© Tsekyi Thür

The Characteristics of Typical French Lamps

The typical French lamp is rather playful. For the most part, it consists of an often very decorative metal base (mostly cast brass; zinc alloy is rather rare), and the ornamentation here often shows Art Nouveau motifs. Art Nouveau is basically quite different from German and Austrian Jugendstil, which tends to favour stylistically strict, simplified, even straight lines, whereas French Art Nouveau has a flowing, feminine, floral and playful style. French Art Nouveau also often has decorative elements that have quite strong Baroque/Rococo leanings. All of this is of course abundant in French kerosene/paraffin lamps as well.

The French lamps have a great variety of shapes. Here, there are all conceivable designs of form with their quite specific, French characteristics, which one can distinguish quite easily from the lamps of other nations after a long and intensive period of collecting. I have summarised the most typical lamp shapes in two collective photos in order to make it easier to understand what I described in text. However, the order of the illustrations does not slavishly follow the text.

 

Typical forms of the French lamps
Upper row, left photo: Three former Moderator lamps made of very sculptured pressed brass sheet in squat form, in the middle also with attached glass font
Upper row, right photo: Three former Moderator lamps made of porcelain: on the left a squat form without an attached font; in the middle a long-necked, baluster-shaped lamp with an attached font; on the right again a squat lamp, but this time with an additional font
Lower row, left photo: Three lamps with Far Eastern vases: Imari porcelain on the left; Satsuma earthenware in the middle; metal vase with Cloisonné painting on the right
Bottom row, right photo: Three "spherical lamps" as inset lamps in the hanging lamps

 

A special feature compared to other nations build the French Moderator oil lamps, many of which were converted to kerosene/paraffin lamps in the second half of the 19th century. France was the country of Moderator lamps; consequently, most Moderator lamps converted to kerosene/paraffin operation (or even electrified) can be found here. See the chapter Development, where I have described in detail the distinguishing features and the predominant forms of these lamps.

Again a French speciality are the elegant table lamps that have Japanese or Chinese vases. Towards the end of the 19th century, "Japonism" became a very fashionable trend in France. Japanese art objects were imported and marketed in large numbers. Resourceful lamp makers then started to make kerosene/paraffin lamps out of ordinary Japanese flower vases by drilling through the bottom of the vase and putting a threaded rod through to connect all the other metal parts such as the base, kerosene/paraffin tank, burner, etc., to the vase. Especially Satsuma and Imari vases from Japan, but also Chinese porcelain vases and metal vases painted with Cloisonné technique were used. In the later phase of this tumultuous development, manufactories in Japan and China exported vases to France that were already prepared with a hole in the bottom. Due to the mass production, however, the quality of the painting was also lost.

Another special feature of French lamps that I hold in high esteem are the sculpture lamps made of a zinc alloy called régule in France. Often designed and also signed by famous sculptors of the Art Nouveau period, these lamps represent a pinnacle of lamp design. They are usually of considerable size; with a base of turned wood painted to look deceptively like a reddish, black-veined marble, and a patina that gives the sculpture the appearance of a real bronze figure, these lamps have more the appearance of an expensive sculpture cast in bronze. They carry a glass font and a glass tulip shade, which are no different from the other, elegant French lamps. The style of the figure design is very often Art Nouveau, sometimes less, sometimes more pronounced. This kind of sculpture lamps also existed in Germany, but as I find, equipped with rather "static" looking figures, which in no way achieve the flirtatious playfulness of the French figures. I have seen very few German sculpture lamps on eBay; my knowledge comes more from old lamp catalogues.

Pillar lamps can be made of a wide variety of materials. The body of these lamps usually consists of a short, medium or tall column made of marble, alabaster, brass (sometimes nickel-plated or even silver-plated, also refined with champlevé technique), glass, porcelain, cast zinc or combinations of these and often inserted in equally playful metal mounts. On the column of the lamp is the kerosene/paraffin tank, very often made of coloured glass and beautifully painted with decorative motifs. Tall, imposing column lamps, on the other hand, are dominated by colourless but intricately cut crystal glass, often from the famous Baccarat glass manufactory. The typical shade for these lamps is the glass tulip, no less decorative than the rest of the lamp itself. The overall shape of such lamps is graceful, slender and tall, with the beautifully painted tulip shade at the top rather reminiscent of a true flower emerging from its thin stem.

