1976, and Tallon by working with the crystal maker Daum and the silversmith Ravinet-d'Enfert on the “3T” service. In addition, as porcelain continued to enjoy an image of excellence, Heads of State all over the world and major luxury goods companies all commissioned services in Limoges porcelain.
Far from hindering innovation, the loyalty to tradition stimulated contemporary design. The “Limoges White” remains an absolute benchmark for designers who want to use porcelain in their art. In order to encourage innovation, several initiatives have been launched in which business and designers work closely together : the Esprit Porcelaine association, the Bernardaud Foundation and the Limoges Centre for Research into Ceramic and Enamel (CRAFT), which all support contemporary design.
The younger generations are also taking up the art of porcelain, and founding their own businesses, such as Non sans Raison, which recreates and revives Limoges porcelain through its decorations, forms and techniques.
Finally, it must be underlined that the Limoges manufactories constantly add to the museum’s collections by donating their latest designs : through this generous gesture, they remain faithful to the tradition established by Adrien Dubouché in the 19th century, which has made the museum the unique place it is today for discovering Limoges porcelain.