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Illustrated History Of Furniture:

From the Earliest to the Present Time.

by Frederick Litchfield.

With numerous Illustrations


Chapter VI. French Furniture.

Palace of Versailles: "Grand" and "Petit Trianon"—the three Styles of Louis XIV., XV. and XVI.—Colbert and Lebrun—André Charles Boule and his Work—Carved and Gilt Furniture—The Regency and its Influence—Alteration in Condition of French Society—Watteau, Lancret, and Boucher. Louis XV. Furniture: Famous Ebenistes—Vernis Martin Furniture—Caffieri and Gouthière Mountings—Sêvres Porcelain introduced into Cabinets—Gobelins Tapestry—The "Bureau du Roi." Louis XVI. and Marie Antoinette: The Queen's Influence—The Painters Chardin and Greuze—More simple Designs—Characteristic Ornaments of Louis XVI. Furniture—Riesener's Work—Gouthière's Mountings—Specimens in the Louvre—The Hamilton Palace Sale—French influence upon the design of Furniture in other countries—The Jones Collection—Extract from the "Times."

There is something so distinct in the development of taste in furniture, marked out by the three styles to which the three monarchs have given the names of "Louis Quatorze," "Louis Quinze," and "Louis Seize," that it affords a fitting point for a new departure.

This will be evident to anyone who will visit, first the Palace of Versailles,13 then the Grand Trianon, and afterwards the Petit Trianon. By the help of a few illustrations, such a visit in the order given would greatly interest anyone having a smattering of knowledge of the characteristic ornaments of these different periods. A careful examination would demonstrate how the one style gradually merged into that of its successor. Thus the massiveness and grandeur of the best Louis Quatorze meubles de luxe, became, in its later development, too ornate and effeminate, with an elaboration of enrichment, culminating in the rococo style of Louis Quinze.

Then we find, in the "Petit Trianon," and also in the Chateau of Fontainebleau, the purer taste of Marie Antoinette dominating the Art productions of her time, which reached their zenith, with regard to furniture, in the production of such elegant and costly examples as have been preserved to us in the beautiful work-table and secretaire—sold some years since at the dispersion of the Hamilton Palace collection—and in some other specimens, which may be seen in the Musée du Louvre, in the Jones Collection in the South Kensington Museum, and in other public and private collections: of these several illustrations are given.

We have to recollect that the reign of Louis XIV. was the time of the artists Berain, Lebrun, and, later in the reign, of Watteau, also of André Charles Boule, ciseleur et doreur du roi, and of Colbert, that admirable Minister of Finance, who knew so well how to second his royal master's taste for grandeur and magnificence. The Palace of Versailles bears throughout the stamp and impress of the majesty of le Grande Monarque; and the rich architectural ornament of the interior, with moulded, gilded, and painted ceilings, required the furnishing to be carried to an extent which had never been attempted previously.

Louis XIV. had judgment in his taste, and he knew that, to carry out his ideas of a royal palace, he must not only select suitable artists capable of control, but he must centralize their efforts. In 1664 Colbert founded the Royal Academy of Painting, Architecture, and Sculpture, to which designs of furniture were admitted. The celebrated Gobelins tapestry factory was also established; and it was here the King collected together and suitably housed the different skilled producers of his furniture, placing them all under the control of his favourite artist, Lebrun, who was appointed director in 1667.

The most remarkable furniture artist of this time, for surely he merits such title, was André Charles Boule, of whom but little is known. He was born in 1642, and, therefore, was 25 years of age when Lebrun was appointed Art-director. He appears to have originated the method of ornamenting furniture which has since been associated with his name. This was to veneer his cabinets, pedestals, armoires, encoignures, clocks, and brackets with tortoiseshell, into which a cutting of brass was laid, the latter being cut out from a design, in which were harmoniously arranged scrolls, vases of flowers, satyrs, animals, cupids, swags of fruit and draperies; fantastic compositions of a free Renaissance character constituted the panels; to which bold scrolls in ormolu formed fitting frames; while handsome mouldings of the same material gave a finish to the extremities. These ormolu mountings were gilt by an old-fashioned process,14 which left upon the metal a thick deposit of gold, and were cunningly chiselled by the skilful hands of Caffieri or his contemporaries.

Boule Armoire, In the "Jones" Collection, S. Kensington Museum. Louis XIV. Period.

