During his career, Riesener dominated the production of royal furniture-making, ensuring him a long legacy well into the 20th century. Today his pieces are owned by museums around the world and are much sought after by collectors.
The originality of Riesener’s furniture designs inspired admiration from clients and cabinetmakers years after their delivery. This is the case with the King’s Desk. In 1786, Louis XVI ordered a companion piece for it, to go alongside his grandfather’s desk in his private study at Versailles. Guillaume Beneman, another German-born cabinetmaker who worked for the royal furniture administration before the French Revolution, supplied it.
Beneman’s design for the desk mimicked almost exactly the appearance of the lower section of the King’s Desk, though it took the form of a bureau plat (writing table), without an upper roll-top section.
Beneman created other pieces of furniture after Riesener’s models for the French royal family, and repaired Riesener’s own pieces after Riesener was removed from his position as cabinetmaker to the king in 1785, such as the fall-front desk made for Marie-Antoinette’s cabinet intérieur (private sitting room) at Versailles in 1780.
The French Revolution was a watershed moment for Riesener’s furniture. Many of the pieces he had supplied to the royal family suddenly appeared at auction thanks to the dispersal of possessions from the royal palaces by the Revolutionary government.
Although it took about ten or twenty years for this furniture to regain any popularity, their prestigious provenances and luxurious quality made them appealing to British collectors such as William Beckford (1760–1844), George Watson Taylor (1771–1841) and George IV (1762–1830), who often acquired furniture through dealers and salerooms.
The scale and magnificence of the pieces that George IV acquired (from a sale of Watson Taylor’s furniture in 1825) suited display in the grandest rooms of a palace. Windsor Castle, where he intended his Riesener furniture to be shown, underwent significant renovation under the king, but in the end some of the designs were not carried out and only a few Riesener pieces were displayed during his lifetime.
By the mid-19th century, Riesener’s name in England had gone from being that of an obscure French cabinetmaker to that of a household name, frequently being used to describe outstanding pieces of furniture of the Louis XVI period, regardless of whether they were made by him. One of the greatest collectors of this era was Richard Seymour-Conway, 4th Marquess of Hertford (1800–1870).
Having residences in both England and France, Hertford acquired some twenty pieces in the Riesener style over the course of his lifetime. Hertford was so keen to acquire two of Riesener’s greatest masterpieces, the King’s Desk and the comtesse de Provence’s jewel cabinet, that he had copies made. This helped drive a fashion for replicas and copies that flourished in the second half of the 19th century.
Many of the leading Parisian cabinetmakers of that time, such as Charles-Guillaume Winckelsen (1812–1871), Henry Dasson (1825–1896) and Alfred-Emmanuel Beurdeley (1847–1919) specialised in copies of Riesener furniture or made their own designs very much in the Riesener style.
Late 19th-century collectors, such as Ferdinand (1839–1898) and Alice (1847–1922) de Rothschild took a different approach to collecting Riesener furniture. Not only did they value the beauty of the pieces, but also treasured their historic associations. They considered themselves historians, and sought out, with a connoisseurial eye, provenance, and any markings or stamps which may have identified it. The purity of their collecting meant that they did not look for copies and pastiches, but only genuine (and to their understanding, unaltered) pieces, and used a network of dealers to source them.
The decline in fortunes of the British aristocracy at the end of the 19th century meant that many collectors were forced to sell their art collections, often including Riesener furniture. This gave new types of collector, the giants of American industry such as J. Pierpont Morgan (1837–1913), Henry Clay Frick (1849–1919) and William Kissam Vanderbilt (1849–1920) the opportunity to acquire some of the magnificent royal pieces that had come to Britain after the French Revolution.
Riesener furniture not only offered 18th-century opulence, but also aristocratic associations and an element of European history, which, at best, led directly to the court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette.
Today, Riesener’s furniture is found in museums and collections across the world, and is treasured for its beauty, quality and history. For the first time, the work of the collaborative Riesener Project undertaken by the Wallace Collection, the Royal Collection and Waddesdon Manor has allowed digital technology to take Riesener’s legacy into the 21st century.
It is hoped that this will open up the cabinetmaker’s work to a wider and more international audience and help shed light on the extraordinary skills of Riesener and the craftspeople who worked with him.