A pair of Transitional gilt-bronze mounted Chinese lacquer commodes à vantaux by François Rubestuck circa 1770
- Lacquer, gilt-bronze, oak
- each 82cm. high, 148cm. wide, 61,5cm. deep; 2ft. 8¼in., 4ft. 10¼in., 2ft.
Sold Sotheby's London, Important French & Continental Furniture & Tapestries, 11 June 2003, lot 87;
By descent to the present owner.
T. Wolvesperges, Le Meuble Français en Lacque au XVIII Siècle, Paris, 1999, pp. 304-6;
P. Kjellberg, Le Mobilier Français du XVIII Siècle, Paris, 2002, pp. 777-84.
This pair of commodes - most likely acquired by Simon, 1st Earl Harcourt (1714 – 1777) during his tenure as British Ambassador to Paris in the late 18th century - are exceptional not only for the quality and condition of the lacquer and vernis martin panels, but also for their Transitional form incorporating neoclassical mounts. The bold line of the commodes, reinforced by the finely cast gilt-bronze mounts is masculine in nature, which belies the intricate work of the fine lacquer panels. The Goût grec style of the bronzes further emboldens the pair of commodes and layers Antiquity within their oriental decorative style.
Simon Harcourt, 2nd Viscount later 1st Earl Harcourt was a close friend and ally of George II and Governor to his grandson, The Prince of Wales, later George III. On the accession of George III, Harcourt was sent by the king to Mecklenburg-Strelitz as a special Ambassador to negotiate the marriage of the new King to Princess Charlotte Mecklenburg whom he subsequently conducted back to England. Following Princess Charlotte’s installation as Queen, Harcourt became her Master of the Horse and Lord Chamberlain, serving as one of England’s preeminent courtiers. Throughout the 1760s the 1st Earl Harcourt devoted much of his time to building a new country seat on his family’s land south of Oxford. The Earl instructed Stiff Leadbetter (1706 – 1766) to design the exterior of Nuneham whilst Athenian Stuart was undertaken to design the interiors. The house was essentially a large Palladian villa set amongst a garden above a bend overlooking the river Thames. The antiquity of the Palladian style would have been paramount to Harcourt – as a founding member of the Dilletanti Society his interest, like many of his fellow courtiers, was established whilst on the Grand Tour and largely revolved around the antiquity of Rome and Greece. It is fitting therefore that whilst Harcourt was decorating Nuneham he would have sought pieces, such as the present commodes, with a strong classical influence.
In 1768 due to his Royal favour and renowned diplomatic skill Harcourt was once again dispatched as an Ambassador by George III, this time to Paris. During his tenure it seems that Harcourt purchased a number of fine pieces of contemporary French furniture incorporating Chinese lacquer panels. The present commodes are ensuite with a pair of lacquer armoires (sold in these Rooms, 11 June 2003, lot 86), both pairs share the Goût grec mounts and vernis martin borders which would come to define Rubestuck’s work. Having served for four years Harcourt returned to London at the request of the King and was promoted to the Lord Lieutenancy of Ireland – a post he held successfully for five years before returning to Oxfordshire in 1777, eight months before his death. Following his death, his son, George, 2nd Earl Harcourt, followed in his father’s footsteps as a patron of the arts and aesthete. It was under his stewardship that Nuneham grew into the aristocratic salon that it would become famous for; playing host to George III, the Prince Regent and Queen Victoria amongst others.
Harcourt’s time in Paris coincided with the last years of Louis XV’s reign and the subsequent transition of power to his son, Louis XVI. This period is reflected in the decorative arts through the eponymously named Transitional style dating from 1765 – 1775. The style is marked by the shift from the flamboyant rococo motifs which defined the Louis XV period to the more austere neoclassical forms of Louis XVI’s reign. The gentle breakfront to the cupboard doors and the austere form are both clear design motifs of the burgeoning neoclassical taste, which would dominate French cabinet making for the next twenty years. However, the protruding cabriole legs are an allusion to the earlier rococo motifs, prevalent during the first half of the 18th century.
The mounts on the present pair of commodes are particularly interesting. Typically Goût grec in form they appear in a number of pieces stamped Rubestuck, including two further commodes and two armoires illustrated in Kjellberg, op. cit. pp. 779 and 782-83. These mounts also appear on a select group of commodes of outstanding quality from this period: a commode stamped Oeben formerly in the collection of Madame de Pompadour and subsequently Karl Lagerfeld, of similar Transitional form, bears the same mounts, albeit to a smaller scale. The Madame de Pompadour provenance is particularly fascinating as it was Madame de Pompadour’s taste which drove the burgeoning neoclassical style. It would appear therefore that one bronzier was working for a number of maîtres ébénistes during this period supplying this model of gilt-bronze mounts.
Skilfully adapted from larger Chinese lacquer pieces, the panels dominate the aesthetic of the commodes. Due to their width, it is likely that the panels were taken from Chinese lacquer chests or cabinets exported to France in the mid-18th century. Their striking design, incorporating Imperial ‘Eastern’ gates and finely detailed palace scenes separates these form the average 18th century lacquer pieces. Such panels were often taken from Chinese screens depicting simple and domestic scenes, whilst on the present commodes the viewer is met by highly ornate architectural scenes. The figures to the left panel of one commode carry dragon banners denoting their master’s imperial significance, whilst the large banner to the right of the other commode is a ‘Shuai’, denoting the commander-in-chief of the corresponding military fortification to the other side of the commode. A contemporary ébéniste would have understood the grandeur of the lacquer panel and used it to create truly exceptional pieces of furniture.
The incorporation of lacquer panels was not new to the period. Indeed, the earliest known commission was a commode veneered with Japanese lacquer by BVRB, delivered by the marchand-mercier Hébert to Louis XV’s wife, Queen Marie Lecszinska's in 1737. The trend for veneering furniture in lacquer was in vogue in Paris from at least the mid-1730s and remained the height of sophistication for the next fifty years. The design and remodelling of Oriental lacquer into furniture was an extraordinarily skilled and labour-intensive process, and only the greatest ébénistes could achieve it on such a large scale. Created maître in 1766, Rubestuck worked in the Rue de Charenton in Paris and was well known for the use of lacquer and vernis martin, as can be seen to the present commodes which represent the apogee of his known work.