On November 1, 1755, Lisbon was devastated by a major earthquake which buried most of the royal silverware that King John V had commissioned from Thomas Germain, the most famous Parisan silversmith of his day. In June 1756, King John’s successor Joseph I naturally turned to Thomas’s son, François-Thomas Germain, to commission four new services and toilet articles (and a gold dinner service eight years later). After François-Thomas Germain took over his father’s workshop in 1748, it developed into a veritable pre-industrial enterprise. No fewer than forty workers produced his designs in a workshop comprising five forges and seventeen workbenches. The silverware for the King of Portugal was the largest commission ever received by Germain from a foreign court. The pieces were delivered between November 1757 and May 1765; they were transported in twenty-five chests to Portuguese ships moored in the port of Le Havre. The commission included four ewers and basins designed for “handwashing.” The number 64 inscribed on this ewer corresponds to a serial number that the silversmith had to engrave on the pieces so that they could be recorded as they arrived in Lisbon and the different services would not be mixed up. Despite these precautions, the only complete set to have survived is the one in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs; the ewers held in Lisbon’s Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga no longer have their basins. With ornamentation evoking the theme of water, François-Thomas Germain revitalized the “helmet ewer” form that had been fashionable since the late seventeenth century, giving it a more willowy outline accentuated by its molded grooves. The handle is formed by supple reeds that delicately frame the rim of the ewer; the basin is decorated with cartouches containing swans swimming among the reeds. This work by Germain combines the fluidity of Rococo forms with a rigor and elegance that heralded neoclassicism.
Gérard Mabille, “Orfèvrerie française des XVIe, XVIIe, XVIIIe siècles,” Catalogue raisonné des collections du Musée des Arts Décoratifs et du Musée Nissim de Camondo, Paris, Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs-Flammarion, 1984, no. 109, pp. 78-79.
Christine Perrin, François-Thomas Germain, orfèvre du roi, Saint-Rémy-en-L’Eau, Éditions Monelle Hayot, 1993, repr. p. 115.