Copy of the King’s Desk (bureau du Roi), 1760–69
Date: about 1853–60
Maker: Cabinetwork possibly by Charles-Guillaume Winckelsen, mounts attributed to Carl Dreschler, clock movement by Charles Couët
Materials: Oak, poplar (?), padouk, sycamore, purplewood, satiné, ebony or ebonised wood, box, stained woods, gilt bronze, Sèvres porcelain
Measurements: 143 x 183 x 98 cm
Inv. no. F460
In the mid-19th century, the 4th Marquess of Hertford commissioned a number of copies of celebrated pieces of French 18th-century furniture. In so doing, he gave a boost to the fashion for copies that was to last until the second decade of the 20th century.
Two of the pieces he chose to have copied had royal histories: the jewel cabinet made for the comtesse de Provence in 1787, which was then owned by Queen Victoria (1819–1901), and the roll-top desk delivered to Louis XV in 1769 (the King’s Desk), which was in the apartments of the Empress Eugénie (1826–1920) in the Château de Saint-Cloud in Paris. Both original pieces had been made by Riesener.
Hertford was a connoisseur of French decorative art and it is likely that he wanted copies because he knew that he would never be able to acquire these great works of art, which were embedded in royal collections. It is also probable that he wanted to celebrate the creative skills and workmanship of mid-19th-century craftspeople, as he was a keen patron of contemporary artistic production. Learn more about Hertford as collector here.
In this respect, the copy of the King’s Desk does not disappoint. The quality of the cabinetmaking and the materials, the precision of the marquetry, and the fluidity of the gilt-bronze mounts are of the finest that the 19th century produced.
Hertford was a friend of Emperor Napoleon III (1808–1873) and Empress Eugénie, and a regular guest in their residences, from where he would have known the King’s Desk. Eugénie, like him, was a keen admirer of French 18th-century decorative art and mixed old pieces with new in her apartments, particularly favouring works owned by Marie-Antoinette.
In 1851, the King’s Desk was inventoried in the Grand Apartments of the Tuileries Palace, but by 1855, it had been moved to the empress’s own study in Saint-Cloud which was used as a sitting room for Queen Victoria during her state visit to Paris that year. In August, Queen Victoria wrote in her journal of ‘a beautiful Escritoire (at which I have been writing)’.
The scale and complexity of both Riesener’s desk and Hertford’s copy are worthy of a royal patron. It is believed that Hertford paid £3,000 for his desk, an enormous amount in the mid-1850s.
The roll-top is decorated with large panels of marquetry, depicting trophies of naval and military warfare, the riches of the land and sea, attributes of Literature and Poetry, flowers, ribbons and bouquets.
Inside, the desk is veneered with the lozenge marquetry that came to be characteristic of Riesener’s royal furniture. The interior offers small drawers and pull-out shelves to store papers, as well as a large leather-covered writing surface with secret drawers hidden beneath it.
The stunning gilt-bronze mounts are perhaps the most eye-catching feature of the desk. The candle branches are supported by figures of Apollo, the god of the Arts, and Calliope, the muse of Poetry and Eloquence.
At each of the four corners of the desk hangs a lion’s skin, recalling the hero Hercules who laboured to succeed, a fitting reminder for the desk’s owner. A clock sits proudly on the top, surmounted by infants playing with a spaniel, while a large gilt-bronze panel on the back celebrates the seven Cardinal Virtues, personified as infants, holding a plaque with the head of Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and war. On each side, marquetry riches spill out from gilt-bronze horns of plenty, which support a neoclassical-style plaque of Sèvres porcelain.
The mounts on Hertford’s copy were probably overcast from the originals on Riesener’s desk. In 1852, we know that Hertford was given permission to make overcasts from various details in the Château de Fontainebleau and it is likely that he used the same bronze worker, Charles Crozatier (1795–1855), to do the same for the desk. Crozatier died in 1855 and his workshop was taken over by his talented foreman, Carl Dreschler (d. before 1873), whom later commentators claim was a protégé of Hertford and credited with the desk.
Crozatier ran a large, internationally famous bronze foundry, with English and French clients, and was also known for supplying furniture. He was not, however, a cabinetmaker and it is likely that he outsourced this element of his furniture. It has been suggested that the cabinetwork of Hertford’s desk resembles, in its quality and technique, that of Charles-Guillaume Winckelsen, a cabinetmaker about whom little is known but whose work was always of the highest standards found in Paris. Much of his known work is in a Louis XVI-period style, or else direct copies made to the highest degrees of accuracy.
Further circumstantial evidence points to Winckelsen as the cabinetmaker of Hertford’s desk. When he died, his workshop assets — models and cabinetmaker’s plans — were sold to Henry Dasson. Many of Dasson’s later pieces are the same models as those produced by Winckelsen.
In 1878, Dasson exhibited another copy of the King’s Desk at the Paris Exhibition, suggesting that he had access to both models and plans of the desk. After this, a number of the most accomplished French cabinetmakers produced their own copies which were sought after by illustrious patrons worldwide, including Leopold II of Belgium (1835–1909), Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845–1886) and Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich of Russia (1860–1919). Not for nothing is Riesener’s desk considered to be the most famous piece of French furniture in the world.
For more information: Payne, C., Paris Furniture: the luxury market of the 19th century, Saint-Rémy en l’Eau, 2018, pp. 160-164, pp. 301-3
Mestdagh, C. with Lecoulès, P., L’ameublement d’art français: 1850-1900, Paris, 2012, pp. 74-6
Verlet, P., Le Mobilier royal français, vol. II, Paris, 1992, pp. 65-75
Hughes, P., [antologia]