An exceptionally rare porcelain sculpture, made in London in the 1740s, and rediscovered in a French flea market has gone on display in the V&A.
Discovered in 2011 in south west Brittany by retired porcelain dealer Louis Woodford, the Head of a Laughing Child is thought to date to around 1746-49 and was probably made at London’s Chelsea porcelain factory, England’s first major porcelain factory, which itself had only opened a few years earlier.
Not just a rare survivor, but of unusually high quality, as it was probably made by the renowned French-born sculptor Louis-François Roubiliac, who was active in London in the 1740s.
Roubiliac was a friend of Nicholas Sprimont, the owner and founder of the Chelsea porcelain factory, and evidence suggests Roubiliac considered using Chelsea porcelain for a major sculptural commission in the first few months of the factory’s opening.
The sculpture’s glassy body and glaze, as well as the surface pitting, are also typical of the early experimental period at the Chelsea porcelain factory.
Roubiliac would have sculpted the head in clay approximately 20 percent bigger than the resulting porcelain figure. From this model, multi-part plaster moulds were taken at the Chelsea porcelain factory and then used to cast several versions of the head in porcelain. These were then carefully dried in a process that saw them shrink considerably. The porcelain heads were then glazed and fired at a high temperature.
Only one other porcelain example of Roubiliac’s Head of a Laughing Child is known to exist, which is now in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. In 2012 the two Heads were brought together for comparison, when experts from across the world confirmed that they were both cast from the same mould at the Chelsea porcelain factory.
The sculpture is now on display in the V&A museum’s British Galleries (1st floor), alongside some of the earliest examples of English porcelain.