This bureau plat undoubtedly features in Etienne Drian's 1947 portrait of Olive, Lady Baillie with her daughters Susan and Pauline (see inside cover)
This highly unusual and supremely elegant bureau plat is intriguing, as to date, no other strikingly similar example has been found. Its rarity is due to the presence of eight legs and it being veneered in plain wood, the latter a feature that one would not initially normally associate with the production of Boulle or his workshop. This bureau plat does however, bear all the hallmarks of the oeuvre of the celebrated ébéniste André–Charles Boulle (1642-1742) and his workshop, in both decoration and design. Boulle and his workshop never stamped their production, so attributions must be based upon archival sources eg. the inventory after his death, inventories of his clients and the collection of his models engraved by Mariette after 1707, as in the present case, together with stylistic similarities and in particular the distinctive gilt-bronze mounts so distinctive of Boulle and his workshop.
The gilt-bronze mounts
The mounts on this impressive bureau plat are typical of those produced in the Boulle atelier and according to Pradère op. cit., p. 90, `Boulle’s mounts were original creations modelled by the greatest sculptors of the time who were often Boulle’s neighbours in the Galeries du Louvre or colleagues working with him in the Bâtiments du Roi'. As well as Desjardins or Girardon and Coustou, one should not forget Jean Varin, Daniel Bouthemy, Van Opstal, Louis Lecomte and François Flamand whose models in terracotta or wax were found in Boulle’s possession. Furthermore, Boulle's third son André-Charles II, was a talented sculptor who was awarded the second Prix de Rome in 1709.
M. Samoyault published the 1732 inventory of Boulle’s bronzes which illustrates that Boulle was inspired in their design by classical mythology, and the treatment of animals was very naturalistic such as rams’ heads and hooves as on the present bureau plat. The most frequent ornamental motifs are male or female fauns’ heads, their hair plaited or wreathed in fruiting vines, see for example, the female mask with plaits at the angles of this bureau plat.
The grinning mask on the central drawer is a decorative device often used by Boulle, and according to Hughes op. cit., p. 745, is probably Democritus, the laughing philosopher, the model for which was listed in Boulle's inventory in 1732. An example of this mount is illustrated by the same author, op. cit., p. 742, on a drawer of a bureau plat in the Wallace Collection, no. 158, (F427). A variant of this can be seen in a drawing for a bureau plat by André-Charles Boulle, circa 1710, illustrated by Ronfort, op. cit., p. 329, no. 66, now in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, reproduced here in fig.1.
The female mask mount of Daphne can also be seen on another drawing by Boulle of a table, circa 1701, illustrated by Ronfort, op. cit., p. 75, (Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris). A slight variation in the mask of Daphne with laurel leaves in her hair can be found on the stand to a coffer attributed to the workshop of Boulle, in the Wallace collection, illustrated by Hughes, op. cit., p. 671, no. 143 (F412).
The rams' mask mounts at the top of the legs on the offered bureau plat can be seen on various designs by Boulle from Mariette's Nouveaux Desseins, see Ronfort, op. cit., p. 360, plate c, for a commode with a ram's mask at the top of the legs, reproduced here in fig. 2.
Finally, one should also consider a commode in the Wallace Collection, no. 137 (F39), illustrated by Hughes, op. cit., p. 639, with similar female mask mounts at the angles, with foliate head-dress with vine and flower pendant below as on the offered bureau and on hoof feet, which Hughes tentatively states is possibly by Nicholas Sageot, op. cit., p. 671 no. 143 (F412).
This form of bureau with eight legs is rarely found, however, it is worthwhile considering a design now in the Musée des Arts décoratifs, inv. 723 D7, illustrated by Ronfort, op. cit., p. 328, no. 65, by André-Charles Boulle, circa 1715-20, for a bureau with eight legs, reproduced in fig. 3. It is described as `Projet pour un bureau à huit pieds' and depicts a bureau with seven drawers and eight legs which bears similarities to the offered bureau plat, for example, the recessed central drawer with the satyr mask mount. Furthermore, these bureaux with six or more legs would seem to be an innovation of Boulle and his workshop. See Ronfort, op. cit., p. 77, where he illustrates an eight legged bureau by André-Charles Boulle for the Duchesse de Bourgogne, circa 1711, (Private collection). It is also worth noting a boulle marquetry bureau plat with six legs corresponding to the left half of the bureau depicted in Plate III of the Boulle folio, (formerly in the Earl of Ashburton's Collection, then subsequently the Patino collection). Also see Ronfort op. cit., pp. 236-237, no. 20, for a similar mask mount on the central drawer and side of a bureau for the Prince de Condé by Boulle and his sons.
