Date: about 1765
Maker: Cabinetwork attributed to Jean-Henri Riesener; model designed by Jean-François Oeben
Materials: Oak, walnut, tulipwood, stained woods, ebony or ebonised wood, box, gilt bronze
Measurements: 102 x 41.7 x 29.5 cm
Inv. no. F313
The designers and makers of furniture in Paris in the middle of the 18th century were quick to pick up on changing fashions and social habits, and developed more and more pieces that could be used to furnish an elite interior. Tables were established for particular activities, such as for those developed for the toilette, a morning ritual that involved getting dressed and made up for the day in front of onlookers, or for reading or writing.
Wealthy and aristocratic women had limited scope for past-times and spent much of their day at home; needlework in a variety of forms was considered suitable, as well as reading and letter-writing. Jean-François Oeben, in whose workshop Riesener worked, excelled in producing new models that pandered to the tastes of his clientele, and this table is one such example.
It is attributed to Riesener because of the nature of the marquetry decoration, but it is a model developed by Oeben and we believe Riesener made it while still working for Oeben, or just after his master’s death when he helped Widow Oeben to continue the running of the workshop.
Not only did Oeben’s inventory leave details of many of his unfinished works, which included tables like this, but we know that Madame de Pompadour (1721–1764) bought furniture from Oeben and in a portrait of her by François-Hubert Drouais (1727–1775), the artist has shown her sitting at a very similar model of work-table. It would have made business sense for Riesener and Widow Oeben to continue to produce pieces for which there were designs and cabinetmaker’s plans in the workshop, and models for the gilt-bronze mounts.
Essentially the table can be used for a number of different activities: the drum at the top can be opened to provide a storage space, whilst the two silk-lined shelves below offer a convenient and handy place to put down embroidery, needlework or a book in mid-read.
The table is approximately one metre high, the perfect height for a seated woman, and its flat surface could have been used for placing refreshments on. It is small and light enough for it to be moved at will, for example around a room or between rooms if desired, although it is likely that this would have been carried out by a servant.
The final delightful design detail is the gilt-bronze candle arm that supports two candles. In the mid-18th-century interior, the only way to light a room in the evenings was by candlelight, and no doubt even on grey days the table’s owner would have sometimes required extra lighting to see the detail of her work. It is notable that there are two holders; candles were extremely expensive items and so the table immediately announced to any guest who saw it that the owner was wealthy, as well as refined in her habits and taste.
The decoration of the table tells us more about the owner and the cabinetmaker. Riesener has used three different designs of floral marquetry on the panels of the drum cabinet. These are loose and highly naturalistic, with a real vividness to them, which would have been much more pronounced originally when the marquetry still retained its colour. Like Oeben, Riesener has used designs from a publication entitled Livre de Principes de Fleurs (Book on the Principles of Flowers), which contained engravings of flowers of different types and in different arrangements.
The drawings for these engravings were by Louis Tessier (about 1719–1781), who had worked for the royal Gobelins Manufactory, where Oeben had a workshop; this illustrates the crossover between different royal designers and makers.
Floral marquetry was highly fashionable in the late 1750s and early 1760s when this table was made, indicating that the interior of the house of the original owner of the table would have been up-to-date with the current styles.
The marquetry panel on the top of the table, however, is of a different type. Here Riesener has displayed all kinds of musical instruments, including a hurdy-gurdy (a stringed instrument used today in folk music), a violin, bagpipes, a tambourine, a flute, an oboe and a book of sheet music. This would no doubt have appealed to the owner, who may even have used the table in a music room, or similarly themed room for entertaining.
The marquetry decoration provided the colour and the themes of the table but it was the gilt-bronze mounts that gave it its sumptuous feel and denoted its ultimate fashionability. Perhaps the strongest feature of the table is the feet, with their very pronounced rectangular shape and gilt-bronze moulding in the shape of a Greek key pattern.
This was a motif that was increasingly being introduced into French design from architectural sources as the interest in neoclassicism took hold, and was used on objects that were some of the earliest examples of the new style. In its early form, this style was called the Greek Taste (Goût-grec). It is likely that this table was supplied to one of the most fashionable households in Paris.
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. 1.