Boule subsequently learned to economise labour by adopting a similar process to that used by the marqueterie cutter; and by glueing together two sheets of brass, or white metal, and two of shell, and placing over them his design, he was then able to pierce the four layers by one cut of the handsaw; this gave four exact copies of the design. The same process would be repeated for the reverse side, if, as with an armoire or a large cabinet, two panels, one for each door, right and left, were required; and then, when the brass, or white metal cutting was fitted into the shell so that the joins were imperceptible, he would have two right and two left panels. These would be positive and negative: in the former pair the metal would represent the figured design with the shell as groundwork, and the latter would have the shell as a design, with a ground of metal. The terms positive and negative are the writer's to explain the difference, but the technical terms are "first part" and "second part," or "Boule" and "counter." The former would be selected for the best part of the cabinet, for instance, the panels of the front doors, while the latter would be used for the ends or sides. An illustration of this plan of using all four cuttings of one design occurs in the armoire No. 1026 in the Jones Collection, and in a great many other excellent specimens. The brass, or the white metal in the design, was then carefully and most artistically engraved; and the beauty of the engraving of Boule's finest productions is a great point of excellence, giving, as it does, a character to the design, and emphasizing its details. The mounting of the furniture in ormolu of a rich and highly-finished character, completed the design. The Museé du Louvre is rich in examples of Boule's work; and there are some very good pieces in the Jones Collection, at Hertford House, and at Windsor Castle.

The illustration on p. 144 is the representation of an armoire, which was, undoubtedly, executed by Boule from a design by Lebrun: it is one of a pair which was sold in 1882, at the Hamilton Palace sale, by Messrs. Christie, for £12,075. Another small cabinet, in the same collection, realised £2,310. The pedestal cabinet illustrated on p. 148, from the Jones Collection, is very similar to the latter, and cost Mr. Jones £3,000. When specimens, of the genuineness of which there is no doubt, are offered for sale, they are sure to realize very high prices. The armoire in the Jones Collection, already alluded to (No. 1026), of which there is an illustration, cost between £4,000 and £5,000.

In some of the best of Boule's cabinets, as, for instance, in the Hamilton Palace armoire (illustrated), the bronze gilt ornaments stand out in bold relief from the surface. In the Louvre there is one which has a figure of Le Grand Monarque, clad in armour, with a Roman toga, and wearing the full bottomed wig of the time, which scarcely accords with the costume of a Roman general. The absurd combination which characterises this affectation of the classic costume is also found in portraits of our George II.

Pedestal Cabinet, By Boule, formerly in Mr. Baring's Collection. Purchased by Mr. Jones for £3,000. (South Kensington Museum)

The masks, satyrs, and ram's heads, the scrolls and the foliage, are also very bold in specimens of this class of Boule's work; and the "sun" (that is, a mask surrounded with rays of light) is a very favourite ornament of this period.

Boule had four sons and several pupils; and he may be said to have founded a school of decorative furniture, which has its votaries and imitators now, as it had in his own time. The word one frequently finds misspelt "Buhl," and this has come to represent any similar mode of decorations on furniture, no matter how meretricious or common it may be.

A Concert during the Reign of Louis XIV. (From a Miniature, dated 1696.)

Later in the reign, as other influences were brought to bear upon the taste and fashion of the day, this style of furniture became more ornate and showy. Instead of the natural colour of the shell, either vermilion or gold leaf was placed underneath the transparent shell; the gilt mounts became less severe, and abounded with the curled endive ornament, which afterwards became thoroughly characteristic of the fashion of the succeeding reign; and the forms of the furniture itself conformed to a taste for a more free and flowing treatment; and it should be mentioned, in justice to Lebrun, that from the time of his death and the appointment of his successor, Mignard, a distinct decline in merit can be traced.

Contemporary with Boule's work, were the richly-mounted tables, having slabs of Egyptian porphyry, or Florentine marble mosaic; and marqueterie cabinets, with beautiful mountings of ormolu, or gilt bronze. Commodes and screens were ornamented with Chinese lacquer, which had been imported by the Dutch and taken to Paris, after the French invasion of the Netherlands.

Panel for a Screen. Painted by Watteau. Louis XIV. Period.

About this time—that is, towards the end of the seventeenth century—the resources of designers and makers of decorative furniture were reinforced by the introduction of glass in larger plates than had been possible previously. Mirrors of considerable size were first made in Venice; these were engraved with figures and scrolls, and mounted in richly carved and gilt wood frames; and soon afterwards manufactories of mirrors, and of glass, in larger plates than before, were set up in England, near Battersea, and in France at Tour la Ville, near Paris. This novelty not only gave a new departure to the design of suitable frames in carved wood (generally gilt), but also to that of Boule work and marqueterie. It also led to a greater variety of the design for cabinets; and from this time we may date the first appearance of the "Vitrine," or cabinet with glass panels in the doors and sides, for the display of smaller objets d'art.

The chairs and sofas of the latter half of the reign of Louis Quatorze are exceedingly grand and rich. The suite of furniture for the state apartment of a prince or wealthy nobleman comprised a canapé, or sofa, and six fauteils, or arm chairs, the frames carved with much spirit, or with "feeling," as it is technically termed, and richly gilt. The backs and seats were upholstered and covered with the already famous tapestry of Gobelins or Beauvais.15

Such a suite of furniture, in bad condition and requiring careful and very expensive restoration, was sold at Christie's some time ago for about £1,400, and it is no exaggeration to say that a really perfect suite, with carving and gilding of the best, and the tapestry not too much worn, if offered for public competition, would probably realise between £3,000 and £4,000.

