Sèvres has a special place in my heart. The quiet suburb on the south-western outskirts of Paris was where I lived and studied for a month in 2007 with a group from my Australian university, including several of my close friends. Every day we would trek from the rambling château where we each inhabited a tiny chambre de bonne (“maid’s chamber”), complete with sloping ceiling and shutters, to the Pont de Sèvres metro and into the big city. So it was with bittersweet nostalgia that I returned to Sèvres, this time on my own, to poke around and reminisce.
My first intention was to visit our building, as well as the Domaine national de Saint-Cloud, a rather wild forest that I think rivals any of Paris’ better known parks. It was only when I passed right by the National Ceramics Museum, which I had heard of but had not really given much thought to, that I decided to visit.
Between the 17th and 19th centuries, Sèvres was the centre of ceramics production in France. First a royal, then an imperial operation, the factory (located behind the museum and still in use today) was famed throughout Europe for its delicate porcelain plates and vases. These were what I expected to see on my visit. However, while there is an extensive selection of Sèvres porcelain from the factory’s golden age, I was impressed with the range of other material on display as well. There are some traditional Chinese and Japanese vases, as well as an entire room dedicated to faience pieces from Delft, the hub of Dutch ceramic production. The art-deco French vases in the salon de vases were my favourites, along with the delicate royal tea sets.
But what I liked most about the Musée national de céramique was its way of showing how ceramics toe the line between function and art. Alongside practical objects like crockery, jewellery boxes and clocks were small-scale sculptures and decorative vases and “receptacles”. Ceramics are often palmed off as a craft rather than an art, but the museum emphasised not only the diversity of the medium, but its ability to bridge the gap between the two genres.
Takayuki Sakiyama, Choto (decorative vase), 2005
If this gives you a taste for some French ceramics of your own, and you’re not too terrified to carry anything breakable in your luggage like I am, I recommend you pay a visit to the boutique Astier de Villate, 173 rue St Honoré, in the 1st arrondissement (metro Palais Royal, http://www.astierdevillatte.com). If you’re anything like me, you’ll spend a long time crooning over their white scalloped dinner sets. It seems I am a fool for ceramics after all.