Here’s a rare treat for History Week: a richly illustrated and gilded porcelain plate that links the threads we wear with history, science, and the processes used in the textile and ceramic industries. The plate was made in the French town of Sevres in 1830 and depicts textile dyeing in another French town, Jouy-en-Josas. The use of colour in these industries depended on both craft knowledge and scientific understanding, and it was achieved through cooperation between factory workers and chemists.
The plate is part of the one-off ‘Service des arts industriels’, which depicts scenes from a range of industries. The whole service, which included 108 plates (plus eleven that were probably kept at Sevres) and several other pieces, took 15 years to complete, from 1820 and 1835. In 1836 it was given by Louis Philippe, the last King of France, to Klemens von Metternich, foreign minister of the Austrian Empire and powerful supporter of European autocracy in the face of the growing movement towards democracy.
Artist Jean-Charles Develly visited factories and sketched scenes from life. He later transferred each sketch to an elaborately gilded and fired porcelain plate (or other item) by rubbing charcoal over the back of the paper and tracing the image. Develly then painted the scene, and the plate was fired again before the artist added the finishing touches. There were two more firings: after the retouch and after a gilder had added a final gold circle immediately around the image. (Reference: Ennes, P., ‘Four plates from the Sevres “Service des Arts Industriels” (1820-1835)’, J. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, vol2, 1990, pp89-106.)
This painting shows eleven men at work, all in active stances: lifting, carrying, turning or stirring. Nobody is resting, and nobody appears to be supervising; these are workers getting on with the job of dyeing thread and fabric. The most prominent dyes are madder (red) and indigo (blue), which are both extracted from plants. To recreate the scene on ceramic, the pigments used were metal oxides.
Fitting eleven workers into the scene probably involved artistic licence rather than strict representation, but the painting gives a good idea of the operations in one part of the factory. The view through the doorway appears to include a barge on a waterway, with three men on board busy delivering or taking away material, and behind them are picturesque trees and a clear sky. This choice of scene by the artist firmly situates the factory in rural France, in an ideal position adjacent to a river.
There is another side to this rural-industrial idyll. The Jouy factory was built on the Bievre River because its water was known to assist the dyeing process, due to its load of human urine and animal waste. Other textile factories, and tanneries, were also located there. Eventually the river became so polluted with effluent from those factories that it was channelled underground, converted to a sewer and unable to support any industry.
That story was repeated wherever dye-works were established. Today a great deal of effort is being directed at remediating land and water contaminated by many of the operations essential to the textile industry. While we like to surround ourselves with beautiful, colourful things, we should all be aware of the downside. Every light-hearted purchase of clothes we will hardly wear, every piece of fabric or worn garment we throw in a bin rather than recycle, is an unnecessary burden on our natural environment, which is already under great stress.