In the appendix will be found the names of many artists in furniture of this time, and in the Jones Collection we have several very excellent specimens which can easily be referred to, and compared with others of the two succeeding reigns, whose furniture we are now going to consider.

As an example of the difference in both outline and detail which took place in design, let the reader notice the form of the Louis Quatorze commode vignetted for the initial letter of this chapter, and then turn to the lighter and more fanciful cabinets of somewhat similar shape which will be found illustrated in the "Louis Quinze" section which follows this. In the Louis Quatorze cabinets the decorative effect, so far as the woodwork was concerned, was obtained first by the careful choice of suitable veneers, and then, by joining four pieces in a panel, so that the natural figure of the wood runs from the centre, and then a banding of a darker wood forms a frame. An instance of this will also be found in the above-mentioned illustration.

Louis XV.

When the old King died, at the ripe age of 77, the crown devolved on his great-grandson, then a child five years old, and therefore a Regency became necessary; and this period of some eight years, until the death of Philip, Duke of Orleans, in 1723, when the King was declared to have attained his majority at the age of 13, is known as L'Epoch de la Regence, and is a landmark in the history of furniture.

Boule Commode, Probably made during the period of the Regency (Museé du Louvre.)

There was a great change about this period of French history in the social condition of the upper classes in France. The pomp and extravagance of the late monarch had emptied the coffers of the noblesse, and in order to recruit their finances, marriages became common which a decade or two before that time would hardly have been thought possible. Nobles of ancient lineage married the daughters of bankers and speculators, in order to supply themselves with the means of following the extravagant fashions of the day, and we find the wives of ministers of departments of State using their influence and power for the purpose of making money by gambling in stocks, and accepting bribes for concessions and contracts.

French Sedan Chair. (From an Engraving in the South Kensington Art Library.) Period: Louis XV.

It was a time of corruption, extravagance, licentiousness, and intrigue, and although one might ask what bearing this has upon the history of furniture, a little reflection shows that the abandonment of the great State receptions of the late King, and the pompous and gorgeous entertainments of his time, gave way to a state of society in which the boudoir became of far more importance than the salon, in the artistic furnishing of a fashionable house. Instead of the majestic grandeur of immense reception rooms and stately galleries, we have the elegance and prettiness of the boudoir; and as the reign of the young King advances, we find the structural enrichment of rooms more free, and busy with redundant ornament; the curved endive decoration, so common in carved woodwork and in composition of this period, is seen everywhere; in the architraves, in the panel mouldings, in the frame of an overdoor, in the design of a mirror frame; doves, wreaths, Arcadian fountains, flowing scrolls, Cupids, and heads and busts of women terminating in foliage, are carved or moulded in relief, on the walls, the doors, and the alcoved recesses of the reception rooms, either gilded or painted white; and pictures by Watteau, Lancret, or Boucher, and their schools, are appropriate accompaniments.16

Part of a Salon, Decorated in the Louis Quinze style, showing the carved and gilt Console Table and Mirror, with other enrichments, en suite.

The furniture was made to agree with this decorative treatment: couches and easy chairs were designed in more sweeping curves and on a smaller scale, the woodwork wholly or partially gilt and upholstered, not only with the tapestry of Gobelins or Beauvais, but with soft colored silk brocades and brocatelles; light occasional chairs were enriched with mother-of-pearl or marqueterie; screens were painted with love scenes and representations of ladies and gentlemen who look as if they passed their entire existence in the elaboration of their toilettes or the exchange of compliments; the stately cabinet is modified into the bombé fronted commode, the ends of which curve outwards with a graceful sweep; and the bureau is made in a much smaller size, more highly decorated with marqueterie, and more fancifully mounted to suit the smaller and more effeminate apartment. The smaller and more elegant cabinets, called Bonheur du jour (a little cabinet mounted on a table); the small round occasional table, called a gueridon; the encoignure, or corner cabinet; the étagère, or ornamental hanging cabinet, with shelves; the three-fold screen, with each leaf a different height, and with shaped top, all date from this time. The chaise à porteur, or Sedan chair, on which so much work and taste were expended, became more ornate, so as to fall in with the prevailing fashion. Marqueterie became more fanciful.

Console Table, Carved and Gilt. (Collection of M. Double, Paris.)

The Louis Quinze cabinets were inlaid, not only with natural woods, but with veneers stained in different tints; and landscapes, interiors, baskets of flowers, birds, trophies, emblems of all kinds, and quaint fanciful conceits are pressed into the service of marqueterie decoration. The most famous artists in this decorative woodwork were Riesener, David Roentgen (generally spoken of as David), Pasquier. Carlin, Leleu, and others, whose names will be found in a list in the appendix.

