Let’s start off with a question: Why would you pay a vast sum for a copy of a piece of furniture?
Surely you wouldn’t today, but this attitude did not extend to the nineteenth century. Buyers, including our very own 4th Marquess of Hertford, were prepared not only to pay large amounts of money for copies, but actually prized these reproductions. The Marquess’ own copies of the Louis XV desk and the desk belonging to the Elector of Bavaria still remain on display in the Back State Room and the Nineteenth-century Gallery respectively.
This interest in copies is the subject for our new conservation display. We are fortunate enough to be able to compare our drop-front desk by Pierre-Antoine Foullet with a copy by an unknown cabinet-maker from the late nineteenth century, kindly lent by Butchoff Antiques. This has given us the opportunity to compare techniques, materials and understand more about these reproductions. Read on to find out what we have discovered!
First off, let’s imagine you wish to copy a priceless piece of furniture, so how would you go about obtaining its details, such as dimensions, decoration etc.? Permission from the owner would be an excellent start, or perhaps the piece would be conveniently displayed in an exhibition allowing for sketches or photographs. If you were really stuck books were published near the end of the nineteenth century detailing the construction of furniture to aid cabinet making, in response to the trends for copies. How the copy of Foullet’s desk came about still remains unknown, though the French techniques used and inscriptions lead us to believe that it was made in Paris. It may have been copied when it belonged to the Belgian family of Hane-Steenhuyse or, more likely, when Sir Richard Wallace exhibited the desk at the Bethnal Green Exhibition in London between 1872-5. Interestingly, whoever copied it obviously had access to the interior as well as the exterior, but we still do not know if the copy was authorised or not. It is important to note that there was no attempt to copy Foullet’s signature, suggesting no deception was intended or indeed needed.
Now imagine you have obtained a detailed copy of the Foullet desk, so next to create it! Though they were making copies, the nineteenth-century cabinet-makers did not intend to produce an exact replica. Firstly, though Foullet, along with his eighteenth-century contemporaries, were highly skilled they did not generally spend much time on hidden parts. Therefore the finish on the nineteenth-century copy could be better. Nineteenth-century cabinet makers were also more fortunate in their access to materials. In the 1700s workshops could not afford wastage, so every bit of wood was used, even if imperfect. By the 1800s, however, high quality timber was more widely available, allowing for a more uniform higher standard.
Now, time for the marquetry! The marquetry decoration on the Foullet desk is of outstanding quality and extremely complex, showing a three dimensional quality and crispness only associated with the very best marqueteurs. Coloured wood was engraved to enhance the design and woods were chosen specifically to suit the pictures that were being depicted, for example ripple sycamore has been used for a water scene.
However, marquetry furniture was often heavily restored even within the first few decades of its life, in many cases the faded coloured wood was scraped back to reveal more of the original colours. Our Foullet desk suffered greatly from this treatment, particularly the fall front and, across the desk, re-emphasised lines stand out in a much cruder way than would have been the case originally.
The marquetry on the copy is in comparison much simpler. The marqueteurs used far fewer pieces of cut veneer, there is less refinement of design and hardly any engraving. This was probably a cost- saving exercise, as such work takes a long time and is highly skilled. It is also possible that these skills, so prized in the eighteenth-century were not as widely available. It is interesting to see that the copyist chose woods such as boxwood that give a ‘faded’ effect, as the Foullet desk would have appeared at the end of the nineteenth century.
Finally there is the question of the mounts. The mounts on both desks are of extremely high quality, all of them mercury gilded. The copyist has copied the mounts in much more detail than the marquetry, and it is possible that they were ‘overcast’ (surmoulé) – in other words, that some kind of cast was taken from the original mounts. Even the balusters on the gallery have all been cast individually and screwed on, just as they are on the Foullet desk.
So back to our original question, why would you pay so much for a copy? Well, numerous theories to this question exist but most importantly it was a question of attitude. Our current love for antiques and upturned-nose dismissal of reproductions either did not exist or was not such an important factor. The nineteenth-century customers, like the original owners of the Foullet, were after a beautiful piece of furniture and that’s exactly what they got.
By Marie Stirling
This conservation display is a fantastic opportunity to explore how cabinet-making and attitudes progressed from the 1700s to the 1800s. The display will run from Monday 10 March to Friday 29 August 2014 and admission is free.