L’Agréable Leçon (The Agreeable Lesson)
Joseph Willems (1715 - 1766)
The Chelsea porcelain factory, established around 1743–5, produced some of the most desirable ceramic figures of any period. The secret of its success was in the quality of the manufacture and the choice of subjects, which often featured delightful pastoral scenes, with romantic or sexual overtones, and idealised animal figures. At this period, the material was a soft-paste porcelain because European makers had not yet mastered the East Asian art of producing hard white porcelain. The sculpture group shown here is known as The Agreeable Lesson and is one of the largest and most appealing produced by the Chelsea factory. It features a shepherd teaching a shepherdess to play the pipes, a composition inspired by a print after a painting by the French artist François Boucher (1703–70). The profusion of small flowers in the arbour and the shepherdess’s hand on the shepherd’s knee creates a heady sense of romance and sexual tension.
Sculptural figure group of 'L'agreable Leçon' ('The Agreeable Lesson') modelled Joseph Willems (1716-66) for the Chelsea porcelain factory. A shepherd and shepherdess seated together beneath a flowering arbour. He leans towards her and, with his arms embracing her, teaches her to play the pipe. A lamb lies on her lap, while two further lambs and a dog rest on a high scroll base. The clothes of both shepherd and shepherdess are decorated in elaborated flowers and a scale pattern in brilliant enamels and burnished gilding. He wears a wide blue hat decorated with flowers and puce shoes with blue and gold buckles. An incised ‘R.’ on the base is the mark of an unidentified 'repairer', a skilled worker responsible for assembling separate unfired parts and sharpening up the sculptural detail. Maker's mark - gold anchor mark and incised R marks, c.1765.
This sculptural figure group is one of the largest and most important made by the Chelsea porcelain factory, during the so-called gold anchor period (1756-59). It was created by the highly skilled modeller Joseph Willems (1716-66) who designed many of his compositions from popular prints. The subject here, of a shepherd teaching a shepherdess to play the pipes, is taken from a print of 'L'Agréable Leçon' (The Agreeable Lesson), engraved by René Gaillard or Johann Esaias Nilson, after a painting by François Boucher (1703–70) exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1748. Fashionable prints were sold by specialist publishers and dealers across Europe, providing templates for marketable designs and decoration, and 'L'Agréable Leçon' was the source of decoration for porcelain figure groups also produced by both the Sèvres and Frankenthal factories. On this Chelsea version the profusion of hand-modelled and applied flowers and vegetation, known as bocage (French for 'grove') was characteristic of English rococo porcelain. An incised ‘R.’ on the base is the mark of an unidentified 'repairer', a skilled worker responsible for assembling separate unfired parts and sharpening up the sculptural detail. Often displayed on mirror-backed mantelpieces of music and drawing rooms, light from windows or candles would have gleamed on the brightly painted and glided porcelain of such treasured pieces. Chelsea porcelain figures were eminently desirable, at a 1770 sale of the remaining factory stock, a version of this ‘very large and curious group of a shepherd teaching a shepherdess to play the flute’ sold for £8. By the second half of the 19th century, early-English porcelain revived in popularity and the collecting of ceramics developed into serious connoisseurship by the early-20th century when Marcus Samuel, 1st Viscount Bearsted (1853-1927) probably acquired this piece. The leading ceramics collector Lady Charlotte Schreiber (1812-95) purchased her own example of ‘L'Agréable Leçon’ from Christie's for £364 (£22,000 today), the largest sum she ever paid for a piece of English porcelain.
Probably acquired by Marcus Samuel, 1st Viscount Bearsted (1853-1927) for display in his London house or country estate, The Mote, Maidstone, Kent; inherited by his son Walter Horace Samuel, 2nd Viscount Bearstead (1882-1948) who acquired Upton House in 1927.
Marks and inscriptions
Underside of base: Gold-painted anchor and incised 'R.' marks
Makers and roles
Joseph Willems (1715 - 1766), modeller Chelsea Porcelain Factory (1744-1769), maker after François Boucher (Paris 1703 – Paris 1770), painter after Johann Essaias Nelson (1721-1788), engraver (printmaker) after René Gaillard (c.1719 - 1790), engraver (printmaker)
Jackson-Stops 1985: Gervase Jackson-Stops (ed.), The Treasure Houses of Britain: five hundred years of private patronage and art collecting, exh. cat. The National Gallery of Art, Washington, New Haven and London 1985, Pp. 480-1, Cat. 416 Ferguson 2016: Patricia F. Ferguson, Ceramics: 400 Years of British Collecting in 100 Masterpieces, Philip Wilson Publishers, 2016 Mallet, 1964: J. V. G. Mallet. Upton House: The Bearsted collection: porcelain. National Trust, 1964., P. 15, No. 35