Louis XV. Carved And Gilt "Fauteui." Upholstered with Beauvais tapestry. Subject from La Fontaine's Fables.

During the preceding reign the Chinese lacquer ware then in use was imported from the East, the fashion for collecting which had grown ever since the Dutch had established a trade with China: and subsequently as the demand arose for smaller pieces of meubles de luxe, collectors had these articles taken to pieces, and the slabs of lacquer mounted in panels to decorate the table, or cabinet, and to display the lacquer. Ébenistés, too, prepared such parts of woodwork as were desired to be ornamented in this manner, and sent them to China to be coated with lacquer, a process which was then only known to the Chinese; but this delay and expense quickened the inventive genius of the European, and it was found that a preparation of gum and other ingredients applied again and again, and each time carefully rubbed down, produced a surface which was almost as lustrous and suitable for decoration as the original article. A Dutchman named Huygens was the first successful inventor of this preparation; and, owing to the adroitness of his work, and of those who followed him and improved his process, one can only detect European lacquer from Chinese by trifling details in the costumes and foliage of decoration, not strictly Oriental in character.

Commode. With Panels of fine old Laquer and Mountings by Caffieri. Jones Collection, S. Kensington Museum. Period of Louis XV.

About 1740-4 the Martin family had three manufactories of this peculiar and fashionable ware, which became known as Vernis-Martin, or Martins' Varnish; and it is singular that one of these was in the district of Paris then and now known as Faubourg Saint Martin. By a special decree a monopoly was granted in 1744 to Sieur Simon Etienne Martin the younger, "To manufacture all sorts of work in relief and in the style of Japan and China." This was to last for twenty years; and we shall see that in the latter part of the reign of Louis XV., and in that of his successor, the decoration was not confined to the imitation of Chinese and Japanese subjects, but the surface was painted in the style of the decorative artist of the day, both in monochrome and in natural colours; such subjects as "Cupid Awakening Venus," "The Triumph of Galatea," "Nymphs and Goddesses," "Garden Scenes," and "Fêtes Champêtres," being represented in accordance with the taste of the period. It may be remarked in passing, that lacquer work was also made previous to this time in England. Several cabinets of "Old" English lac are included in the Strawberry Hill sale catalogue; and they were richly mounted with ormolu, in the French style; this sale took place in 1842. George Robins, so well known for his flowery descriptions, was the auctioneer; the introduction to the catalogue was written by Harrison Ainsworth.

In Parqueterie with massive Mountings of Gilt Bronze, probably by Caffieri, (Formerly in the Hamilton Palace Collection. Purchased (Westheims), £6,247 ICS.) Louis XV. Period.

The gilt bronze mountings of the furniture became less massive and much more elaborate: the curled endive ornament was very much in vogue; the acanthus foliage followed the curves of the commode; busts and heads of women, cupids, satyrs terminating in foliage, suited the design and decoration of the more fanciful shapes; and Caffieri, who is the great master of this beautiful and highly ornate enrichment, introduced Chinese figures and dragons into his designs. The amount of spirit imparted into the chasing of this ormolu is simply marvellous—it has never been equalled and could not be excelled. Time has now mellowed the colour of the woodwork it adorns; and the tint of the gold with which it is overlaid, improved by the lights and shadows caused by the high relief of the work and the consequent darkening of the parts more depressed while the more prominent ornaments have been rubbed bright from time to time, produces an effect which is exceedingly elegant and rich. One cannot wonder that connoisseurs are prepared to pay such large sums for genuine specimens, or that clever imitations are exceedingly costly to produce.

Illustrations are given from some of the more notable examples of decorative furniture of this period, which were sold in 1882 at the celebrated Hamilton Palace sale, together with the sums they realised: also of specimens in the South Kensington Museum in the Jones Collection.

We must also remember, in considering the meubles de luxe of this time, that in 1753 Louis XV. had made the Sêvres Porcelain Manufactory a State enterprise; and later, as that celebrated undertaking progressed, tables and cabinets were ornamented with plaques of the beautiful and choice pâte tendre, the delicacy of which was admirably adapted to enrich the light and frivolous furnishing of the dainty boudoir of a Madame du Barri or a Madame Pompadour.

Another famous artist in the delicate bronze mountings of the day was Pierre Gouthière. He commenced work some years later than Caffieri, being born in 1740; and, like his senior fellow craftsman, did not confine his attention to furniture, but exercised his fertility of design, and his passion for detail, in mounting bowls and vases of jasper, of Sêvres and of Oriental porcelain. The character of his work is less forcible than that of Caffieri, and comes nearer to what we shall presently recognise as the Louis Seize, or Marie Antoinette style, to which period his work more properly belongs: in careful finish of minute details, it more resembles the fine goldsmith's work of the Renaissance.

