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

Country Life Every Week - - Focus On The Visual Arts - Edited by Michael Hall

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

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