All the works of art by Riesener in the Wallace Collection were acquired by the 4th Marquess of Hertford: Richard Seymour-Conway (1800–1870).
Born into an extremely wealthy British aristocratic family, Hertford spent much of his childhood in Paris with his mother, the 3rd Marchioness of Hertford (1771–1856). His father, the 3rd Marquess (1777–1842), was keen that Hertford should be brought up as an English gentleman but his tastes were clearly more French than English and he chose to live in Paris when he became an adult.
The Hertford Family
Hertford owned a grand apartment on the rue Laffitte, just off the Boulevard des Italiens. His father died in 1842 and he inherited not only the title but also large estates in England and Ireland, from where he derived much of his large income.
He had no formal employment, but spent his life collecting art. As a collector, Hertford was both traditional and innovative. He bought Dutch seventeenth-century pictures and, like other British noblemen of his age, he bought French eighteenth-century furniture and porcelain, but unlike them, he also had a taste for French eighteenth-century paintings.
However, what set him apart was the sheer scale of his acquisitions of French decorative art, and the quality of the objects he bought. He bought mainly at auction or through dealers, both in Paris and London. He kept his art in Paris and in London at his grand residence, Hertford House.
Hertford’s first acquisitions of Riesener furniture date from the late 1840s. By this time, Riesener’s name had become celebrated and his works were highly sought after. Part of this was because of his association with Marie-Antoinette and the court of Louis XVI, which added a certain glamour to his furniture for romantic collectors who looked back to the days of the Bourbon monarchy of France with nostalgia.
This royal association was enhanced when the Empress Eugénie, a friend of Hertford’s in Paris, chose to furnish her apartments with new furniture mixed with eighteenth-century pieces, many of them by Riesener. Hertford, a connoisseur with a very keen eye, must also have appreciated the quality of Riesener’s craftsmanship and his elegant designs and, particularly, the beauty of the lavish gilt-bronze mounts with which they were mounted.
When he died, Hertford left over twenty pieces of furniture either by Riesener or thought to be by Riesener, which shows how important Riesener’s works were to the marquess. He wrote that he was not influenced by the past owners of a work of art, but whether that is true or not he certainly managed to acquire some of Riesener’s masterpieces, many of them made for Marie-Antoinette.
What is not clear, however, is whether he realised that many of the pieces he bought had been altered since they left Riesener’s workshop in the 1780s.
Hertford was the first major collector to commission copies of great works by Riesener, a fashion which he started and was to become almost mainstream by the end of the nineteenth century. The most famous copy he commissioned is the copy of the King’s Desk, made for Louis XV.
The King’s Desk was displayed by Empress Eugénie in her apartments at the Château de Saint-Cloud, and it is here that Hertford must have known it.
In the 1840s, Hertford asked permission from Emperor Napoleon III to copy furnishings and sculpture in imperial residences, and it seems that he also obtained permission to copy the King’s Desk in the early 1850s when he is known to have had other important pieces of furniture — including some by André-Charles Boulle (1642–1732) — copied.
Hertford also copied the spectacular mahogany-veneered jewel cabinet made by Riesener in 1787 for the comtesse de Provence, which was owned by Queen Victoria. Both commissions were entrusted to an English dealer living in Paris where it appears that the King’s Desk copy was made, but the jewel cabinet copy was made under the auspices of John Webb (1799–1880), a dealer in London.
In addition to the copies he commissioned, Hertford may also have bought copies without realising it, perhaps believing them to be by Riesener. This is almost certainly true of a corner-cupboard which he bought just before he died in 1870, considered then to be one of a pair with a cupboard made for Marie-Antoinette.
It is also likely that he believed a small, oval writing desk to have been by Riesener, as it was praised as one of the most beautiful pieces in his collection. In 1866 Les collections célèbres d'oeuvres d’art (Famous Collections of Works of Art) was published by Édouard Lièvre (1829–1886), a compilation of the highlights of French art collections, and this desk took pride of place as the first work in the book. It was praised for its proportions, its ‘tone’ and its marquetry, as assured as any painting, and attributed to Riesener.
However, recent analysis suggests that this desk was not made in Riesener’s workshop and it is most likely to have been put together in the 1840s or 1850s in order to deceive a collector, perhaps using some older pieces.
When he died, Hertford left his art collection to Sir Richard Wallace, whose widow, Lady Wallace (1819–1897), subsequently bequeathed the part of the collection then in London to the British nation. We are fortunate to have that collection on display in Hertford House, now named the Wallace Collection.
Millions of visitors have admired the works of Riesener that Hertford acquired and have justly celebrated the cabinetmaker’s skills. But we should also acknowledge the alterations and changes that subsequent generations in the first half of the nineteenth century have made to some of those works which, when considered alongside Hertford’s copies of Riesener furniture, allow us to reflect on changing tastes and the powerful legacy that Riesener left to posterity.
For more information on collecting Riesener furniture in the nineteenth century, see 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.