Bureau Du Roi. Made for Louis XV. by Riesener. (Collection of "Mobilier National.") (From a pen and ink drawing by H. Evans.) Period: Louis XV.

Gouthière was employed extensively by Madame du Barri; and at her execution, in 1793, he lost the enormous balance of 756,000 francs which was due to him, but which debt the State repudiated, and the unfortunate man died in extreme poverty, the inmate of an almshouse.

The designs of the celebrated tapestry of Gobelins and of Beauvais, used for the covering of the finest furniture of this time, also underwent a change; and, instead of the representation of the chase, with a bold and vigorous rendering, we find shepherds and shepherdesses, nymphs and satyrs, the illustrations of La Fontaine's fables, or renderings of Boucher's pictures.

Without doubt, the most important example of meubles de luxe of this reign is the famous "Bureau du Roi," made for Louis XV. in 1769, and which appears fully described in the inventory of the "Garde Meuble" in the year 1775, under No. 2541. This description is very minute, and is fully quoted by M. Williamson in his valuable work, "Les Meubles d'Art du Mobilier National," and occupies no less than thirty-seven lines of printed matter. Its size is five-and-a-half feet long and three feet deep; the lines are the perfection of grace and symmetry; the marqueterie is in Riesner's best manner; the mountings are magnificent—reclining figures, foliage, laurel wreaths, and swags, chased with rare skill; the back of this famous bureau is as fully decorated as the front: it is signed "Riesener, f.e., 1769, à l'arsenal de Paris." Riesener is said to have received the order for this bureau from the King in 1767, upon the occasion of the marriage of this favourite Court ébeniste with the widow of his former master Oeben. Its production therefore would seem to have taken about two years.

This celebrated chef d'oeuvre was in the Tuileries in 1807, and was included in the inventory found in the cabinet of Napoleon I. It was moved by Napoleon III. to the Palace of St. Cloud, and only saved from capture by the Germans by its removal to its present home in the Louvre, in August, 1870. It is said that it would probably realise, if offered for sale, between fifteen and twenty thousand pounds. A full-page illustration of this famous piece of furniture is given.

A similar bureau is in the Hertford (Wallace) collection, which was made to the order of Stanilaus, King of Poland; a copy executed by Zwiener, a very clever ébeniste of the present day in Paris, at a cost of some three thousand pounds, is in the same collection.

Louis XVI. and Marie Antoinette.

It is probable that for some little time previous to the death of Louis XV., the influence of the beautiful daughter of Maria Theresa on the fashions of the day was manifested in furniture and its accessories. We know that Marie Antoinette disliked the pomp and ceremony of Court functions, and preferred a simpler way of living at the favourite farm house which was given to her husband as a residence on his marriage, four years before his accession to the throne; and here she delighted to mix with the bourgeoise on the terrace at Versailles, or, donning a simple dress of white muslin, would busy herself in the garden or dairy. There was, doubtless, something of the affectation of a woman spoiled by admiration, in thus playing the rustic; still, one can understand that the best French society, weary of the domination of the late King's mistresses, with their intrigues, their extravagances, and their creatures, looked forward, at the death of Louis, with hope and anticipation to the accession of his grandson and the beautiful young queen.

Part of a Salon. Decorated and furnished in the Louis XVI. Style.

Gradually, under the new regime, architecture became more simple; broken scrolls are replaced by straight lines, curves and arches only occur when justifiable, and columns and pilasters reappear in the ornamental façades of public buildings. Interior decoration necessarily followed suit; instead of the curled endive scrolls enclosing the irregular panel, and the superabundant foliage in ornament, we have rectangular panels formed by simpler mouldings, with broken corners, having a patera or rosette in each, and between the upright panels there is a pilaster of refined Renaissance design. In the oval medallions supported by cupids, is found a domestic scene by a Fragonard or a Chardin; and the portraits of innocent children by Greuze replace the courting shepherds and mythological goddesses of Boucher and Lancret. Sculpture, too, becomes more refined and decorous in its representations.

As with architecture, decoration, painting, and sculpture, so also with furniture. The designs became more simple, but were relieved from severity by the amount of ornament, which, except in some cases where it is over-elaborate, was properly subordinate to the design and did not control it.

Mr. Hungerford Pollen attributes this revival of classic taste to the discoveries of ancient treasures in Herculaneum and Pompeii, but as these occurred in the former city so long before the time we are discussing as the year 1711, and in the latter in 1750, these can scarcely be the immediate cause; the reason most probably is that a reversion to simpler and purer lines came as a relief and reaction from the over-ornamentation of the previous period. There are not wanting, however, in some of the decorated ornaments of the time, distinct signs of the influence of these discoveries. Drawings and reproductions from frescoes, found in these old Italian cities, were in the possession of the draughtsmen and designers of the time; and an instance in point of their adaptation is to be seen in the small boudoir of the Marquise de Serilly, one of the maids of honour to Marie Antoinette. The decorative woodwork of this boudoir is fitted up in the Kensington Museum.

