Tea set

ARTIST / MAKER: Jean-Baptiste-Claude Odiot (maker)
Martin-Guillaume Biennais (maker)
DATE: ca. 1815-1819 (made)
PLACE: France (made)
MATERIALS AND TECHNIQUES: Silver-gilt with mother-of-pearl detail

This silver-gilt tea set was made for the 1st Duke de Bassano Hugues-Bernard Maret, a French journalist and statesman. After Napoléon Bonaparte’s return from Egypt in 1799, Maret joined the general’s party, becoming one of Napoléon’s secretaries and, shortly afterwards, Secretary of State. An experienced politician, Maret undertook important work for the French Consulate and First French Empire but after the restoration of the Bourbons he was exiled. This impressive set by Odiot has its own original wooden case which is engraved ‘Biennais orfèvre du Roi et de la famille royale à Paris’ on the lock. Martin-Guillaume Biennais was a royal goldsmith alongside Odiot, producing exquisite pieces in the Empire style for Napoléon and the royal family.

The shape of the teapot, which features a swan spout and double-serpent handle, is one of the most accomplished models by Odiot. An identical teapot can be found in a nécessaire (travelling service) made for Napoléon himself. Inspiration for the sugar bowl is believed to have come from a great marble tripod from the 2nd century BC, which was seized from the Vatican and displayed at the Musée Napoléon in 1800. The vase-shaped hot water urn is the most striking component of this set. The urn features a straight spout with a lion’s mask, a mother-of-pearl crescent tap, and three winged half-lions and paw feet. The base is decorated with lion masks in foliate wreaths, Bacchus heads and putti riding wildcats. The urn is applied on one side with a female centaur playing an aulos (double flute), while Eros, the Greek god of love, rests on her back holding a ball. The opposite side is embellished with the centaur Chiron playing the lyre, while Eros plays a flute on his back. The subject of Eros and two centaurs is likely inspired by an ancient Greek altar with similar imagery, known as the Cippus Amemptus. The altar was greatly admired since the Renaissance, and often used as inspiration for neoclassical designs. Odiot came from an established family of gold and silversmiths and during his career he received a number of esteemed commissions from Napoléon and the French court. His work is characterised by strong neoclassical forms and cast figural elements. These he attached with the unconventional use of bolts and rivets, a method he adopted following his collaboration with the bronzier Pierre-Philippe Thomire (1751-1843).