“L” IS FOR LYON. THE MARKETING AMBITIONS OF EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY FRENCH MERCHANT MANUFACTURERS, OR WHERE DID ALL THE LYONNAIS SILKS GO? LESLEY MILLER, SENIOR CURATOR OF TEXTILES, VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM, LONDON/PROFESSOR OF DRESS AND TEXTILE HISTORY, UNIVERSITY OF GLASGOW

Lyon in the south-east of France was by the late 17th century the silk-weaving capital of Europe, its products ranging from simple, lightweight plain silks to elaborate brocaded silks woven with silver and gold. It was to these patterned silks that the city owed its reputation, as designers created new ranges of patterns seasonally, thus outdating silks woven to the previous season’s designs. The frontispiece commissioned for the final volume of the inventory of the papers of the silk weaving guild in the late 18th century suggests that these silks sold on four continents, including in the Americas. ‘As long as extravagance reigns, the manufacture will survive’, proclaimed the legend on the drawing.

Inventory of the Grande Fabrique, 1536-1785, vol. 3. Ink on paper, 57,20 x 37,5 cm. Lyon, Archives municipales, Courtesy of the Archives Municipales de Lyon
Inventory of the Grande Fabrique, 1536-1785, vol. 3. Ink on paper, 57,20 x 37,5 cm. Lyon, Archives municipales, Courtesy of the Archives Municipales de Lyon
Silk brocaded with three qualities of metal thread and polychrome silks, probably made in Lyon, about 1745-60, acquired from Spain in 1912. London, Victoria & Albert Museum, T.115-1912
Silk brocaded with three qualities of metal thread and polychrome silks, probably made in Lyon, about 1745-60, acquired from Spain in 1912. London, Victoria & Albert Museum, T.115-1912

Not surprisingly, the Lyonnais merchant manufacturers who commissioned the designing and making of silks and bore the credit burden of capital investment in raw materials and labour, periodically expressed their anxiety over maintaining and extending their markets. In 1731 in a lengthy petition (mémoire) a prominent member of their number Philippe Emanuel Barnier offered a fascinating insight into their markets. His aim was undoubtedly to promote the fortunes of his own ‘class’ of merchants, those producing the most elaborate silks in the best and newest taste.

According to Barnier domestic markets in France divided into three categories: the Court, the city of Paris and the provinces. The first set the tone, was copied by the second, and gradually this taste trickled outwards to French regional clients of more meagre means. Foreign markets also divided into three categories. First were the obvious contenders, the foreign courts ‘in which good taste and magnificence reigned’, such as those of Portugal, Prussia, Poland and ‘even Russia’. Here the best and newest French silks were acquired, but only for major festivities and marriages. Second, were the foreign provinces, which were deemed similar to the French provinces as they tended to buy cheaper products and consequently often preferred Dutch silks over French ones. Finally, the Pacific (la mer du sur) was a market that had ‘often served as a resource for manufacturers looking for an outlet for merchandise that had the misfortune not to sell in its season and whose age rendered it difficult to dispose of’.(ff. 33-36)

Young Woman with a Harpsichord, Anonymous, Mexico, 1735-1750, oil on canvas Denver Art Museum, Gift of the Collection of Frederick and Jan Mayer, 2014.209
Young Woman with a Harpsichord, Anonymous, Mexico, 1735-1750, oil on canvas Denver Art Museum, Gift of the Collection of Frederick and Jan Mayer, 2014.209

Barnier was sure that the Spanish were the key to Lyonnais silk manufacturing success, repeating the old cliché that Spaniards ‘naturally liked external show’ and were quite happy to ‘ruin themselves in expenditure on clothing’. While he lamented the sumptuary pragmatics in place in Spain, Mexico and Peru that prohibited the wearing of metal, he was certain that the French government could convince the Spanish to abolition these laws, and then, as Spain did not manufacture silks with metal, French imported silks would be welcome. (ff. 88-9) Spain – or to be more precise the mines of Potosí in present day Bolivia – provided, of course, the precious metal for Lyonnais silks. (ff. 37-8)

Such silks survive in secular and ecclesiastical dress in Latin America today, as previous blog posts have shown, and they are worn by the upper ranks of the Vice-regal society in portraits. The viceroys usually wore the court uniform of their noble status: black coat and red waistcoat, heavily embroidered in gold. The women chose gowns whose brocaded or embroidered silk was more likely to have come from Lyon than from Talavera de la Reina or Valencia in Spain. French production was on a much grander scale than that of the Iberian Peninsula, and substantial numbers of French businessmen and merchants inhabited the port of Cadiz.

Portrait of Doña Mariana Belsunse y Salasar, Lima, 1770-80, José Joaquim Bermejo (Peru, ca. 1760-1792). Oil on canvas, 198,4 x 127,2, New York, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs L.H. Shearman, 1992.212
Portrait of Doña Mariana Belsunse y Salasar, Lima, 1770-80, José Joaquim Bermejo (Peru, ca. 1760-1792). Oil on canvas, 198,4 x 127,2, New York, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs L.H. Shearman, 1992.212

References and further reading:

Mémoire général sur la manufacture d’étoffes de soye, or, et argent qui se fabriquent dans la ville de Lyon, écrit en janvier 1731, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de la France, ms. Fr. 11855

Lesley Ellis Miller, Selling Silks. A Merchant’s Sample Book of 1764 (London, 2014)

Luis Francisco Peñalver Ramos, La Real Fábrica de tejidos de seda, oro y plata de Talavera de la Reina. De Ruliere a los Cinco Gremios Mayores, 1748-1785 (Talavera, 1998)

Santiago Rodriguez García, Las sedas valencianas en el siglo XVIII (Valencia, 1959)


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