Each piece of furniture was subjected to rigorous physical examination. In addition, where possible we subjected the constituent parts — mounts, wood, screws, glue, marble — to scientific analysis during the examination.
CT (Computerised Tomography) scanning and X-rays helped reveal elements of the construction which were otherwise not visible, while XRF (X-Ray Fluorescence) and UV-Vis (Ultraviolet Visible Spectroscopy) analysis helped determine the chemical composition of the materials. Digital modelling and high-resolution photography also assisted our work. This analysis enabled us to understand more precisely how Riesener’s furniture was made, and to follow its stylistic and constructional evolution.
One important feature of this approach was that it enabled us to plot which pieces had been altered after their initial construction and in some instances, surprising results were found.
By studying all three collections together we were able to build up a clear idea of Riesener’s stylistic evolution and the development of his royal furniture. We were able to discover how he made his furniture, how he ran his workshop, and how his designs developed over the years.
We traced the evolution of various types of furniture — for example chests-of-drawers, roll-top desks and fall-front desks — and of the different decorative motifs which he used, including both marquetry and gilt bronze.
It also became clear that Riesener imposed a coherent methodology on the cabinetmakers who worked for him, along with strict quality control. He worked with architects, sculptors and bronze workers, but very much considered himself as an artist and a designer. At every turn, we were amazed by the sophistication of his materials, his techniques and his designs.
Another highly significant feature of this large group of Riesener furniture is that it was all collected in the nineteenth century by three of the greatest British art collectors of their day.
As far as we know, no Riesener furniture was bought by British patrons before the French Revolution, yet a generation later his name was a byword for excellence in French furniture and pieces were being attributed to him with no justification (a practice that still continues today).
By studying the Riesener-related activities of these three collectors — George IV, the 4th Marquess of Hertford and Ferdinand de Rothschild — The Project was able to unpick the constituent elements of ‘Riesener mania’, and shed light on what Riesener meant to collectors at different times in the nineteenth century. This has illuminated issues of taste and consumption and allows us to understand not only the art market of the time but also the activities of dealers, auctioneers and copyists.
The intention of the Project was to make our results as accessible to as wide an audience as possible and to help showcase the rich seam of French eighteenth-century artistic endeavour that Riesener’s work represents.
The opportunities offered by the digital world have given us several exciting ways to show our research. We have built accurate three-dimensional models of all the furniture, which show the constructional details of every piece and allow them to be examined virtually. For some of the pieces, we have produced models for Sketchfab, which allow for a greater level of interactivity. These ‘exploding models’ show the extraordinary engineering and complexity of Riesener’s furniture, for example showing that more than 500 pieces of wood were used to make one chest-of-drawers, or that hundreds of individual coloured elements go into making even a small piece of marquetry. We have also used social media to promote both these models, animations and detailed high-resolution photography.
Working closely with the Royal Collection, a Riesener Trail has been developed on the Royal Collection Trust website which acts as the digital catalogue for all the thirty pieces from the three collections studied in the Project. This provides information, images and models of the furniture, as well as a Riesener Timeline showing the key dates in his life and the key pieces of furniture he delivered. Arranged chronologically, the Trail provides insight into the way in which Riesener’s style developed.
Developed as part of the Wallace Collection website, this Riesener Microsite contains over 20,000 words of textual information about Riesener, the context in which he worked, his patrons, the furniture in the Wallace Collection and the Riesener Project.
This is accompanied by superb high-resolution photography and digital models, along with animations and exploding Sketchfab models which allow a viewer to examine every detail of the construction. A unique resource, the Riesener Microsite can be accessed free of charge and provides a wealth of Learning material that complements the important holdings of French eighteenth-century decorative art at the Wallace Collection. It was shortlisted in the 'Digital innovation of the Year' category of the 2021 Apollo Awards.
A milestone book has also been published. Jean-Henri Riesener. Cabinetmaker to Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette is the first full-length monograph on Riesener. It traces his life and career, bringing new insights into his business practice, his designs and construction techniques.
The work of the Project was celebrated in a major display at the Wallace Collection.