The Wallace Collection Announces Jean-Henri Riesener Season

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The Wallace Collection Announces Jean-Henri Riesener Season

We are excited to announce a new season celebrating the life and work of French cabinetmaker, Jean-Henri Riesener.

The Riesener Season at the Wallace Collection will encompass a display of Riesener’s furniture with an accompanying digital trail, a fascinating new book about the cabinetmaker, a dedicated microsite exploring the life and work of the artist, and a series of free online public events.

This season is the culmination of a five-year research project led by the Wallace Collection in partnership with Royal Collection Trust and Waddesdon Manor, two other highly important collections of Riesener furniture that were put together by George IV and Ferdinand and Alice de Rothschild respectively.

A marquetry roll-top desk
Jean-Henri Riesener, Roll-top Desk (Bureau à cylindre) c.1770.

Jean-Henri Riesener (1734-1806) was the most important cabinetmaker in France during Louis XVI’s reign. From humble beginnings as a German emigrant, he found work in Paris and went on to become the most successful cabinetmaker of his generation. His work was renowned for its floral and figurative marquetry and spectacular gilt-bronze mounts and he was appointed cabinetmaker to Louis XVI in 1774. He was Marie-Antoinette’s favourite cabinetmaker, providing furniture for her private apartments in several royal palaces. In the nineteenth century, his name became synonymous with craftsmanship and luxury, and all that was admired in French furniture.

A full length photograph of a fall-front desk
Jean-Henri Riesener, Fall-front desk, 1783.

The Riesener furniture in the Wallace Collection is some of the most important in the world. It is also the single largest holding of furniture that once belonged to Marie-Antoinette outside France.

Following the fall of the ancien régime and the Bourbon monarchy at the French Revolution, many opulent pieces of royal French furniture were sold and made their way onto the art market. One of the most important collectors was Richard Seymour-Conway, 4th Marquess of Hertford (1800-1870), who lived in Paris. An acknowledged connoisseur of eighteenth-century French decorative art, Hertford first started buying Riesener furniture in the 1840s, and by the time of his death owned over twenty pieces either by or believed to be by Riesener, showing his clear passion for the cabinetmaker’s skill.

The Riesener Season Display runs from Thursday 3 December 2020 until Monday 5 April 2021, and will incorporate two themes.

The Private Marie-Antoinette will explore furniture made for the queen, displaying significant pieces on specially-designed plinths in the centre of the galleries, allowing visitors to see them in the round for the first time and ensuring that every detail can be explored.

The second theme is that of Riesener’s Legacy. Displayed as they were in the nineteenth century by Sir Richard and Lady Wallace, two magnificent roll-top desks will be shown alongside each other in the centre of the Great Gallery. One is Riesener’s masterpiece made for a French aristocrat, the comte d’Orsay, in 1770; the other is a copy commissioned by Lord Hertford in the 1850s of the most famous piece of French furniture in the world, the Bureau du Roi, or King’s Desk, delivered by Riesener to Louis XV in 1769.

These two desks will feature prominently in the forthcoming one-off Channel 4 documentary, about royal restoration, to be broadcast over the Christmas period in a primetime evening slot.

Portrait of a man leaning on a desk of his own design
Jean-Henri Riesener. Cabinetmaker to Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. Furniture in the Wallace Collection, Royal Collection and Waddesdon Manor.

Jean-Henri Riesener. Cabinetmaker to Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, published by Philip Wilson Publishers (Hardback £50), is now available from the Wallace Collection shop and showcases the findings of the five-year Riesener Project.

Edited by Dr Helen Jacobsen, Curator of French 18th-century Decorative Arts at the Wallace Collection, the book is the first major monograph on Riesener, tracing his career, his workshop, and his techniques. It also sheds new light on the collecting of Riesener furniture in the nineteenth century and catalogues the furniture in the three major British collections.

Lavishly illustrated with new photography, it includes contributions from Christian Baulez, former Curator at the Château of Versailles, and curators and conservators from the Wallace Collection, Royal Collection Trust, Waddesdon Manor, and other experts. A visual glossary by Alexander Collins, former Riesener Project Leverhulme Research Fellow, provides an invaluable resource for anyone interested in Riesener furniture.

An open access microsite has also been launched by the Wallace Collection, offering a wealth of information on Riesener as a cabinetmaker, his materials and techniques, his furniture in the Wallace Collection and the 4th Marquess of Hertford as a collector. Conceived as an interactive learning resource, it is a unique repository of knowledge available to anyone anywhere in the world. The microsite utilises integrated 3D digital technologies to explore the complexity of these pieces in a way that has never been seen before, and marks a new way forward for furniture studies.

A marquetry roll-top desk
Copy of the King’s Desk, mounts attributed to Carl Dreschler, c.1855–60.

Additionally, a digital Riesener Trail is being launched on Royal Collection Trust’s website. This brings together digital models and animations for all the 30 pieces in the three collections – including furniture from the Wallace Collection and Waddesdon Manor - that were part of the Riesener Project.

There will also be a physical trail to see the 11 pieces of Riesener at Waddesdon opening in Spring 2021.

The series of free online talks starts on Monday 30 November with speakers from across the three partner institutions including Dr Helen Jacobsen (Curator of French 18th-century Decorative Arts, The Wallace Collection), Rufus Bird (Surveyor of The Queen's Works of Art, Royal Collection Trust), Dr Mia Jackson (Curator of Decorative Arts, Waddesdon Manor), and Alexander Collins (former Riesener Project Leverhulme Research Fellow). The talk series is in collaboration with the Furniture History Society.

Dr Xavier Bray, Director of the Wallace Collection, said:

“This has been a hugely important collaboration between three of the finest collections of French decorative art in the world - the Wallace Collection, Waddesdon Manor and Royal Collection Trust. We are delighted to be able to showcase Riesener's work in this novel and unique way with our Riesener Season, a combination of open access web resources, a beautifully illustrated print publication, public talks and a display at the Wallace Collection of some of his most celebrated pieces.”

Dr Helen Jacobsen, Curator of French 18th-century Decorative Arts at the Wallace Collection, said: 

“The Riesener Project has been a fascinating journey, opening our eyes to the outstanding skills and creativity of this German immigrant in Paris who made his fortune at the court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. The passion for Riesener furniture after his death has ensured that we have an unrivalled collection of his works in Britain, and the activities of the Riesener Season will bring these pieces into the spotlight once more, enabling a new generation to admire and marvel at his work.”

Jürgen Huber, Senior Furniture Conservator at the Wallace Collection, said: 

“I am so pleased to see the two Roll-top desks in the Great Gallery where these impressive pieces are shown in a complete different setting. Furthermore having other Riesener Masterpieces displayed as never before gives a unique 360 degree access, allowing the visitor to appreciate aspects of Riesener’s technical ingenuity.”

The Riesener Project was made possible thanks to the support of several donors, notably The NJT Foundation and The Leverhulme Trust.

The display has been generously sponsored by the NJT Foundation with Colette and Philip Hubbard.

The microsite was made possible through the generosity of The Tavolozza Foundation.

A full list of publication and project sponsors can be found in Jean-Henri Riesener. Cabinetmaker to Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette.

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