The Wallace Collection

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A French Chinoiserie Gold Box by Hubert Cheval
The back of G8 and L’Eau by Aveline after Boucher
The back of G8 and L’Eau by Aveline after Boucher
Treasure of the Month - August 2007

A French Chinoiserie Gold Box by Hubert Cheval

This luxurious gold box (cat G8) was created at the height of eighteenth-century popularity for these items in France.

Hubert Cheval would have been highly experienced and skilled as a goldsmith to produce such an exquisite piece and we know that it was created towards the end of his Master-Craftsmanship in Paris (1716-1751). It is decorated with basse taille (low-cut) vitreous enamel directly onto the gold surface. To achieve this once the box was assembled it would be engraved all over in low relief with a diamond cross hatch pattern, and the imagery in a mixture of levels of relief, then covered with translucent pure blue powdered glass paste and fired. This enamelling technique accentuates the play of light and shade on the box whilst displaying a brilliance of colour and variation of tone.

This box was probably used for containing snuff, introduced into European society from the Americas as the ground leaf form of tobacco. Snuff became popular with all levels of society and men and women alike and such was the fashion for snuff that, by the mid eighteenth-century, a market for elaborate containers for wealthy consumers had developed. The act of taking snuff was described in an eighteenth-century flyer as a ritualised affair involving 13 stages from displaying the box to the audience, to gracefully tipping the lid open before taking the snuff.

Like fashionable clothing snuff boxes were designed to enhance the image of the owner. With a wealthy snuff taker often owning a number of boxes to serve him or her for different occasions, it was therefore necessary for goldsmiths to keep up with current decorative fashions. By the early eighteenth-century books of printed designs were being produced for use in workshops where the goldsmith was also expected to be a ‘designer’. The designs on this box derive from prints by Gabriel Huquier (1695-1772) and Pierre Aveline (1702-1760) after drawings by François Boucher (1703-1770) c.1730-40. They are Chinoiserie or Chinese style designs, which were popular in the decorative arts of this period. Owing to the increased trade with the Far-East, Europeans were exposed to the decorative arts of countries such as Japan or China, including their prints, ceramics and textiles. This ‘new’ imagery had an impact on European art as many artists incorporated elements in their work.

Boucher had a passion for Chinoiserie and painted a number of works including Le Mariage chinois ( Musée des Beaux-Arts, Besançon) as well as drawing designs specifically for mass market engravings. Although Boucher never actually visited the Far-East he used original sources in his work, including prints from the Yuzhi genzhi tu a seventeenth-century treatise on tiling and weaving produced for the Chinese Kangxi Emperor.

The designs after Boucher by Huquier used on this box are taken from a series called Scènes de la vie chinois (c.1738-45). Here Hubert Cheval’s skill and judgement is shown as he has often selected only elements of the original designs and yet the end result is still compositionally appealing. The image for the back is taken from L’Eau by Aveline after Boucher and again Cheval’s selection of imagery is apparent (fig 2).

There is a spy-glass (lorgnette) by Cheval in the collection at Waddesdon Manor (accession 2792) with similar enamel techniques, otherwise no other boxes by this goldsmith are known to survive, which makes the Wallace Collection box even more

Further Reading

  • Hughes, Peter, Eighteenth-Century France and the East,1981,
  • Savill, Rosalind, The Wallace Collection, Gold Boxes, (both available in the shop)
  • Snowman, A. Kenneth, Eighteenth Century Gold Boxes of Europe, Faber and Faber, London, 1966