The Wallace Collection

A writing-table made by Jean-François Leleu, 1774-6
Makers stamp for J. F. Leleu in the upper drawer.
Makers stamp for J. F. Leleu in the upper drawer.
Treasure of the Month - October 2009

A writing-table made by Jean-François Leleu, 1774-6

This sophisticated writing-table or bonheur-du-jour is characteristic of Leleu’s style, combining strict neo-classicism with architectural elements.

Made of oak, the desk consists of an upper section containing three cupboards surmounted by Spanish brocatello marble, and a lower, table section enclosing a drawer at the front, fitted with an adjustable reading-stand in the centre. Small desks of this kind, easily portable and richly decorated with elegant marquetry and gilt-bronze mounts, were usually intended for a woman’s use in the fashionable, intimate interiors of a late 18th-century town house.

Jean-François Leleu (1729-1807) was born in Paris and first apprenticed in the workshop of Jean-François Oeben. When Oeben died in 1763, Leleu, then aged thirty-four, hoped to take over the workshop, but he was supplanted by his younger colleague, Jean-Henri Riesener, who eventually married Oeben’s widow. Leleu always seems to have held a grudge against Riesener, but in September 1764 he became a master ébéniste (cabinet maker) and his workshop in the rue Royale-Sainte-Antoine, near the Place des Vosges, soon thrived.

Leleu’s furniture is often decorated with marquetry pictures such as baskets of flowers and trophies, as we find on the drop-front desk, catalogue number F301, in the Study, but he also favoured geometric designs. The desk you can see here is veneered with squares of diaper-pattern marquetry of quartered satiné, separated by bands of green-stained sycamore and box, while the sides of the lower section feature a guilloche frieze of purpleheart enclosing foliate rosettes of sycamore on a ground of stained sycamore.

Particularly noticeable, however, are the tooled and gilded dummy book spines on the three cupboard doors of the upper section. The book titles range from histories of Lisbon, Dieppe and China to the ancient Roman writer Horace’s ‘Letters’, indicating the degree of learning to which someone using such a desk could aspire. Notice that the book spines are uneven in height to make them appear more convincing. The owner of this desk would no doubt have been aware that it contains a secret drawer above the central cupboard which can be unlocked by pressure on one of the flowerheads.

The desk was in the collection of the 4th Marquess of Hertford by 1865, when lent to the Musée Rétrospectif, and displayed at Hertford House by 1890.

© Trustees of the Wallace Collection 2009.
Text by Eleanor Tollfree.

Gallery talks
Eleanor Tollfree will discuss this desk on Monday 5 and Monday 19 October at 1pm.

Further reading

  • Peter Hughes, The Wallace Collection: Catalogue of Furniture, London, 1996, Volume II, cat.214, pp.1086-1091.
  • Alexandre Pradère, French Furniture Makers: The Art of the Ébéniste from Louis XIV to the Revolution, Sotheby’s Publications, 1989, pp.332-341.