Another bureau plat attributed to André-Charles Boulle, circa 1700-1705, with later alterations can be found in the Huntington Collection. Veneered in purplewood, although of different form, with three frieze drawer and four legs, this bureau shares some similarities to the offered bureau is illustrated by Bennett and Sargentson, op. cit., pp. 51-53, no 1. The drawer fronts are in walnut veneered onto an oak carcass. The rectangular form and recessed front drawer suggest an early date. The canted sections flanking the drawer can also been seen on the offered desk.The Huntington desk also has brass stringing and hoof feet as on the offered bureau and the former originally had six legs so characteristic of early bureau plats and commodes such as those illustrated in Nouveaux deisseins de meubles et ouvrage de bronze et de marqueterie inventés et gravés par André-Charles Boulle, printed and distributed by Jean Mariette (1660-1742) from 1709.
In the first decade of the 18th century, when Boulle was supplying furniture to the Crown more regularly, the accounts of the Bâtiments du Roi almost exclusively record pieces veneered in tortoiseshell and brass marquetry. Pradère states, op. cit., p. 96, `Furniture produced in plain wood represents a large part of their production, the Deed of 1715 mentions many of them `a bureau in amaranth ready for gilding, made for M. de Cotte'. The accounts of the Bâtiments du Roi record an armoire in bois violet supplied to Marly in 1700 as well as a commode supplied in amaranth in 1714 for Fontainebleau. Finally, there are numerous mentions in inventories of Boulle's principal clients of pieces in palisander or in `bois de violette' woods which were frequently confused with amaranth.
Furthermore, the authors of the Huntington catalogue op. cit., p. 53, state that `it may be that Boulle's more simply decorated pieces were made for the Paris market, rather than for the Crown' and `the maker of the bureau plat in the Huntington Collection was probably André-Charles Boulle, that it may have been one of the first desks he produced, and that it was commissioned or purchased by an aristocratic patron or newly rising financier rather than by the French court.'
Therefore, the inevitable conclusion would seem to be that this rare and impressive bureau plat in terms of its size, form and decoration together with the innovative feature of eight legs is most probably the production of the Boulle workshop in the early years of the 18th century made for the Paris market rather than the Crown.
A related bureau plat on eight legs in boulle marquetry although unattributed, was offered for sale Sotheby's, Monaco, 18th June 1994, lot 190.
André-Charles Boulle (1642-1732):
He was born in Paris in 1642, trained under his father, a carpenter and was gifted in many fields and is described in contemporary documents variously as a painter, architect, bronze-worker, engraver, designer of monograms and mosaicist. From 1664, he was attached to the college de Reims, Paris, as a painter and marqueteur. At the age of thirty he was appointed ébéniste du Roi and subsequently supplied furniture and decorative objects for Versailles and other royal palaces as well as carrying out commissions for various clients including members of the French Court and foreign Royalty. He became the most celebrated furniture-maker of the Louis XIV period, supplying many pieces decorated with brass and tortoiseshell marquetry, a technique which has subsequently borne his name. He remained in overall charge of his workshop in the Louvre until his death in 1732, though passed on the day to day running of it to his sons.
In 1720, there was a disastrous fire in Boulle's workshops, after which an inventory was drawn up of items damaged or destroyed. The first section of the inventory is taken up by furniture made for Duc Louis Henry Bourbon, great grandson of the Grand Condé, all of which was fortunately saved from the fire. The first piece on the list is a desk covered in leather, approximately six foot long. Amongst the items of furniture destroyed there are listed five desks of five or six feet in length, of shell and brass marquetry, and later in the list, twelve desks, six feet long, more or less finished. The most celebrated marchand-mercier of the mid 18th century was Lazare Duvaux and in his Livre Journal for 1748-58, we find him selling many pieces of furniture inlaid with tortoiseshell and brass which he lists specifically as being made by Boulle. His clients for these pieces included Mme de Pompadour, who bought from him a commode of the same model as those made for the Trianon to give to her brother, the Marquis de Marigny. Other clients for Boulle furniture were the Marquis de Voyer and Lalive de Jully. In 1742, Piganiol de Force published his Description de Paris, in which he enthuses over the cabinet of M. de Julienne with its furniture by the famous Boulle. Dezailler Dargenville in his Voyages de Paris, in 1745 talks of the collection of Blondel de Gagny where tables, commodes and other fine works were to be found again by the famous Boulle.
Boulle's Assistants and the extension of his workshop:
In addition to his four sons, Philippe (1678-1744), Pierre Benoît (1680-1741), André-Charles II (1685-1745) and Charles-Joseph (1688-1754), he was assisted by one of his cousins, Pierre Boulle. The name of other ébénistes are known due to the various legal proceedings by his workforce for unpaid wages, such as Girard, Cieppe and Gaspard to name but a few. Jean-Paul Mariette worked as a caster in Boulle's workshop between 1725-31. In 1685, the workshop comprised fifteen strong and by 1720 had risen to nearly thirty workers. There was at that time twenty workbenches for ébénistes as well as equipment for six workers in bronze, a foundry and a printing press.
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