G. de Bellaigue, The James A. de Rothschild Collection at Waddesdon Manor Furniture Clocks Gilt Bronzes, Fribourg, 1974, Volume II, no. 103, pp. 504-509, p. 516-519, no. 105.
M. I. Pereira Coutinho, 18th Century French Furniture, Lisbon, 1999, no. 23, pp. 223-227.
Pierre Verlet, French Royal Furniture, London, 1963, p. 139-140, no. 19, p. 149, no. 22.
Amelia Peck, et al., Period Rooms in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1996, p. 121.
Alexandre Pradère, French Furniture Makers, The Art of the ébéniste from Louis XIV to the Revolution, Tours, 1989, p. 9 and pp. 371-387.
Catalogue of the Exhibition, Marie-Antoinette, Galerie Nationale du Grand Palais, Paris, 2008, pp. 157, 167, 214.
THE PORTRAIT OF JEAN-HENRI RIESENER (1734-1806) by ANTOINE-VESTIER (1740-1824), CIRCA 1786, fig.1:
There exists in the Château de Versailles a tantalising and seminal portrait of the celebrated French ébéniste aged in his early 50's, at the height of his powers and fame, leaning on a table identical to the present one, almost certainly the very same. Pradère, op. cit., p. 9, states that `the ébéniste is depicted holding the pen of a designer of furniture rather than a craftsmen's plane; one senses the desire to affirm his status as an artist....Here is evidence of his obvious ambition to raise himself to the level of the artist'.
His exalted status which extended far beyond his profession meant that one of the fashionable artists of the day painted his portrait and what more fitting tribute to his genius can there be than a portrait with him leaning in a relaxed pose, with pen in hand, designs for decoration by his side, his hand outstretched in explanation, on one of his most celebrated pieces-the very same unique writing desk that is being offered here.The fact that the present writing table does not bear Royal inventory marks, despite it being comparable to other models by Riesener made for the Crown, and the fact that no other identical tables are recorded, almost certainly proves the definitive ownership of the table depicted in this portrait of Riesener and demonstrates the pride of the maker in this model.
Comparable writing tables by J.-H. Riesener delivered to Marie-Antoinette and the Royal family:
This outstanding writing table of superlative quality represents the pinnacle of Parisian ébénisterie of the latter years of the 18th century and must be considered in the context of the small group of related tables made by Riesener exclusively for the Royal Family between 1775 and 1785, which reached its apogee in the writing table made for Marie-Antoinette, now at Waddesdon, see G. de Bellaigue op. cit., no. 103, pp. 504-509.
1.The table closest to the present example, with a top of similar design, identical corner mounts and octagonal legs and a rather more elaborate group of mounts on the frieze including a pictorial plaque, now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, illustrated by Verlet, op. cit., p. 149, no. 22 and reproduced here in fig. 2. This was delivered by Riesener in 1783, for the Cabinet Intérieur of Mme. Elisabeth at Versailles. It bears the inventory number 3306. `du 31Xbre 1783. Livré par le S. Riézener. Pour le service de Mad. Elizabeth au château de Versailles. 3306-Une table à écrire de marqueterie de 30 po. (0m.81) de large, 20 po. (0m.54) de profondeur et 28 po/ (0m. 76) de haut, ayant deux tiroirs fermans à clef, dont un grani d'encrier, poudrier et boete à éponge de cuivre argenté, avec une tablette sur le devant ajustée à coulisse garni de maroquin noir bordé d'une dentelle d'or, la marqueterie composée de pleusieurs compartimens et ornée de chapiteaux, sabots, etc., le tout bronze doré d'or moulu'. The top is inlaid with trelliswork enclosing quatrefoils except for the central oval. According to Verlet, op. cit.,` It is an extremely opulent table, a little less so, however, than the one supplied to Marie-Antoinette at Versailles in 1781 which it resembles except for the absence of the mechanical part'. It is far superior to the one intended for the Queen at the Château de Marly.'
2.The mechanical table, circa 1781, from the Cabinets of Marie-Antoinette at Versailles and at Saint-Cloud, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, bearing the inventory number 3066, illustrated by Verlet, op. cit., p.132, fig. 19b & c and reproduced her in fig. 3.
`Du 26 dudit (janvier 1781). Livré par le S. Riézener. Pour servir dans le Cabinet Interieur de la Reine à Versailles. 3066.Une table â écrire de marqueterie à compartiment de mosaiques et rosettes sur un fond satiné blanc composé d'un grand corps de tiroirs à ressorts méchaniques faisant avancer les tiroirs et reculer le dessus dont le milieu represente un trophée et les attributs de la Poësie et de la Littérature, un pupitre couvert de velours noir encadré d'un petit galon d'or se lève en touchant un bouton, les ornemens en bronze sont composés de cadres, chapiteaux, tiges, frises et de 4 bs reliefs d'enfans, le tout cizelé et doré d'or mat..'
