The Wallace Collection

The Wallace Collection, A Family Collection, A National Museum, An International Treasure House
John Webb, Copy of the writing-table of the Elector of Bavaria, 1854-57
Treasure of the Month - August 2014

John Webb, Copy of the writing-table of the Elector of Bavaria, 1854-57

In the early eighteenth century, Maximilian II Emanuel, Elector of Bavaria (1662-1726), was forced into exile during the War of Spanish Succession and spent almost a decade living in France. There he patronised the foremost architects, luxury goods dealers and cabinet-makers of the day and acquired French art in the most fashionable taste. One of his purchases which was shipped back to Munich after he returned home in 1715was an elaborate desk veneered in ebony, turtleshell and metal marquetry, with sculptural gilt-bronze mounts, surmounted by a clock.

The desk in the Wallace Collection is an almost exact copy of the Elector’s desk, but it was made in the middle of the nineteenth century to the order of the 4th Marquess of Hertford. By this date, the Elector’s desk had left Munich and was owned by the 5th Duke of Buccleuch who, like Hertford, was a great lover of the furniture of André-Charles Boulle (1642-1732), by whom the Elector’s desk was thought to have been made. In 1853 Buccleuch was one of several British collectors who lent some of their finest furniture to a public exhibition, ‘Specimens of Cabinet-work’, held at Gore House in South Kensington. Hertford was living in Paris at the time and did not see the exhibition, but he commissioned agents to take photographs and sketches of several pieces that particularly appealed to him, so that he could have detailed copies made. The Elector’s desk was one of these, and he was clearly very passionate about it because he commissioned not one but two copies, one of which he kept in his London home, the other in Paris.     

The copies were made in England, not France, and the bill which survives shows that John Webb, the dealer/cabinet-maker who delivered them, charged Hertford £1,650 for the pair. This was an extremely large sum of money at the time, and rivals some of the high prices Hertford paid for eighteenth-century French furniture. The workmanship is of the very highest quality and no expense was spared on the materials. There was clearly no attempt to deceive anyone into believing that the desk was anything other than new and made for Lord Hertford, because Webb replaced the Elector’s heraldry on the original desk with the coats of arms and crests of the Hertford family and the 4th Marquess. In addition to the two desks, Hertford had five other pieces of furniture in the exhibition copied, all but one of them being pieces attributed to Boulle. 

The Elector’s desk is now in the Musée du Louvre in Paris. For many years the attribution to Boulle remained, but recent scholarship suggests that it was actually made by Bernard I van Risenburgh (c. 1660-1738), a Parisian cabinet-maker who specialised in metal marquetry and clocks. The second copy made for Lord Hertford is in the Casa-Museu Medeiros e Almeida in Lisbon.

Gallery Talks

Monday 4 and Tuesday 19 August at 1pm with Dr Helen Jacobsen in the East Drawing Room.

Further Reading

P. Hughes, The Wallace Collection Catalogue of Furniture (London, 1996), no. 170

J-N. Ronfort, J-D. Augarde, ‘Le Maître du Bureau de l’Electeur’, in L’estampille/L’Objet D’Art, 243, January 1991 (pp. 42-75)

P. Hughes, ‘Replicas of French Furniture made for the 4th Marquess of Hertford’, in Antologia di Belle Arti, 31-2, 1987 (pp. 50-61)