A Sèvres ‘dinette’ service: playing at growing up

Dinette tea set, soft-paste porcelain, overglaze enamels, gilding, Sèvres porcelain factory, France, 1768, CCN 644

One of the Chitra Collection’s curious and precious tea sets is a Sèvres ‘dinette’ set made in 1768. Its miniature size has earned it the label ‘dinette’ from one of its past owners, a term which usually refers to small or doll-sized porcelain services. Compared with an example in the Metropolitan Museum dating from the early 19th century, the Chitra Collection set is larger than this doll’s house tea service. On the other hand, its proportions are fractionally smaller than that of a Sèvres service of the same period also in the Chitra Collection (CCN1423), making it an unusual piece. Too large for a doll’s house but smaller than a standard tea service – its purpose is ambiguous and this article will explore the questions surrounding the ‘dinette’ set’s intended recipients and purpose.

Miniature tea set, hard-paste porcelain, ca. 1825–35, Paris, France, Metropolitan Museum of Art 1975.1.1626a–f

It’s possible that this seven-piece set was intended for a child recipient. During the 18th century, miniature tea services were often given to young aristocratic girls to educate them on how to make and serve tea, so that they could fulfil the adult female role of presiding over the tea table at social occasions. From the mid-18th century, the period we think of as the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, important changes occurred in how people thought about children and the definition of childhood. Whereas in previous centuries in Europe children were thought of as imperfect, vulnerable, and sexually immature versions of their adult counterparts, the child began to be seen as a crucial developmental stage and idealised as a period of innocence and uncorrupted purity. Various writers and intellectuals of the time proposed theories on children and their education, and children at play or being taught were popular subjects in art. 

Déjeuner tea set, porcelain, enamels and gilding, Sèvres porcelain manufactory, France, ca.1758 CCN 1434

The production of the Sèvres tea set in 1868 came just six years after the publication of Émile in 1762, a work by philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau was one of several writers considering the pedagogy of young people and in Émile he described how he believed children should be educated in order to become model citizens. Partly reimagining his own childhood, he created a character who gives the work its title and constructed an idealistic childhood through pleasurable memories, encouraging new attention to this phase of life. This work helped to establish the concept of childhood and the child as a different being to the adult or the infant. Rousseau describes the ideal education as one focusing on the individual child where he is tutored separately from his peers and encouraged to pursue his natural curiosity. This vision of education is highly individualistic and self-directed. Rousseau considers the education of girls separately, in a single chapter which focuses on Sophie, Émile’s future partner. The ideal education for girls prepares them for domestic duties and instils the obedient, passive qualities of, in his view, the perfect wife.

A Lady in a Garden having Coffee with Children,  oil on canvas, Nicolas Lancret, ca. 1742, National Gallery NG6422

As taking tea was by this period an established social activity for middle and upper-class circles and within the realms of a woman’s domestic duties, girls would be initiated early into this social ritual. Play and imitation were understood as ways that children explored the world and learned about grown-up roles and behaviours. Through imitating the behaviour of her female relatives, a young lady would be preparing to enter the world of complex courtly rituals and manners. Scenes of this nature are depicted by artists of the time. In Nicolas Lancret’s painting, A Lady in a Garden having Coffee with Children of 1742, a little girl’s abandoned doll can be seen in the lower right-hand corner of the painting as an older woman – we assume her relative – extends a spoonful of coffee towards her to try. In William Hogarth’s painting A Children’s Tea Party of 1730, a tea table has been set up for the amusement of a group of children with a doll seated at the miniature table. But the children are distracted by other activities and a leaping dog is about to topple over the table. Here, Hogarth shows a scene where adult behaviours are mimicked but are not entirely successful.

A Children’s Tea Party, oil on canvas, William Hogarth, ca. 1730, National Museums Wales NMW A 94

However children are not the only ones to play and engage in imaginative games. In the fantasies of courtly life painted by Jean-Antoine Watteau, such as Les Plaisirs du Bal, aristocrats frolic in a semi-exterior, garden environment and engage in play-acting and games, or informal conversation where the rules of social decorum appear relaxed. In this picture, a richly dressed audience surrounds the two actors, some looking on at the spectacle, some engrossed in their own conversations. Two girls can be seen here at the centre of the picture, between a servant boy who carries a silver tray and the female actor, preoccupied in their own game. In the later painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard Blind Man’s Buff, a child is a fellow playmate in the game of seduction occurring between two adults, directly participating in the game by brushing the woman’s hand with a stick.

Les Plaisirs du Bal, oil on canvas, Antoine Watteau, ca. 1715-17, Dulwich Picture Gallery DPG156

A miniature kettle found in the V&A’s collection provides an example of the kinds of objects that suggest that the world of play and the world of the adults were not mutually exclusive. Alongside the possibility that it was a child’s plaything, or a semi-instructional tool for young girls, other theories on why such objects were made include that they were practice pieces for apprentice silversmiths, or were used to furnish dolls houses, as well as collectable trinkets. In the case of the latter two, the ‘toy’ does not only belong to the child but is a whimsical object of fashion and luxury.

Blind Man’s Buff, oil on canvas, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, ca. 1750-1752, Toledo Museum of Art 1954.43

The tea set would have served not only to instruct in the serving of tea itself, the function and use of each item, and the social codes of the ritual and tea-table conversation, but also in how to hold one’s pose, control the body, and the handling of each item. Madame de Maintenon, an 18th century noblewoman and educator of impoverished aristocratic girls, proposed in her letters in the first decade of the 1700s that it is during play that control over the body is learnt. In the paintings mentioned above, the children imitate their adult counterparts to greater or lesser success, partly because they are acquiring the necessary control over their bodies. This is a key element of the process of learning the social roles of their gender and class, as well as the rules governing adult forms of play that delineated where and how these activities took place. Serving tea has a particular choreography, a series of careful moves which carry an emotional quality associated with handling fragile and highly valuable objects. They require delicate handling and for the user to have learnt the artful and yet familiar attitude to valuable objects in their youth.

Miniature kettle, silver and wicker, W Beilby and J Bainbridge, Durham, England, ca. 1740, M.256 to B-1976 V&A

Miniature objects such as the silver trinkets of the V&A suggest those items belonged to the world of play, imagination, and leisure time that was the preserve of the wealthy classes. They exist at a slight distance from practical utility for tea drinking, allowing aesthetic and sensual qualities to come into greater focus, and they invite visual and tactile interaction. Their symbolic significance arises from the quality of craftsmanship and precious materials, and the association of the objects with wealth, luxury, and play in the domestic home also comes to the fore. Sèvres’ employment of scaled-down versions of their models places the Chitra Collection ‘dinette’ set in this imaginative sphere close to the trinket. What kind of relation this set may have had to child users is uncertain, but the effect of its ‘dinette’ scale is to magnify the experience of luxury.