This mechanical table has a top which moves backwards and forwards and has a mirror on the inner side similar to the table Riesener supplied for the Trianon in 1776, which was lent by the Queen to Gustavus III of Sweden in 1784. It has a trellis ground on the top and identical corner mounts and octagonal legs but has a more elaborately mounted frieze with a central pictorial panel depicting the attributes of Poetry and Literature on the top.
3. The table (together with a secrétaire) delivered on 6th August 1777 for Louis XVI's study at the Petit Trianon, which is now also at Waddesdon, see de Bellaigue, op. cit., no.103, p. 505, (illustrated), reproduced here in fig. 4. This embodies many similar features but also differs to the present table e.g. the three-quarter galleried trellis parquetry top enclosing a marquetry panel depicting trophies emblematic of Poetry and Literature, as opposed to a floral spray on the present table, different frieze mounts, on square tapering as opposed to octagonal legs.
4. The table in the Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon, circa 1781, illustrated by M. I. Pereira Coutinho, op. cit., no. 23, pp. 223-227, reproduced here in fig. 5. It has a similar top inlaid with a roundel with a floral bouquet on a trellis ground but different mounts and square tapering legs. This latter table, along with a commode and a table en chiffonnière, was supplied to Marie-Antionette for her cabinet de la Reine at the château de Marly in April 1781:- 3075 Une table à écrire assortissante, a deux tiroirs dont 1 garni d'encrier, poudrieret boete a eponge de cuivre argente, avec une tablette a coulisse par devant couverte de velours noir encadre d'un petit galon d'or. La marqueterie composée de compartiments de bois satiné, le dessus a mosaiques avant au milieu un groupe de fleurs, la table ornée de chapiteaux, balustrades et bos reliefs d'enfants, le tout de bronze ciselé et doré d'or moulu. It later was at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and was purchased from the Soviet Government in 1929.
5. The table now at the Châteaux de Versailles and Trianon (V 5288), which was originally at the Petit Trianon and delivered in 1784 by Riesener, to the Garde-Meuble de la Reine, probably for Madame Elisabeth the sister of Louis XVI or even Marie-Antoinette (V 5288), the top of which is reproduced here in fig. 6. The flowers on the top are almost identical but disposed differently and this table is discussed fully in Revue de Louvre 1990.
6. The table at Waddesdon Manor, illustrated by Bellaigue, op. cit., p. 516-519, no. 105 (inv. WI/20/8). It has a similar marquetry floral spray on the top contained within an oval reserve on a trellis parquetry ground. Bellaigue states, op. cit., p. 518, `The central grouping of flowers is repeated on numerous other pieces by Riesener, such as the roll-top desk probably made for Madame Adélaïde in 1773 , on the comtesse de Provence 's chest of drawers dated 1776, and on the chiffonnière supplied in 1781 for Antoinette at Marly (now in the collection of the Earl of Mansfield at Scone Palace)'
It is interesting to note a table recorded in the Journal du Garde-Meuble, which was delivered by Riesener with other pieces of furniture for Marie-Antoinette's new appartments at Compiègne on 30th November 1780. For her `2e Cabinet' she received a chest of drawers and a matching table which may well be the one referred to below although this cannot be stated with certainty. There are descriptions in the Journal of other similar tables. The table is described as follows:
No.3048. Une Table a Ecrire de marqueterie assotisant a la Commode ayant une Tablette couverte de maroquina I grand tiroir sur le côté est petit Tiroir ...(No. 3046...le dessus a panneaux à mosaiques et Rosettes, le panneau du milieu representant un Groupe de fleurs de bois Satiné sur un fond d'amaranthe....'
Jean-Henri Riesener (1734-1806), received Master 1768, ébéniste du roi 1774. The German born Riesener was probably the most important furniture maker of the Louis XVI period. Together with Boulle and Cressent, he was one of the few ébénistes mentioned in 18th century sale catalogues. The finish of the veneer and mounts on his pieces were unsurpassed. He could produce everything in his own workshop including the mounts with the privilege of ébéniste du roi. He became the favourite furniture maker of Marie-Antoinette paricularly after the birth of the Dauphin and almost completely furnished her rooms in Fontainebleau and has been consistently regarded as the greatest cabinet-maker of the Louis XVI period.
Riesener moved to Paris at a young age and became apprenticed to Jean-Francois Oeben around 1754 at the Arsenal and took over his workshop in 1765 on the death of Oeben. Not only did he take over the workshop; he married Oeben's widow in 1767 and as a result, he became a member of one of the principal dynasties of ébénistes in Paris at that time, as she was the sister of Roger Vandercruse and the sister-in-law by her first marriage to Simon Oeben and of Martin Carlin who had married one of Oeben's sisters.His first delivery to the Garde-Meuble was on 5th February 1771 and in the following years a number of `bureaux mécaniques' are recorded in the Journal of the Garde-Meuble and he enjoyed great success in the years from 1774-1784 and during these years he delivered more than 938,000 livres worth of furniture to the Garde-Meuble Royal.
