Stuff of Dreams, n. 4: “service Buffon”

One of the the most curious things in the house museum Nissim de Camondo in Paris (see my previous post here) is the porcelain closet attached to the dining room.

salle à manger, musée Nissim de Camondo

Walk through the door to the left of the fireplace, and voilà! You’re in the porcelain closet.

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Tea service, manufacture de Meissen, c. 1750-60, hard-pasted porcelain

Shelves after shelves of beautifully pristine dinner, coffee, and tea service! The star of this porcelain fantasy is the “service Buffon,” a porcelain dinner set created at the manufacture de Sèvres around 1784.

service Buffon, c. 1784, manufacture de Sèvres, France, soft-paste porcelain with polychrome decorations © Musée des Arts Décoratifs

The name “Buffon” refers to George-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (1707-88), the French naturalist, famous for his Histoire naturelle, the wildly popular and hugely influential encyclopedia cataloguing the knowledge of all known species of fauna and flora. His books were accompanied by thousands of engraved plates that illustrate natural history specimens.

Each of these porcelain dinner pieces features a distinct exotic bird species, inspired by the plates of Buffon’s Histoire naturelle des oiseaux (Natural History of the Birds).

L’Épervier (sparrowhawk) from Buffon’s Histoire naturelle des oiseaux, tome 1
Le casse noix (nutcraker), from Buffon’s Histoire naturelle des oiseaux, tome 5
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The gold-trimmed illustrations of birds are set against green background with the pattern of dotted circles,  called l’oeil-de-perdrix (eye-of-partridge). Some pieces also display grisaille cameos of antique profile busts.

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Imagine, in the time before digital photography and Google Image, a magnificent dinner served on these plates and bowls. Imagine the delight of uncovering these images of exotic birds as one works through the meal. Imagine the air in the dining room, thick with fascination and curiosity for these earthly, yet otherworldly creatures and the alternate universe they seem to occupy..

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