Another style of lamp quite opposite to the elegant-graceful lamp described above is the French spherical lamp; called so by me simply because the vase of the lamp really resembles a sphere. This spherical vase can be made of painted ceramic or punched, pressed brass sheet. These include Renaissance motifs on Gien pottery, arabesque motifs on Vieillard pottery; or finely painted floral arrangements that are more akin to very fine porcelain paintings. The kerosene/paraffin font of these lamps is made of sheet iron and always hidden in the spherical vase. A special feature of these lamps was their use in hanging lamps (lampe à suspension) by placing the complete lamp without the shade in a suitable metal hanging device with a larger glass shade. Such lamps could be used as table lamps as well as hanging lamps (see L.028). Today, however, they are almost always offered without their hanging device.

In addition to the intensely coloured ceramic vases of the famous French manufactories such as Longwy, Gien and Vieillard, there are also many beautiful porcelain lamps whose manufacturers have often remained unknown, because these porcelain vases or lamp bodies are almost never signed. Several such manufactories must have existed in Paris and the surrounding area alone; their products are often referred to as "Parisian porcelain" without specifying any particular manufactory. Two porcelain manufacturers who often produced vases for Moderator lamps with a very distinguishable style are Valentine Saint-Gaudens in the extreme south of France, and Bayeux (with its world-famous carpet from the early Middle Ages) in Normandy. Their products are not marked with porcelain marks either; however, they can be easily identified.

 

Other typical forms of French lamps
Top row, left photo: Two "Valentin" lamps and two glass lamps with air chambers in the glass wall
Top row, right photo: Ceramic vase with cast brass base - Parisienne lamp with metal shade - Lamp with central section in egg-shaped onyx marble
Bottom row, left photo: Tripod lamps (lampe tripode; lampe athénienne)
Bottom row, right photos: Office lamp (lampe de travail) by Peigniet-Changeur - Typical hanging lamp with insert lamp inside.

 

A type of lamp from France that should not be neglected is the so-called "Valentine lamp" (not to be confused with porcelain vases of Valentine Saint-Gaudens). This lamp is very often offered on eBay France; it was probably a rather simple, sometimes cheap working lamp of the French, perhaps even in use without a shade. The shape is easy to describe: The lamp body is at the same time a base, a vase and a font. It is approximately concave-cylindrical, with a rather wide base part that tapers slightly towards the top in the middle to become slightly wider again at the top, the diameter of the lower part being larger than that of the upper part. The whole thing is remotely reminiscent of a female torso. The popular name "Valentine" is said to have originated from a musical film by Maurice Chevalier. The material of this lamp is mostly porcelain, kept in one colour or sparsely painted. The shade for this type could be a more simply designed tulip or even a glass ball (I am not sure, as I have not yet seen an authentically preserved Valentine lamp with a shade). Presumably, however, they had no shade at all.

Also very French are the glass lamps whose glass walls contain air chambers in geometric patterns located between two layers of glass. This masterly type of glass, which requires a lot of skill, was probably very popular in France. Both lamp vases and tulip shades were made using this technique. These products were probably not very inexpensive; nevertheless, they were exported to Great Britain and even to the USA.

Cast zinc is quite rare in French lamps, except for the sculpture lamps. Very many lamps with the vases made of ceramics, porcelain, glass or even metal (e.g. column lamps) almost always have a base made of cast brass, often ornamentally decorated, even in elaborate openwork decoration. If you look at the lamps shown in these two photos, you will notice this very easily.