Baron Mayer Amschel de Rothschild (1818-1874):
He was the fourth and youngest son of Nathan Mayer Rothschild (1777–1836). After studying at the University of Leipzig and Heidelberg University, he became the first member of his family to receive an education at an English university, spending time at both Magdalene and Trinity College, Cambridge. He was never very interested in the banking world of his family although he did become High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire in 1847 and was elected Liberal MP for Hythe in 1859. He built Mentmore Towers in Buckinghamshire under the direction of Joseph Paxton, the most sumptuous of the English Rothschild houses at the time. He was a keen horseman and a member of the Jockey Club as well as owning his own stud farm.
It is amusing to read the correspondence between Alexander Barker the dealer, who helped furnish Mentmore, and Baron Mayer, which is pasted in to Hannah's copy of the inventory of 1883. It gives an indication of the Baron's parsimoniousness:
My dear Baron,
Probably you think that ... I did not want the little that I wrote to you for. Pray always believe me when I tell you that the subject is always too painful to me that I never name it until I am at the last _. Perhaps also you fear that the fine objects I bought of Mons. Collot were for you and the amt. may alarm you— if such an idea exists allow me to remove it & tell you they are for a person who can appreciate them _ and even as much the Barons James & Nathanial, Lord Hertford etc, all of whom have endeavoured to obtain them but in vain. They are as authentic as they are elegant, and as is well known were made for the marriage presents to Marie Antoinette. What will you say when you hear that these & some Sevres vase I bought on the same day from Louis Fouler cost one man 4,000£ "think of that Master Brook". Though I well know your almost inconceivable tenacity of the precious metals may you send me 500£. I think you will say I have spent yr. money well & though you are so terribly stingy I predict that the pretty things you have bought will some day cause you more satisfaction than any money you ever spent except when you purchased yr. wedding ring..... (signed) Barker
Furthermore, there is an extract of a letter from Alexander Barker, which is pasted into the Mentmore Catalogue of 1884. It reads as follows:
The fine collection of precious objects you have, have been obtained in consequence of the disasters of the royal family of France and the misfortune of others connected with them and if not purchased at the time they ....could never have been obtained and I am sure you well remember how often we have consulted as to how you would like each room decorated.
Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire:
Joseph Paxton was the architect engaged by Baron Mayer. He was regarded as the `new Christopher Wren'. He chose the `Jacobean ' style for the house taking as his model Wollaton Hall, outside Nottingham. The novel feature of Mentmore was the vast central hall covered with a forty-foot high glass roof and the interior was described as ` a stunning circumvention of cosiness'. The interiors dazzled contemporary visitors and Lady Eastlake wrote after a visit` I do not believe that the Medici were ever so lodged at the height of their glory'.
Mayer's taste incorporated Lous XV and XVI French furniture and even the wash-basins in the bedrooms were Louis XV and XVI commodes which had been adapted. The boiseries which were in the dining room had been removed from the Paris hôtel de Villars and those at Mentmore were amongst the earliest examples of this type of decoration being adopted in an English country house. The house contained many Royal pieces of French furniture by the most outstanding French ébénistes such as B.V.R.B, J.-F. Oeben and Riesener. His collection also encompassed Renaissance objects and Italian, German and, Russian furniture. According to Sir Francis Watson, who wrote the introduction to the Mentmore Catalogue to the Sotheby's sale on 18th-23rd May 1977, `There can be no doubt whatever that the art collections at Mentmore were amongst the most outstanding in their kind anywhere of the world.'
76.5cm. high, 96.5cm. wide, 53.5cm. deep; 2ft. 6¼in., 3ft. 1½in., 1ft. 8¾ in.
Almost certainly the personal property of Jean-Henri Riesener (1734-1806), illustrated in his portrait by Antoine Vestier (1740-24), circa 1786, reproduced here in fig. 1.
Baron Meyer de Rothschild, probably purchased by him in Paris after the 1848 Revolution.
Recorded as no. 343 in the Inventory of the furniture at Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire, in about 1876 (see below fig.1a):
343 A table, of mahogany and chased or-molu, with three drawers, the top of parqueterie, an oval panel of flowers in coloured woods in the centre. Temp. Louis XVI.
Thence by descent to his daughter Hannah, Countess of Rosebery who married the 5th Earl of Rosebery
Recorded in the inventory 5th Earl's London house, 38 Berkeley Square, in 1929
Sold as lot 218 from the Property of the Fifth Earl of Rosebery 's Trust Settlement, in these Rooms, 12th June 1992.
Biennale des Antiquaires, September 1992.
Galerie Lupu, Paris.