The Wallace Collection houses one of the most important collections of eighteenth-century French furniture in the world. Furniture is displayed within beautiful interiors, where visitors can freely wander around. In order to protect it from any mechanical damage, as well as from light and dust, we keep the pieces closed. Open Furniture Month, which is a yearly event held in February, provides a unique opportunity to look inside some of our remarkable pieces and explore their colourful interiors, secret compartments and ingenious mechanisms. This year’s edition has a theme ‘Innovation in Eighteenth-Century French Cabinet-Making’ and includes eleven pieces.
Paris was the centre of fashion and taste in the eighteenth century, attracting international artists and craftsmen who competed for commissions from the royal court and aristocracy. Parisian cabinetmakers were innovative and quickly responded to changing fashions and the needs of their demanding clients. The eighteenth century was a period of significant social changes, as literacy levels increased and writing for pleasure became more fashionable. This resulted in the development of new types of furniture, such as desks and secretaires.
Below we have a short introduction to some of the objects which will be open this month.
André-Charles Boulle (1642–1732) was the most celebrated cabinetmaker of his time, whose patrons included Louis XIV. The cabinet-on-stand attributed to him, although made in the 1670s and given the traditional form of earlier ebony cabinets, anticipates decorative techniques used by eighteenth-century cabinetmakers. It is predominantly inlaid with superb wood marquetry but there are also elements of metal marquetry, for which Boulle became famous. Gilt-bronze mounts began to play an important decorative role, rather than being purely functional, such as protecting feet or corners or framing the keyholes. A trophy of arms mounted to the upper central drawer incorporates a medal with a bust of Louis XIV. Such mounts would have helped to light a room in the evening by reflecting candlelight.
The emphasis which Boulle placed on the gilt-bronze decoration is evident in the wardrobe made by him in 1715. At a time when trades were strictly regulated by guilds, which obliged craftsmen to stay within the boundaries of their own specialism, Boulle enjoyed the privilege of making his own mounts because he was protected by royal patronage. He was thus able to control the quality of his mounts and achieve greater coherence of design and decoration. The characteristic ebony background with turtleshell and brass marquetry veneer, which covers the wardrobe, became fashionable by 1700. Although Boulle did not invent the technique, he perfected it and, consequently, this type of marquetry was named after him. It is believed that its colour effect of black (ebony) and gold (gilt brass) was inspired by Japanese lacquer, like on the cabinet made c. 1680 probably in Kyoto. Japanese lacquer was highly prized in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This cabinet, one of a pair, belongs to a type of Japanese cabinet made for export through the Dutch East India Company. Such cabinets were bought by marchands-merciers, dealers in luxury goods, who might have adapted them to their clients’ taste and use. This pair of cabinets was given feet made in France in the late seventeenth century. Marchands merciers became especially influential in the eighteenth century.
Marquetry had declined in popularity by the 1720s, slowly being replaced by geometrical veneered decoration. The splendid chest-of-drawers, or commode, delivered by Antoine-Robert Gaudreaus (1682–1746) for Louis XV’s bedchamber at Versailles in 1739 is covered with veneer of exotic woods which originally would have had much more vibrant colours. It was difficult to apply veneer onto curved surfaces and cabinetmakers developed special techniques to achieve this. Gaudreaus’s commode is the quintessence of the Rococo style with its bombé shape and exuberant gilt-bronze mounts by Jacques Caffiéri (1678–1755) in the form of leaves and rock formations which twist and turn in every direction. Commodes were introduced at the turn of the century but the mounts make this piece especially innovative.Floral marquetry was revived again in the middle of the eighteenth century, with flowers arranged in baskets or tied with ribbons, and often accompanied by elements of pictorial marquetry, as seen on the roll-top desk supplied c. 1770 by Jean-Henri Riesener (1734–1806) to Pierre-Gaspard-Marie Grimod (1748–1809), comte d’Orsay, a member of a leading family of financiers. The pictorial elements of the marquetry include military trophies and the attributes of Geometry, Astronomy, Poetry and Silence.
These motifs allude to the professional and intellectual activities of the owner of the desk and Silence reminds us that he should not be disturbed.This desk is a slightly simplified version of the famous bureau du roi, a roll-top desk made for Louis XV by Jean-François Oeben (1721-1763) and Riesener and delivered to Versailles in 1769. The latter was prized not only for its lavish decoration but also for its sophisticated roll-top mechanism which opened the cylinder at the quarter turn of the key. It was a very practical design for private use as it allowed the user to cover and lock the whole working space. The engineering of the roll-top demanded sophisticated cabinet-making techniques, many of which Riesener learnt from Oeben, whose workshop he took over after the latter’s death in 1763.
The Wallace Collection also has an exact copy of Louis XV’s desk, which was made c. 1855–60 and is attributed to Carl Dreschler. It was commissioned by the 4th Marquess of Hertford in Paris and cost him the enormous sum of £3,000. The maker copied the original desk as it was in the mid-nineteenth century, after the alterations of 1794 when the king’s cypher, the interlaced ‘Ls’ on either end, were replaced with biscuit porcelain plaques. It was the first of a number of copies of the bureau du roi that were later produced by leading cabinetmakers in Paris.
Another roll-top desk, attributed to Jean-Henri Riesener and dated c. 1785, has a completely different, minimal decoration that maximizes the impact of the spectacular mahogany veneer. A plain veneer finish was popular at the end of the eighteenth century and was inspired by the fashion for mahogany furniture in Britain. Again, Riesener’s locking mechanism is very sophisticated: both the roll-top and the drawers can be locked with one turn of the key. A writing-surface can be pulled out and raised from the top of the desk allowing writing or reading when standing up. Furthermore, the desk is equipped with inkwell compartments and candelabra on either side providing light for the owner to work at the desk in the evenings.
Riesener was probably the maker of the toilet- and writing-table dated 1780–4, which is also worth noting due to its mechanism. During the second half of the century cabinetmakers became increasingly inventive in producing ‘mechanical’ furniture which allowed several functions to be combined in one piece. This table could be used both as a writing- and a toilet-table. The lid opens up to reveal a mirror, while a small leather–lined writing slide pulls out from underneath it. Small drawers on either side were used as compartments for writing materials, as well as storage space for bottles and other toilet wares for the cosmetics and hair preparations used during the ritual of the toilette.
The brilliance of Parisian cabinetmakers’ creativity is also demonstrated in the writing-table by Jean-François Leleu (1729–1807) from 1774-6, known as a bonheur-du-jour (‘daytime delight’), a type of desk that came in various shapes and decorative veneers. This one has a distinguished decoration of faux book spines that were originally more vibrantly coloured. The titles of the books include histories of towns and cities, literary titles and general histories and reveal the intellectual aspirations of the owner of the piece. Used for both writing and reading, the table has an adjustable stand on which to place a book and a secret drawer above the central cupboard which can be unlocked by pressing a certain gilt-bronze flowerhead.
By Ada De Wit