The Wallace Collection

The Wallace Collection, A Family Collection, A National Museum, An International Treasure House
A combined toilet and writing-table (F110)
Treasure of the Month - November 2007

A combined toilet and writing-table (F110)

This delightful table is typical of the kind of small, intricate lady’s tables that were popular from the mid-eighteenth century in France.

Designed to be moved around an intimate space, such as a lady’s boudoir (dressing-room) or cabinet (study), and adapted to be used as a writing- or toilet-table, the piece would have represented the height of fashion in terms of design and mechanics. A single lock opens the entire table. The table can be used for writing by sliding back the top and bringing forward a panel above the upper front drawer. Pulling this panel further forward reveals silvered metal ink wells and a pen compartment. For use as a toilet-table, the writing-panel can be lifted to expose a mirror. Lifting the lid below gives access to a drawer lined with blue watered silk, with space for cosmetics and other toilet articles. Each of the two side drawers contains a lidded box, also lined with silk. When these are fully extended, they can be pulled forward, as you can see here, to enable the user to have easier access to their contents.

The table is transitional in style, with curved legs harking back to the rococo blended with straighter lines and neo-classical mounts. Made from oak, the desk is veneered with a plethora of woods, from the grey-stained sycamore, forming the background to the basket of flowers, to the pinky-red tulipwood used for the cross-banded pattern of loops and Greek key patterns around the flowers, and sycamore and tulipwood, also in grey and pink, forming the simulated cube design on the front and back. These colours, once a vivid expression of rococo taste, have now faded, but the table still represents a fine example of the skills of the marqueteur working in mid-eighteenth-century Paris. The basket of flowers on the top reveals the influence of the flower engravings by Chevillet based on the drawings of Louis Tessier, published in the early 1750s in Le Livre de Principes de Fleurs. The bronze mounts may have been modelled by J.-C.-T.Duplessis fils (c.1730-1783), a celebrated goldsmith and sculptor who worked in the tradition of his more famous father.

The desk bears the incised mark of Jean-François Leleu (1729-1807), but was almost certainly produced in the workshop of Jean-François Oeben (1721-63), where Leleu trained. After the death of Oeben in 1763, Leleu and another former apprentice of Oeben, Jean-Henri Riesener (1734-1806) competed to take over the workshop. This work-table may have been made by Leleu during this uncertain period, before Leleu left to set up his own workshop in 1764 and Riesener took over running the workshop for Oeben’s widow in 1765 (he married her in 1767). The marquetry is very similar to that of other pieces produced in Oeben’s workshop and the locking devices seem to have been custom-made for Oeben. The rams’ heads are particularly characteristic of Oeben’s workshop. It is likely, therefore, that while Leleu may have executed or finished this piece, that Oeben, as master of the workshop, may have been closely involved in its design.

The table was bought for £550 by Wallace for the 4th Marquess of Hertford at the Earl of Clare sale, Christie’s, 16 June 1864. It seems to have been kept in the apartment at 2 rue Laffitte until 1871, when Sir Richard Wallace brought much of his Parisian collection to London.

Further Reading

  • Peter Hughes, The Wallace Collection: Catalogue of Furniture, London, 1996
  • Yannick Chastang, Paintings in Wood: French Marquetry Furniture, London, 2001
  • Alexandre Pradère, French Furniture Makers: The Art of the Ebéniste from Louis XIV to the Revolution, Sotheby’s Publications, 1989