The Wallace Collection

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Writing and reading table by Martin Carlin, c. 1784
Treasure of the Month - September 2012

Writing and reading table by Martin Carlin, c. 1784

There appears to have been no limit to the appetite for Sèvres porcelain in France in the second half of the eighteenth century and pieces of furniture mounted with porcelain plaques were incredibly highly-prized.  They combined the artistic and manufacturing skills of the Sèvres manufactory with the finest cabinet-making and gilt-bronze chasing techniques that only a very few craftsmen were capable of achieving.  

This little table is a supreme example of the exquisite perfection achieved by these pieces of furniture and would always have been intended as a collector’s item.  Martin Carlin produced several of this type, which were ostensibly reading or music stands with an adjustable book-rest, tiny drawers and space for writing implements but which were unlikely to have been in daily use.  They were bought by aristocratic and royal patrons, many of them women, including Marie Antoinette who was so passionate about hers that she consigned it to a dealer for safe-keeping in     October 1789 when the mob was clamouring at the doors of Versailles.

Carlin was a cabinet-maker (ébéniste) of German origin who appears to have had no private clients but who worked exclusively for the marchands-merciers, or dealers in luxury goods, in Paris. By the 1780s the most famous of these was Dominique Daguerre who owned a shop on the rue St Honoré and who was a leading supplier of furniture and decorative objects to the court of Versailles.  It was he who acquired the porcelain plaques from Sevres and then commissioned Carlin to mount them on a piece of furniture.

The plaques were made and sold by Sèvres to Daguerre in 1783; they were intended as a set to be mounted on furniture, and are decorated by some of the top artists working at the royal porcelain manufactory.  The flowers were probably painted by Edmé-François Bouilliat, a specialist in this genre; each plaque shows in finest naturalistic detail a posy of flowers in a basket or vase, sometimes with a raindrop or a snail perched on a leaf and all delicately bordered with stylized harebells and cornflowers.  The gilding was executed by Henry-François Vincent, a gilder of great talent who amongst other pieces worked on dinner services for Catherine the Great and Louis XVI. The overall effect is a piece of dazzling freshness, of bright and vibrant colours, an effect which would have been further enhanced by the original pink tone of the tulipwood veneer and the gold of the mounts.  

Gallery Talks:
Tuesday 4th and Thursday 20th September at 1pm with Dr Helen Jacobsen, Curator of French 18th century Decorative Arts.

Further Reading:
Peter Hughes, The Wallace Collection Catalogue of Furniture (London, 1996) (F327)
Rosalind Saville, The Wallace Collection Catalogue of Sèvres Porcelain (London, 1988) (C506)