Stories of a Rediscovery: The Commode en Tambour by André-Charles Boulle

Stories of a Rediscovery: The Commode en Tambour by André-Charles Boulle

U ndoubtedly an atypical piece of furniture at the time, and a then-unprecedented shape in the history of the manufacturing of furniture, the commode en tambour, as offered in the upcoming Rediscovered: Important 18th Century Furniture sale was a prototype that would later become a piece of furniture emblematic of the 18th century: the commode (akin to a chest of drawers).

The evolution of this form began with the first phase using six feet instead of eight. Eventually only four feet would remain on the completed model, with only the central body accommodating the drawers. This particular commode is fascinating, as it illustrates the continuous search by the cabinetmaker André-Charles Boulle to revolutionise the form. In the context of when it was made, this commode en tambour illustrates Boulle's remarkable inventiveness and creativity.

By studying his production and preparatory drawings, Sotheby's was able to ascertain that this model was directly inspired by the projects and achievements that Boulle himself designed, but which then seemed to decline between 1705-1715, a pivotal time when his production oscillated between innovation and conservation.

Furthermore, the shape of this commode en tambour is unique and echoes aspects characteristic of the Boulle repertoire: the gilt-bronze mounts and several ornamental elements. The mention of "en tambour par les deux bouts" means that the ends of the cabinet are rounded, synonymous with the design category "commodes ovalles" – a term also used in the 18th century descriptions.

Throughout the 18th century, Boulle’s work fascinated his contemporaries, as well as merchants, collectors and amateurs. Whether through inheritance or sales, these sought-after pieces were passed on from one firm to another. In the catalogue for the sale of the Collection of Angran de Fonspertuis in 1748, the furniture of André-Charles Boulle is particularly highlighted with a commendable mention: "The work of this skillful man is always eagerly sought after by the curious, although they are different in taste from that which prevails today. Despite their age, they still serve as proof of the reputation that this excellent artist had so rightly acquired in cabinetmaking and they continue to give an authentic testimony to his celebrity."

This commode en tambour used to belong to Louis-Antoine Crozat, Baron de Thiers. Sold in a 1772 sale after his death, this commode could initially have belonged to his uncle, Pierre Crozat or to his father Antoine Crozat. Pierre Crozat was renowned for his collection of sculptures and paintings and like his brother Antoine, loved Boulle furniture.

Portrait of Louis-Antoine Crozat, Baron de Thiers (1700 – 1770)

Furthermore, Sotheby's discovered that the commode reappeared at a 1929 auction when it was stated that it was removed from Belton House, near Grantham in Lincolnshire, the family seat of the Brownlow family, who had also inherited the Ashridge Estate in Hertfordshire through the Egerton family.

During a Sotheby’s auction in Paris on 5 November 2015, a commode from the Rohan-Chabot Collection, originally sold on 10 December 1787, reappeared on the art market. The comparison of the Brownlow commode to that in the 2015 sale has made it possible to establish an obvious link: to date these are the only known models, one in première partie, the other in contre-partie marquetry, with identical gilded bronze ornamentation, suggesting that these two commodes were made as an ensemble.

The commode in the Sotheby’s 2015 sale had been modified by Etienne Levasseur between 1770-1780 and moreover, which made it possible to distinguish and identify it in the Rohan-Chabot sale of 1787. The appearance of these two commodes on the art market in the space of five years has made it possible to compile and compare information which confirms that these two pieces of furniture were made in the same workshop, using the same methods of construction at the beginning of the 18th century, and that they followed different destinies during the second half of the 18th century.

French & Continental Furniture

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