Among the royal courts of 18th-century Europe there was fierce competition when it came to furnishing palaces with the most desirable luxuries from across the world. In the 1720s these would have included large, elaborate dinner services complete with vessels to accommodate the latest fashions in food and drink, such as covered tureens, chocolate pots and sugar casters.
When it came to royal dinner services, the most coveted material available was fine, white, true porcelain. And, as Becky MacGuire, Christie’s Senior Specialist in Chinese export art, explains, ‘only the Chinese knew the secret of making this magical material’.
Philip V of Spain (1683-1746) came to the throne in 1700, aged just 17, installed by his grandfather, Louis XIV of France. Spain’s galleon trade with China had been established for almost 150 years by this time and it is likely, says the specialist, that his royal court sent wooden or metal prototypes of different dinner service designs to Chinese porcelain workshops aboard a Spanish galleon.
These prototypes would have been accompanied by a watercolour of Philip’s royal arms — including the necklaces of the Order of the Golden Fleece and the Order of the Holy Spirit — to be enamelled on each porcelain piece.
‘The journey these candlestick took, from the Far East to the Americas and Europe, speaks eloquently of how dominant the Spanish empire was at this point’
The service would have been paid for with Spanish silver — a valuable commodity in China at the time. ‘The vast Spanish Empire ran from the bottom end of South America up through Mexico and into the United States, covering parts of the Caribbean and Florida,’ explains MacGuire. ‘It included massive silver mines in Bolivia, Peru and Mexico, and those mines made Philip’s court hugely wealthy.’
Once accounts were settled, the finished service would have been transported back along Spain’s Pacific trade route, from China to Acapulco, before travelling overland to Veracruz, across the sea to Havana, then via the Atlantic to the Spanish coast.
Laid out on Philip’s dining table in the Royal Alcázar palace in Madrid, it consisted of 500 components and would have been among the earliest of these Chinese porcelain dinner services in Europe to contain such a variety of sophisticated shapes.
‘The journey these candlesticks took, from the Far East to the Americas and Europe, speaks eloquently of just how dominant the Spanish empire was at this point,’ says the specialist. ‘In fact it was the original empire on which the sun never set.’
Miraculously, the candlesticks survived a devastating fire which started on Christmas Eve 1734, and burned for four four days. The palace was largely destroyed and large quantities of royal silver melted, although Velazquez’s masterpiece Las Meninas was saved after being tossed from a second-floor window.
It was around this time that the German ceramics producer Meissen mastered the manufacture of true porcelain, and over the following decades Chinese export porcelain fell out of fashion.
‘This service was probably first relegated to a cupboard, and then maybe a country house, or perhaps parts were gifted to relatives or courtiers,’ MacGuire says. ‘All we know is that from the original service, only 72 pieces remain in the Royal Palace in Madrid, while the Museo Arqueológico Nacional and the Museo de Artes Decorativas have two items each.’
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These candlesticks, then, are among just a handful of pieces known to be in private hands.
‘Collectors of Chinese export — and especially of armorial porcelain — love the intricate stories behind these things and the way they bring history to life. The globe-trotting expeditions these candlesticks evoke, and the fact that they once illuminated the dinner on Philip V’s table, make them really special.’