Table (F287), Filing Cabinet (F178) and Inkstand by René Dubois
Of all the furniture in the Wallace Collection, René Dubois’ set of matching table, filing cabinet and inkstand is perhaps the most magical group to survive as an ensemble.
As well as its great beauty, this furniture is one of the most important early examples of neo-classicism in France.
The neo-classical style began to be seen in French art from around 1750 and would come to dominate taste in the latter part of the century, a reaction against the rococo style which had flourished during the first half of the eighteenth century and which was often criticized for its frivolity and superficiality. Dubois’ three pieces of furniture are laden with gilt-bronze mounts featuring almost every conceivable classicising decorative form. Neo-classical design emphasised regularity and balance in design and form, here prevented from becoming overponderous by the lively and sophisticated figural decoration and by the use of the green “vernis Martin” lacquer finish, which makes an exquisite contrast with the golden colour of the gilt-bronze mounts. The filing cabinet is surmounted by a wonderfully sensuous gilt-bronze grouping depicting the nymph Psyche embracing Cupid, with whom she fell in love, with below them seated female figures representing Peace and War. On the lower part of the front face of the filing cabinet is a spectacular trophy of arms in bronze, balanced by on the left-hand door a trophy of arts and sciences and on the right-hand door a marine trophy. However, perhaps the most exquisite single element of the design is the caryatid siren figures placed at each corner of the table, their tails intertwining with the table legs.
Design and manufacture
Both the filing cabinet and the table are stamped twice I DUBOIS, the stamp of Jacques Dubois (1694-1763). However, because of their strongly neoclassical style all three pieces must have been made by his son René Dubois (1737-1798), who became a master in 1755 and who continued to use his father’s stamp. Other works by Dubois in the Wallace Collection are a remarkable commode in Japanese lacquer made around 1765-70 (Boudoir) and a pair of small cabinets in the style of Boulle, from around 1765 (Study). The table, filing cabinet and inkstand are also thought to date from around 1765. They may have been designed by the architect Charles de Wailly (1730-1798), who created a table with similar sinuous bronze siren figures.
This group of furniture was almost certainly imported into Russia by Catherine II (the Great). It was given by her to her son Grand Duke Paul, who presented it to Prince Alexander Kurakin, his friend from schooldays. By the mid-nineteenth century, an almost certainly fictitious story had arisen that the Treaty of Tilsit, signed in 1807 on a raft in the river Nieman by the Emperors Napoleon I, Alexander I of Russia and King Frederick William III of Prussia, had actually been signed on this table and using this inkstand. This may have added to their glamour for the 4th Marquess of Hertford, when he bought all three pieces of furniture from the London dealer Frederick Davis in June 1866.