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INSIDE STORIES: the glories of eighteenth-century French cabinet-making

Wardrobe (armoire), André-Charles Boulle, 1715
Wardrobe (armoire), André-Charles Boulle, 1715

This February the Wallace Collection is unlocking its furniture, allowing you a special peek inside. This is a truly special occasion as, by exposing the inside, the risk of damage is greatly increased, either from light or atmospheric conditions. We can only, therefore, open the pieces for a short period of time. In this blog we have chosen five of our favourite pieces of furniture to show you why we think these objects are not only beautiful but extraordinary works of craftsmanship!

 

Wardrobe (armoire),
André-Charles Boulle,
1715

What is it?
The largest wardrobe in the Wallace Collection, it dominates the room with is soaring architectural form and sculptural mounts. It is beautifully veneered in Boulle marquetry, with the design laid out in turtleshell against a background of brass. At this point turtleshell was a far more valuable material than brass, mainly due to the cost of importing it. However, the brass fret hiding the pendulum and the face of Apollo were added latter. While such actions are unthinkable now, the practise of ‘adding on’ did occur on other pieces of furniture, including more of Boulle’s work in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Who made it?
André-Charles Boulle is justifiably famous as one of the greatest French cabinet-makers. His clients included foreign princes and wealthy financiers and he became preeminent in the court of Louis XIV. Through his position, Boulle was not restrained by the authority of the French guilds, meaning he was free to try his hand at making gilt bronze and other trades which were forbidden in a ‘one man one skill’ France.

What was it for?
Wardrobes like this were not made to hang clothes and were instead a status symbol. Inside the owners may have kept signs of their wealth and sophistication such as folios of prints and drawings or other valuable objects. Boulle also, typically not to be outdone, gave it an extra function by including a clock.

 

Medal cabinet,
perhaps by André-Charles Boulle,
c. 1710 -1720

F20

What is it?
This is a medal cabinet made of oak and veneered with Boulle marquetry of brass and turtle shell and mounted with gilt bronze. It opens with a drop down front, hinged from the bottom, and the inside is veneered with a marquetry pattern. Behind the drop-front are twelve drawers, each lined with red velvet.

Who made it?
While there are no obvious marks or records that can be relied on, we believe it was made by André-Charles Boulle as the scrolling marquetry designs on the sides and top of this medal cabinet are similar to those on other furniture by Boulle.

What was it for?
Collecting medals and antique coins was a hobby in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, for the wealthy who were interested in classical civilizations. Furniture was made specifically to store such collections, so the drawers here were intended for medals. The handles are all marked with a Roman numeral, echoing once more the classical past. It would have provided secure, elegant storage and would probably have been placed on a desk or elsewhere in a study.

 

Astronomical clock (pendule astronomique),
Michel Stollewerck, movement, Alexandre Fortier, inventor,
c. 1750F98

What is it?
This beautifully decorated clock is astonishing as there are so many different skills on show to admire. You can see the carpentry, marquetry and use of sculpture and gilding, and that’s just the beginning!

Who made it?
Scientific advances in clock-making in the first half of the eighteenth century enabled a Parisian lawyer, Alexandre Fortier, to design this complicated mechanism. It was then bought by one of France’s most important bankers, Jean Paris de Montmartel, who was also the god-father of the one and only Madame de Pompadour.

What was it for?
During this period there was a great interest in science and technology, and it was very important in the higher circles to appear well informed. This clock not only tells you mean time and solar time but from the central dial can be read the passage of the sun across the Zodiac, the age, longitude and phases of the moon, and, perhaps most astonishingly, the time at anywhere in the northern hemisphere.

 

Toilet and writing-table (table de toilette),
Workshop of Jean-François Oeben,
c. 1763 – 4

F110 open

What was it?
This is a dual purpose piece of furniture, acting as both a writing table and a toilette table. The table incorporates a leather-covered writing slide and a drawer veneered with tulipwood, which has amazingly kept much of its original colour. Inside it is fitted with a pen compartment and three inkwell holders of silvered metal. For the toilette, the writing slide can be reversed to reveal a mirror, and several lidded compartments that would have contained bottles and other essential items for the toilette can be pulled out and positioned according to where the person using the table is sitting.

Who made it?
Oeben was a German cabinet-maker who arrived in Paris sometime before 1750 and was soon supplying the most important dealers and clients. He was renowned for his skill in wood marquetry, like the geometric and floral patterns you can see on the table, but also for his ingenious mechanisms which allowed pieces of furniture to meet different purposes. Two of the most famous cabinet-makers of Louis XVI’s reign, Jean-Henri Riesener and Jean-François Leleu, trained in his workshop and this table carries the incised mark of Leleu, which suggests that it was made by him either just before or just after Oeben’s death in 1763.

What was it for?
During the eighteenth century the furnishing of a wealthy domestic interior grew more and more sophisticated and new pieces of furniture were designed to take into account the different activities of ladies and gentlemen at home, such as reading and writing. Another type of table was used to accommodate the ‘toilette’, a daily ritual that involved preparing one’s appearance for the day ahead, and this table cleverly incorporates accoutrements for all three.

 

Writing and reading table (table en secrétaire)
Martin Carlin
France, 1783 – 4

F327 openWhat is it?
During the second half of the eighteenth century, cabinet-makers became more and more inventive in producing tables for different functions, a trend this blog has already observed starting. Inside, the colours and grain of the original tulipwood veneer have remained strong, and the refinement of the delicate bands of box, green-stained sycamore and ebony outlining the drawers and drop-front is truly to be admired.

Who made it?
arlin was the son of a carpenter in Germany who came to Paris and settled with the other German and Flemish cabinet-makers by 1759. Probably through this network he was introduced to the dealer Simon-Philippe Poirier who sold luxury objects to the court and aristocracy. Poirier had a virtual monopoly on buying plaques of Sèvres porcelain and from the mid -1760s Carlin worked for him making desks, tables and chests of drawers in which he incorporated the exquisitely decorated porcelain.

What was it for?
This multifunctional table contained silk lined drawers with a pen tray, a sand box and an inkwell container for writing but can also be turned into a reading stand. Through an ingenious mechanism of steel racks and cogs hidden behind the Sèvres plaques, the stand can be raised to reach a comfortable reading height, and two small trays on either side provide support for standing candlesticks to illuminate the book.

 

To take a glimpse inside these wonderful masterpieces is too good an opportunity to miss, so we hope to see you lots of you at the Wallace Collection for Open Furniture February!

Posted by Marie
27 January 2014

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