A notable feature in the ornament of woodwork and in metal mountings of this time, is a fluted pilaster with quills or husks filling the flutings some distance from the base, or starting from both base and top and leaving an interval of the hollow fluting plain and free. An example of this will be seen in the next woodcut of a cabinet in the Jones collection, which has also the familiar "Louis Seize" riband surmounting the two oval Sêvres china plaques. When the flutings are in oak, in rich mahogany, or painted white, these husks are gilt, and the effect is chaste and pleasing. Variation was introduced into the gilding of frames by mixing silver with some portion of the gold so as to produce two tints, red gold and green gold; the latter would be used for wreaths and accessories, while the former, or ordinary gilding, was applied to the general surface. The legs of tables are generally fluted, as noticed above, tapering towards the feet, and are relieved from a stilted appearance by being connected by a stretcher.

Marqueterie Cabinet. With Plaques of Sêvres China (In the Jones Collection, South Kensington Museum.)

Writing Table. Made by Riesener for Marie Antoinette. Collection "Mobilier National." (From a-pen and ink drawing by H. Evans.) Period: Late Louis XV.

There occurs in M. Williamson's valuable contribution to the literature of our subject ("Les Meubles d'Art du Mobilier National,") an interesting illustration of the gradual alterations which we are noticing as having taken place in the design of furniture. This is a small writing table, some 3 ft. 6 in. long, made during the reign of Louis XV., but quite in the Marie Antoinette style, the legs tapering and fluted, the frieze having in the centre a plaque of bronze doré, the subject being a group of cupids, representing the triumph of Poetry, and on each side a scroll with a head and foliage (the only ornament characteristic of Louis Quinze style) connecting leg and frieze. M. Williamson quotes verbatim the memorandum of which this was the subject. It was made for the Trianon and the date is just one year after Marie Antoinette's marriage:—"Memoire des ouvrages faits et livrés, par les ordres de Monsieur le Chevalier de Fontanieu, pour le garde meuble du Roy par Riesener, ébeniste a l'arsenal Paris," savoir Sept. 21, 1771; and then follows a fully detailed description of the table, with its price, which was 6,000 francs, or £240. There is a full page illustration of this table.

The maker of this piece of furniture was the same Riesener whose masterpiece is the magnificent Bureau du Roi which we have already alluded to in the Louvre. This celebrated ébeniste continued to work for Marie Antoinette for about twenty years, until she quitted Versailles, and he probably lived quite to the end of the century, for during the Revolution we find that he served on the Special Commission appointed by the National Convention to decide which works of Art should be retained and which should be sold, out of the mass of treasure confiscated after the deposition and execution of the King.

Riesener's designs do not show much fertility, but his work is highly finished and elaborate. His method was generally to make the centre panel of a commode front, or the frieze of a table, a tour de force, the marqueterie picture being wonderfully delicate. The subject was generally a vase with fruits and flowers; the surface of the side panels inlaid with diamond-shaped lozenges, or a small diaper pattern in marqueterie; and then a framework of rich ormolu would separate the panels. The centre panel had sometimes a richer frame. His famous commode, made for the Château of Fontainebleau, which cost a million francs (£4,000)—an enormous sum in those days—is one of his chefs d'oeuvre, and this is an excellent example of his style. A similar commode was sold in the Hamilton Palace sale for £4,305. An upright secretaire, en suite with the commode, was also sold at the same time for £4,620, and the writing table for £6,000. An illustration of the latter is on the following page, but the details of this elaborate gem of cabinet maker's work, and of Gouthière's skill in mounting, are impossible to reproduce in a woodcut. It is described as follows in Christie's catalogue:—

"Lot 303. An oblong writing table, en suite, with drawer fitted with inkstand, writing slide and shelf beneath; an oval medallion of a trophy and flowers on the top, and trophies with four medallions round the sides: stamped T. Riesener and branded underneath with cypher of Marie Antoinette, and Garde Meuble de la Reine." There is no date on the table, but the secretaire is stamped 1790, and the commode 1791. If we assume that the table was produced in 1792, these three specimens, which have always been regarded as amongst the most beautiful work of the reign, were almost the last which the unfortunate Queen lived to see completed.

The "Marie Antoinette" Writing Table. (Formerly in the Hamilton Palace Collection.)

Bedstead of Marie Antoinette, From Fontainebleau. Collection "Mobilier National." (From a pen and ink drawing by H. Evans.) Period: Louis XVI.

