In the days before under-counter wine fridges, seaux à bouteilles, buckets made of earthenware or porcelain, were filled with ice water and used to keep bottles of wine cool. Their use continues to this day in the form of metal ice buckets used to keep white wine chilled table-side at fancy restaurants.
When these objects were made, Europe was in the midst of porcelain mania. Europeans in Italy, France, Germany, England and elsewhere were collecting Asian porcelain, trying to discover how to make it, and, in the meantime, creating look-a-likes from other materials. These seaux fall into the latter category as earthenware (clay) covered with a tin-based glaze that appears nearly as white as porcelain once it is fired. With the addition of painted blue designs, objects decorated in this manner closely resemble the revered Chinese blue and white porcelain.
In another nod to international influence, the decoration on these pots is related to designs made by the French designer and engraver, Jean Bérain (French, 1678-1726)—who himself was influenced by the grotesque decoration popular in Italy during the Renaissance.
Tin-glazed earthenware, or faience as it is also known, became especially popular in France after Louis XIV ordered the melting of silver objects in order to finance his war efforts. No longer able to furnish their tables with silver vessels and wares, the wealthy bought or commissioned dishes and other objects made of faience.
These seaux are currently on display in Moustiers Ceramics: Gifts from the Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw Collection at Cooper Hewitt.
NB: An earlier version of this post incorrectly categorized these objects as cache-pots (flower pots).
Nick Stagliano is a master’s student in the Cooper Hewitt/Parsons History of Design and Curatorial Studies program with a special interest in ceramics. He is a Curatorial Fellow in the Product Design and Decorative Arts Department at Cooper Hewitt.