It is possible that these exquisite little vases, 5.5cm in height, represent very rare examples of the work of the factory set up by the enthusiastic alchemist George Villiers, second Duke of Buckingham at Lambeth in 1663.
A note in one, written in the distinctive hand of Brownlow, 9th Earl of Exeter (1725-1793) describes them as: ‘The Duke of Buckingham’s China.’
In the 17th Century, when Europeans were seeking to discover the secret of the much admired Chinese hard paste porcelain, most early attempts to imitate it were based upon one type or other of soft paste.
However, tests have recently demonstrated that these vases are definitely made of a form of hard paste.
Mention of them first appears in 1683 in the will of a noted collector, William, 3rd Earl of Devonshire (1617-1684).
They thus predate, by some thirty years, the first officially recorded European hard paste porcelain, made by Johann Friedrich Bőttger (1682-1719) at Meissen in 1709.
They are listed in an inventory known as the 1690 Devonshire Schedule which records an immense bequest from the earl’s widow, Elizabeth (1619-1689) to their daughter Anne, Countess of Exeter (1649-1703).
‘A pair of little Jarrs and covers guilt and enamel’d with ffestoons and boyes heads.’
The vases clearly have a claim to being Europe’s earliest hard paste porcelain, as well as being the first with enamelled polychrome decoration and gilding.