PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE COLLECTION
In a rather extreme example of 19th century thinking, Carlo Finocchiettei, in his della scultura e tarsia in legno dagli antichi tempi ad oggi of 1873, extols the virtue of copying existing designs:“Being able to imitate the finest achievements of our past masters is…far better than ill-advisedly putting one’s invention to the test in original creations which will simply reveal a lack of experience, finesse, taste and judgment.’ An important but late catalyst for certain copies of 18th century French furniture was the publication of ‘Measured Drawings of French Furniture; from the Collection of the South Kensington Museum.’ Written and drawn by W. G. Paulson Townsend and published in London by Truslove, Hanson & Comba in 1899, this publication gave accurate and measured drawings of furniture in the Jones Collection that had been bequeathed to the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1882. The release of these accurate drawings was so that people could learn from the museum’s collection and the drawings were accurate enough for a cabinetmaker to use to make a copy. Whether or not the sculptors could reproduce the complex bronze mounts from drawings is doubtful and the discussion continues as to whether such copies and others in Paris were made freehand or from squeezes. Certainly by this time we know that the more established makers had a good stock of master models for bronze mounts, enabling them to reproduce the extremely fine details of French mounts.
While Lord Hertford was commissioning his celebrated group of copies, the Rothschild family was building new houses such as the Château de Ferrières. However, it was the Gore House exhibition of 1853 in London and subsequently the 1867 Musée rétrospectif exhibition in Paris that made the world generally aware of the sumptuous qualities of French royal furniture. These two exhibitions had been mainly loans from private collections but in 1882, the Exposition de l’Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs was held in Paris where a wide selection of 18th century furniture was exhibited from the Mobilier national. A further retrospective exhibition was held at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris where ‘period’ furniture was put in context as a preface to the exhibition to illustrate the importance of French museums, and to contribute to the general interest of the exhibition. So important was the business of supplying replica furniture for a growing world market that the French stand at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago showed only copies to a market hungry for fine furniture in what by now had become a universal style.
When the rooms exhibiting Louis XIV, XV and XVI furniture at the Louvre Museum were opened to the public on May 20, 1901, certain key pieces were missing, as several 18th century writing desks were still in use at various government ministries. In an important article, ‘Des mécènes par milliers’ in Réunion des Musées nationaux, Musée du Louvre, Paris, April 21 to July 21, 1997, Daniel Alcouffe, then Keeper of Furniture at the Louvre, discusses copies of a series of bureaux plats made or bought for the Louvre. In 1902, on the departure of Emile Moliner from the museum, Carle Dreyfus worked with Les amis du Louvre to persuade ministers to release their desks from daily use and allow them to go to the museum. In each case, a suitable modern copy was sourced or an exact copy made in return. 15,000-20,000 French francs were voted for the project, which took until 1924 to complete. Roubeyrie made a copy of an Oeben lacquer desk at Les Invalides for a seemingly modest 1,000 francs. Jansen supplied a copy of a Boulle desk, contributing by reducing his asking price from 7,000 to 3,000 francs. The director of the Archives Nationales agreed for his desk to be copied by Sormani, who completed the task in five months. Alexandre Millerand, Minister for War, released his plum-pudding mahogany desk made in 1783 by Riesener. In 1922 the Finance Ministry chose a desk from Charles Thiébaux, by then running the Sormani enterprise.
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