Date: about 1780–84
Maker: Cabinetwork attributed to Jean-Henri Riesener; mounts attributed to Étienne Martincourt
Materials: Oak, mahogany, gilt bronze, mirror glass
Measurements: 78.8 x 47 x 35.5 cm
Inv. no. F322
Not all the furniture Riesener made was for royal clients, although apart from the furniture itself we have little evidence and few written records of what else he might have made. In the 1780s the fashion in France and at court began to turn away from heavily decorated furniture veneered with complex marquetry and to look towards the plainer veneers favoured by English furniture-makers.
Most popular of all was mahogany, and from the early 1780s the royal accounts show us that Riesener was producing mahogany-veneered furniture for the royal household. This small writing and toilet-table cannot be traced in these accounts and we do not know for whom it was made, but it is of a shape known to have been produced by Riesener and is attributed to his workshop.
In the tradition of small, useful tables produced by Jean-François Oeben earlier in the century, Riesener has developed here a multi-purpose table, which is also light and mobile, and could be used in a variety of rooms or carried between them.
Its first purpose was as a writing table, and there is a leather-lined shelf just under the top, which can be pulled out to provide a writing surface. In addition, two drawers on either side allow for writing materials to be stored, with a built-in compartment for an inkwell and sandbox.
Alternatively, these compartments could be used to store items used in the toilette, a daily ritual performed by both fashionable men and women in the 18th century to prepare themselves for the day. A simple latch under the central part of the tabletop can be pressed to release the top, which can be raised to reveal a mirror for the toilette. As reading and writing were popular past-times, this combination of functionality would have no doubt made Riesener’s model particularly appealing.
The table has, however, been altered since it left Riesener’s workshop. When it was bought by the 4th Marquess of Hertford it was used as a bedside table and had already been changed internally to its current appearance. In its original form, the front of the table would have had two more drawers under the central frieze.
At some stage in the 19th century, the two drawers were taken out and the cupboard was made from the space. Moreover, in order to preserve the proportions of the gilt-bronze frame around the bottom section of the table, the craftsperson who made the changes has incorporated the drawer fronts of the two drawers in the construction of the new cupboard door. These have then been re-veneered with one piece of mahogany to disguise them, but the constructional details of the old drawers — the dovetail joints — can be seen on the sides of the cupboard door.
Although simpler than many earlier pieces, the gilt-bronze mounts are characteristically Riesener. The acanthus mount in the centre of the front and back friezes is derived from a motif often used on his furniture, in several different models.
The mounts are attributed to the bronze worker Étienne Martincourt, who made many of Riesener’s mounts, and this acanthus model is one that is also found on clock cases made by Martincourt, which have no cabinetwork by Riesener. This suggests that he may have used the master models for other projects, or even that he designed the mount himself.
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. 18.