Date: about 1790–1820
Maker: Design attributed to Jean-Henri Riesener; possibly chased and gilded in the workshop of Étienne Martincourt or Pierre-François Feuchère
Material: Gilt bronze
Measurements: F295: 27.9 x 20.4 cm; F296: 28.8 x 21.5 cm
Inv. nos F295–6
Plaques like this, often in oval, circular or rectangular shape, were used to decorate furniture. Often as a central feature, for example on a cupboard door, they could be made in a variety of materials including wood marquetry, porcelain or, as here, gilt bronze. The modelling, chasing and gilding of these plaques are of a quality rarely matched, although there are differences between them such as the treatment of the backgrounds and the amount of burnished gilding.
Riesener’s earlier furniture was dominated by pictorial marquetry but as tastes changed in the 1780s he increasingly used marquetry medallions which were decorated with trophies representing a feature of life that appealed to the patron of the furniture or which were connected to the function of the piece, for example a trophy representing the pastoral idyll for Marie-Antoinette or Poetry for a desk. These marquetry trophies were bordered with frames of gilt bronze that were decorated with highly detailed and naturalistic bouquets of flowers tied with ribbons and hanging from gilt-bronze nails.
Sometimes the decorative plaque was designed to complement the embroidered silk hanging on the walls, or on the curtains.
At the same time Riesener was producing some of these beautiful marquetry medallions, another celebrated German cabinetmaker, David Roentgen (1743–1807), was using gilt-bronze plaques to decorate his furniture.
It seems to have taken Riesener a little longer to adapt to this fashion, but around the middle of the 1780s he made some lacquer furniture, probably for Marie-Antoinette, which was decorated with gilt-bronze trophies; unlike those used by Roentgen, or these Wallace Collection plaques, which have a solid background of gilt bronze, Riesener’s were cut out from the background, like the trophy found on the corner-cupboard in the Wallace Collection.
The two subjects for the trophies on Marie-Antoinette’s furniture were Love and Lyric Poetry, and the trophies were the same as we find on the two plaques shown here.
Gilt bronze is a material that lends itself to copies and subtle adaptations. While we can be reasonably certain that the design of these plaques came originally from Riesener, we cannot be sure that he authorised the making of them for his furniture.
No Riesener furniture is known to have these plaques, but their shape and method of production suggests that they were once intended for furniture. It is possible that they were used by Riesener, and that they were later taken off a piece and kept separately, but it is also likely that the models for them were used by someone else after Riesener had retired, probably to enhance otherwise plain pieces of furniture, such as the front of a desk.
In the first two decades of the 19th century, the fashion grew for furniture to be highly decorated, especially with these roundel-type plaques, usually of gilt bronze or porcelain.
Riesener worked regularly with a chaser and gilder called Étienne Martincourt who was also a sculptor, and who made models for gilt-bronze objects. It is likely that Martincourt is responsible for producing the models for these plaques. The composition of each trophy is derived from compositions in marquetry that Riesener designed for his furniture and it seems that Martincourt regularly turned Riesener’s marquetry decoration into gilt bronze.
The two plaques were bought in 1867 by Sir Richard Wallace (1818–1890), probably on behalf of his supposed father, the 4th Marquess of Hertford. They were no longer attached to any furniture, but were mounted in their own glass case against a dark velvet background, valued as works of art in their own right.
At that time, they were considered to be so beautifully worked and gilded that they were said to be by Pierre Gouthière (1732–1813), the greatest gilder of the 18th century. It is unlikely that this is the case, but now we are much more aware of Gouthière’s fellow bronze workers and we have more understanding of just how talented many more of them were. The plaques may have been made in Martincourt’s workshop, but after his death his models were sold and were used by other bronze workers, like Pierre-François Feuchère (1737–1823).
Copies of this model were made and mounted on furniture not only during Feuchère’s lifetime, but long afterwards by some of the 19th-century’s most famous cabinetmakers, Louis-François Bellangé (1759–1827), Charles-Guillaume Winckelsen and Henry Dasson. Riesener’s work lived on, long after his death.
For more information: Jacobsen, H. et al., Jean-Henri Riesener. Cabinetmaker to Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. Furniture in the Wallace Collection, Royal Collection and Waddesdon Manor, London, 2020, no. 29.