The joy of sets
A loan exhibition from National Trust houses at the V&A explores the history of the garniture–the decorative arrangements of vases on chimneypieces or cabinets. Patricia F. Ferguson explains how garnitures became integral to grand interiors
ONE of the sights of Versailles in the late 17th century was the bedroom of the Grand Dauphin, son of Louis XIV, in which shelves and brackets above the chimneypiece were filled with an astonishing display of more than 100 blue-and-white Chinese porcelain vessels. This great treasure was described in an inventory of 1689 simply as ‘garniture de cheminée’ or decoration (literally ‘garnishing’) of the chimneypiece.
Such was the influence of French fashion in England that the word ‘garniture’, first applied to a set of Chinese porcelain in France in 1683, was later adopted to describe sets of vases, beakers or covered jars with matching or en-suite decoration that were displayed solely for decorative impact. In a tradition that goes back to the early 17th century, such sets— usually of porcelain, but also of precious metals, and typically in odd numbers, for reason of symmetry—were placed not only on chimneypieces, but also on cabinets or over doors.
The largest collection in the world of intact garnitures is owned by the National Trust, many of them on display in the settings for which they were originally acquired, forming bold, orderly ribbons of colour in interiors of the 17th and 18th centuries. A selection of the most significant is the subject of a groundbreaking display that opened last month at the V&A in London: ‘Garnitures: Vase Sets from National Trust Houses’. This allows close examination of some outstanding works of art in a way that isn’t usually possible in a countryhouse setting and also provides an overview of the origins and development of the garniture, a surprisingly little-studied subject.
By gathering evidence from documents, such as inventories and receipts, studying paintings, engravings and photographs and researching the history of furniture and interiors in the Netherlands, France, Germany and Britain, a narrative is revealed. Critical to the history of the garniture is the rise and fall of imports of Chinese porcelain and the availability of European imitations that could serve as replacements.
The evolution of the garniture depended on and was restricted by the shape and height of surfaces available to ‘garnish’; a Japanese lacquer cabinet, for example, offers a distinctly different space for a garniture to that of a French veneered cabinet, although both may date from the mid 17th century.
Fig 1: Shortage of Chinese porcelain in England led to the use of silver for garnitures, such as this rare five-piece set made in London in about 1675, in the King’s Room at Knole, Kent