The fine work of Riesener required the mounting of an artist of quite equal merit, and in Gouthière he was most fortunate. There is a famous clock case in the Hertford collection, fully signed "Gouthière, ciseleur et doreur du roi à Paris Quai Pelletier, à la Boucle d'or, 1771." He worked, however, chiefly in conjunction with Riesener and David Roentgen for the decoration of their marqueterie.

In the Louvre are some beautiful examples of this co-operative work; and also of cabinets in which plaques of very fine black and gold lacquer take the place of marqueterie; the centre panel being a finely chased oval medallion of Gouthière's gilt bronze, with caryatides figures of the same material at the ends supporting the cornice.

Cylinder Secretaire, In Marqueterie, with Bronze Gilt Mountings, by Gouthière. (Mr. Alfred de Rothschild's Collection.) Period: Louis XVI.

A specimen of this kind of work (an upright secretaire, of which we have not been able to obtain a satisfactory representation) formed part of the Hamilton Palace collection, and realised £9,450, the highest price which the writer has ever seen a single piece of furniture bring by auction; it must be regarded as the chef d'oeuvre of Gouthière.

In the Jones Collection, at South Kensington, there are also several charming examples of Louis Seize meubles de luxe. Some of these are enriched with plaques of Sêvres porcelain, which treatment is better adapted to the more jewel-like mounting of this time than to the rococo style in vogue during the preceding reign.

The upholstered furniture became simpler in design; the sofas and chairs have generally, but not invariably, straight fluted tapering legs, but these sometimes have the flutings spiral instead of perpendicular, and the backs are either oval or rectangular, and ornamented with a carved riband which is represented as tied at the top in a lover's knot. Gobelins, Beauvais, and Aubusson tapestry are used for covering, the subjects being in harmony with the taste of the time. A sofa in this style, with settees at the ends, the frame elaborately carved with trophies of arrows and flowers in high relief, and covered with fine old Gobelins tapestry, was sold at the Hamilton Palace sale for £1,176. This was formerly at Versailles. Beautiful silks and brocades were also extensively used both for chairs and for the screens, which at this period were varied in design and extremely pretty. Small two-tier tables of tulip wood with delicate mountings were quite the rage, and small occasional pieces, the legs of which, like those of the chairs, are occasionally curved. An excellent example of a piece with cabriole legs is the charming little Marie Antoinette cylinder-fronted marqueterie escritoire in the Jones Collection (illustrated below). The marqueterie is attributed to Riesener, but, from its treatment being so different from that which he adopted as an almost invariable rule, it is more probably the work of David.

Carved and Gilt Causeuse or Settee, and Fauteuil or Arm Chair, Covered with Beauvais tapestry. (Collection "Mobilier National.") (From a pen and ink drawing by H. Evans.) Period: End of Louis XVI.

Carved and Gilt Canapé or Sofa. Covered with Beauvais tapestry. (Colection "Mobilier Natioanal.") Period: End of Louis XVI.

Another fine specimen illustrated on page 170 is the small cabinet made of kingwood, with fine ormolu mounts, and some beautiful Sêvres plaques.

Marqueterie Escritoire. By Davis, said to have belonged to Marie Antoinette. (Jones Collection, South Kensington Museum.)

The influence exercised by the splendour of the Court of Louis Quatorze, and by the bringing together of artists and skilled handicraftsmen for the adornment of the palaces of France, which we have seen took place during the latter half of the seventeenth century, was not without its effect upon the Industrial Arts of other countries. Macaulay mentions the "bales of tapestry" and other accessories which were sent to Holland to fit up the camp quarters of Louis le Grand when he went there to take the command of his army against William III., and he also tells us of the sumptuous furnishing of the apartments at St. Germains when James II., during his exile, was the guest of Louis. The grandeur of the French King impressed itself upon his contemporaries, and war with Germany, as well as with Holland and England, helped to spread this influence. We have noticed how Wren designed the additions to Hampton Court Palace in imitation of Versailles; and in the chapter which follows this, it will be seen that the designs of Chippendale were really reproductions of French furniture of the time of Louis Quinze. The King of Sweden, Charles XII., "the Madman of the North," as he was called, imitated his great French contemporary, and in the Palace at Stockholm there are still to be seen traces of the Louis Quatorze style in decoration and in furniture; such adornments are out of keeping with the simplicity of the habits of the present Royal family of Sweden.

A Bourbon Prince, too, succeeded to the throne of Spain in 1700, and there are still in the palaces and picture galleries of Madrid some fine specimens of French furniture of the three reigns which have just been discussed. It may be taken, therefore, that from the latter part of the seventeenth century the dominant influence upon the design of decorative furniture was of French origin.

There is evidence of this in a great many examples of the work of Flemish, German, English, and Spanish cabinet makers, and there are one or two which may be easily referred to which it is worth while to mention.