A purebred French development is the so-called "Parisienne" lamp, which differs from all other lamps by its metal shade. In these lamps, the lamp body (base, stem, font) and shade always form a unit, considering the material and decoration. Both the lamp body and the shade are made of more or less elaborately punched brass sheet, with the decoration being identical on both parts. The brass shade is always decorated with a glass bead hanging. On higher quality Parisienne lamps, the shade has three or more coloured glass cabochons set into holes in the shade that match the size, giving them a corresponding colourfulness remotely reminiscent of Maghrebian lamps when the lamp is lit. These lamps have specially shaped shade carriers on which the brass shade is placed. On eBay France, Parisienne lamps are often found with missing brass shades or without glass bead hangings. The first case is fatal, because a Parisienne lamp must have its matching shade; with other shades it loses its status. Lost or damaged glass bead hangings can at least be replaced with new hangings.

Another style of lamp found only in France is the so-called "tripod lamp" (lampe tripode or lampe athénienne). These lamps have three cast brass arms, usually in the shape of mythical creatures or animal legs, which extend upwards from a heavy marble or metal base and support a decorated ring into which the font made of glass (cut crystal glass or painted glass) or sheet brass is inserted. These lamps are also very elegant and unusual in their appearance. However, very beautifully and elaborately worked, large examples also reach quite high prices.

Another variation of French lamps not found in other countries is the use of special painting techniques with enamel colours on metal vases or columns. Both the Cloisonné and Champlevé techniques are ancient, having been used as early as the Middle Ages; their renaissance, however, came in the 19th century. French lampists refined their mostly small-format lamps with the Champlevé technique. The Cloisonné vases for the lamps, on the other hand, were sourced primarily from China.

The typical shade of the French lamp is the painted tulip or the unpainted but elaborately etched ball shade. Higher-quality examples have tulip shades or ball shades from the two renowned crystal manufactories St. Louis and Baccarat. Older Moderator lamps almost always had a satin-finished glass globe without ornamentation, which was adopted by later kerosene/paraffin lamps only at the beginning. Vesta shades, on the other hand, harmonise poorly with the playful French lamps. They play virtually no role in the French lamp industry.

Despite the manifold, even exuberant variety of shapes, there are only a few lamp manufacturers in France who have become famous beyond their national borders. The most famous and innovative lamp manufacturer was Peigniet-Changeur in Paris, whose very specially shaped office lamps (lampe de travail) and high-quality, elegant, rare lamps with a spring mechanism inside (lampe pétrole automotrice) that pumped the fuel to the burner (similar to the earlier Carcel or Moderator lamps) are considered worthy successors to the French oil lamps that once dominated all of Europe. Another unique position in the world is held by the Gaudard company in Morbier, as it is possibly the last surviving manufacturer of Kosmos and flame disc burners in Europe.

The following list names the French lamp and burner manufacturers in alphabetical order that I know of, without claiming to be complete.

Company Location
Daveluy, A. (= ADA) Pont-Saint-Pierre, Normandie
Gaudard (produces Kosmos burners until today!) Morbier
Jamain Paris
Lacroix & Ferrary Caen
Lévy Fils Paris
L’ELF (= Les Étabilissements L. Fontaine) Neuilly-sur-Seine
Luchaire, P. (former Blazy & Luchaire) Paris
Maris & Besnard Paris
Peigniet-Changeur Paris
Pinard, A. Paris
Ristelhueber, Jean Paris
Robert, A. Paris
Robert, L. Paris
S.I. (= Societé industrielle d’articles d‘éclairage) Paris
S.V.E. (= Société des verreries pour l’éclairage)- was taken over by L'ELF in 1923.

Paris

 

My Lamps from France

French lamps often have their distinctive characteristics, which I have described above. Their special features distinguish them very well from lamps of other nations, so that French lamps can be recognised quite well even if they do not bear any signatures or other markings. Consequently, the largest contingent of 119 lamps in my collection comes from France. Almost every third lamp in the collection is a French lamp.

It is therefore impossible to present this large number of lamps in a single sub-chapter. I have distributed them in 6 sub-chapters as follows:

1. Converted Moderator Lamps
2. Lamps with Far Eastern Vases
3. Sculptural Lamps
4. Pillar Lamps
5. Porcelain, Ceramic and Glass Lamps
6. Metal Lamps