One of these is a corner cupboard of rosewood, inlaid with engraved silver, part of the design being a shield with the arms of an Elector of Cologne; there is also a pair of somewhat similar cabinets from the Bishop's Palace at Salzburg. These are of German work, early eighteenth century, and have evidently been designed after Boule's productions. The shape and the gilt mounts of a secretaire of walnutwood with inlay of ebony and ivory, and some other furniture which, with the other specimens just described, may be seen in the Bethnal Green Museum, all manifest the influence of the French school, when the bombe-fronted commodes and curved lines of chair and table came into fashion.

Having described somewhat in detail the styles which prevailed and some of the changes which occurred in France, from the time of Louis XIV. until the Revolution, it is unnecessary for the purposes of this sketch, to do more than briefly refer to the work of those countries which may be said to have adopted, to a greater or less extent, French designs. For reasons already stated, an exception is made in the case of our own country; and the following chapter will be devoted to the furniture of some of the English designers and makers of the latter half of the eighteenth century. Of Italy it may be observed generally that the Renaissance of Raffaele, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michael Angelo, which we have seen became degenerate towards the end of the sixteenth century, relapsed still further during the period which we have been discussing, and although the freedom and grace of the Italian carving, and the elaboration of inlaid arabesques, must always have some merit of their own, the work of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Italy will compare very unfavourably with that of the earlier period of the Renaissance.

A Norse Interior, Shewing Chairs of Dutch Design. Period: Late XVII. or Early XVIII. Century.

There are many other museum specimens which might be referred to to prove the influence of French design of the seventeenth and subsequent centuries on that of other countries. The above illustration of a Norse interior shews that this influence penetrated as far as Scandinavia; for while the old-fashioned box-like bedsteads which the Norwegians had retained from early times, and which in a ruder form are still to be found in the cottages of many Scottish counties, especially of those where the Scandinavian connection existed, is a characteristic mark of the country, the design of the two chairs is an evidence of the innovations which had been made upon native fashions. These chairs are in style thoroughly Dutch, of about the end of the seventeenth or early in the eighteenth century; the cabriole legs and shell ornaments were probably the direct result of the influence of the French on the Dutch. The woodcut is from a drawing of an old house in Norwav.

Secretaire, In King and Tulip Wood, with Sêvres Plaques and Ormolu Mountings. Period: Early Louis XVI.

It would be unfitting to close this chapter on French furniture without paying a tribute to the munificence and public spirit of Mr. John Jones, whose bequest to the South Kensington Museum constitutes in itself a representative Museum of this class of decorative furniture. Several of the illustrations in this chapter have been taken from this collection.

In money value alone, the collection of furniture, porcelain, bronzes, and articles de vertú, mostly of the period embraced within the limits of this chapter, amounts to about £400,000, and exceeds the value of any bequest the nation has ever had. Perhaps the references contained in these few pages to the French furniture of this time may stimulate the interest of the public in, and its appreciation of, this valuable national property.

Clock, By Robin, in Marqueterie Case, with Mountings of Gilt Bronze, (Jones Collection. South Kensington Museum.) Louis XVI. Period.

Soon after this generous bequest was placed in the South Kensington Museum, for the benefit of the public, a leading article appeared in the Times, from which the following extract will very appropriately conclude this chapter:—"As the visitor passes by the cases where these curious objects are displayed, he asks himself what is to be said on behalf of the art of which they are such notable examples." Tables, chairs, commodes, secretaires, wardrobes, porcelain vases, marble statuettes, they represent in a singularly complete way the mind and the work of the ancien régime. Like Eisen's vignettes, or the contes of innumerable story-tellers, they bring back to us the grace, the luxury, the prettiness, the frivolity of that Court which believed itself, till the rude awakening came, to contain all that was precious in the life of France. A piece of furniture like the little Sêvres-inlaid writing table of Marie Antoinette is, to employ a figure of Balzac's, a document which reveals as much to the social historian as the skeleton of an ichthyosaurus reveals to the palæontologist. It sums up an epoch. A whole world can be inferred from it. Pretty, elegant, irrational, and entirely useless, this exquisite and costly toy might stand as a symbol for the life which the Revolution swept away.

Harpsichord, from the Permanent Collection belonging to South Kensington Museum. Date: About 1750.

Italian Sedan Chair. Used at the Baptism of the Grand Ducal Family of Tuscany, now in the South Kensington Museum. Period: Latter Half of XVIII. Century.

Illustrated History of Furniture

Chapter I. Ancient Furniture.
Chapter II. The Middle Ages.
Chapter III. The Renaissance.
Chapter IV. Jacobean furniture.
Chapter V. The Furniture of Eastern Countries.
Chapter VI. French Furniture.
Chapter VII. Chippendale and his Contemporaries.
Chapter VIII. First Half of the Nineteenth Century
Chapter IX. From 1851 to the Present Time.

Basic Construction And Carpentry Techniques Home


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Ronald Hunter
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