This masterpiece of mechanical ingenuity was identified by Pierre Verlet in - Le Cabinet de l'Amateur, exh. cat. Orangerie des Tuileries, Paris, 1956 and “On peut encore lire l'heure dans les yeux de la négresse de Marie-Antoinette”, in Connaissance des Arts of March 1956, as a presentation to Queen Marie Antoinette (fig. 1). Apart from the historical aspect linked to such an outstanding provenance, this clock is precisely described in the archival documents dating from the end of the reign of Louis XVI, tracing the origin and appreciation of the fashion that it evoked. It was a gift for the Royal family on 1 January 1792, but its history begins a decade earlier.
On 4 July 1784, Louis Petit de Bachaumont (op. cit.) recounts that there was a gathering in front of the shop of the clockmaker Jean-Baptiste Furet, by all those curious to see and admire three very original mantel clocks which reflected the most daring and costly ingenuities of the time. He went on to describe that one such clock represented a bust of a Negress, whose head was superbly made, traditionally very elegant in attire and with a great deal of richness and ornament and with a gold earring in each ear. By gently pulling one earring, the hour appears in the right eye with minutes in the left eye. When pulling the other earring, it emits a sound in different consecutive tunes.
When the Intendant and Comptroller General of the Royal Garde-Meuble, Baron Marc-Antoine Thierry de Ville-d'Avray (fig. 8) saw this remarkable piece, he bought it for the King’s service during the summer of 1784, at a very high price of 4,000 French livres... to place it in the salon of the staff apartment that he occupied at Place Louis XV. The same building became the Department of the Navy after 1789 (currently Place de la Concorde, cf. fig. 2 and 7).
The head serves as a mantel clock. Pulling the earring suspended from the right ear allows the eyes to scroll and show the hours and the minutes, whilst melodies play from the musical box when pulling the earring suspended from the left ear. Such a mechanism required delicate maintenance, and in 1787, our clock was entrusted to the clockmaker Robert Robin, who was responsible for holding and resetting the "Negressian flute playing" and to have it maintained and/or repaired by an organ engineer (fig. 4).
Four years later, in June 1791, the repair was reworked and carried out by Richard, a mechanic who settled at the Cloister Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois, and who charged 96 livres for "having restored and delivered to Sr Thierry, flute paying mechanics adapted in the bust of a Negress belonging to the King".
In 1791, the Intendant of the Garde-Meuble again solicited Richard, this time to add new and longer tunes, who then doubled up on a few tunes in order to enhance the pleasure, interest and perfection of this beautiful clock. He accepted the project for a payment of 500 livres, which allowed the Baron Thierry de Ville-d'Avray to be able to present it in perfect working order to the French Royal family at the beginning of 1792. Richard’s memoirs, kept in the National Archives, specifies that the clock was to be given as a les étrennes gift on the first day of the new year, to the Royal Prince, the Dauphin. However, the Queen, who saw and heard it, did not think it expedient that an object so precious, so precise, should be placed in the hands of the young Royal Prince.
The clock was then, after its presentation at the Tuileries Palace (later the National Palace), brought to the Garde-Meuble from where it was once again reworked. Entrusted to a certain Sir Volant, who could not fulfill this task because he was engaged in helping in the defence of France along its borders, it was his wife who finally returned it to the National Garde-Meuble on 1 December 1792.
Placed in the Cabinet of Machines at the Louvre, it was then given to a clockmaker, under the direction of Richard the "mechanical artist", who knew all the subtleties of the mechanism. He drafted the following estimate under the heading La Pendule dit La Negresse, stating that this item was very complicated and contained a huge mechanism. It was necessary to dismantle it in all parts and that as it had been inactive for more than five years, the oil would have coagulated and along with some dirt in places, these would likely be strong obstacles for the movement of the machine. Furthermore, the delicacy of the pieces in this composition required care when cleaning as well as care when the instrument was placed in the bust and could not be done for less than two hundred livres (see M. Beurdeley, op. cit.).
After the Revolution and at the start of the French Republic, on 15 Prairial An V (3 June 1797), this restored mantel clock was delivered, as an advance on the value of goods belonging to the Compagnie Brun La Jarre, which were seized and sold at Livourne on behalf of the French Government (fig. 5). This new process, similar to bartering, was initiated by the Board to the Commission of Subsistence. It allowed creditors of the Republic to receive as reimbursement, artworks that they could choose from the National Garde-Meuble. This form of payment "in kind" was offered to the dealers Brun, La Jarre et Cie. According to the register of the expenses at the time, this particular clock was described in the following manner: "A beautiful mechanical clock representing a figure of a Negress whose bust of chiseled gilt bronze with draperies, garlands, the figure is styled with a ribboned hat with feather... the movement placed in the bust and the figure executed by C.C. Furet and Gaudeau in Paris; the mechanism composed of flutes with cylinders playing sixty different tunes closed within the foot of pedestal ... estimated ten thousand francs".
In 1937, via the Antique Dealer, Koenigsberg, this clock joined the Ribes collection. It was incorrectly identified as being from the collection of Baron Léopold Double. The correspondence between Count Édouard de Ribes and Pierre Verlet enabled Verlet to formally determine it as the clock which had previously been kept in the Crown's Garde-Meuble and he published this discovery when it was first presented to the public during the exhibition Le Cabinet de l’Amateur in 1956.
It has inspired a few rare copies that belong to the most prestigious public collections:
- British Royal Collection at Buckingham Palace, acquired by the future King George IV in the 1820s, reproduced in the exhibition catalogue Carlton House: The Past Glories of George IV Palace, The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace, 1991-1992, p. 80. White marble and movement by Lépine and Vulliamy (as restorer).
- Samuel H. Kress Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (58.75.127, cf. fig. 6), former Collection of Baron Léopold Double, auction 29 May-1 June 1881, lot 74, Furet movement, (the music box on the pedestal has disappeared), illustrated in J. Parker, Decorative Art from the Samuel H. Kress Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1964, pp. 268-272., white marble.
- A mantel clock auctioned in Paris, Delorme Collin du Bocage, 23 November 2007, lot 120. Signature of Bourdier on the movement and dated 1817, probably as restorer, red speckled marble.
- Another copy is cited by J. Parker (op. cit.) and is still part of the Marjorie Merriweather Post Collection, wife of Herbert A. May, at Hillwood, Washington.
Marc-Antoine Thierry de Ville-d'Avray and the Royal Garde-Meuble
Between 1784 and 1792, Baron de Ville-d'Avray became Intendant and Controller General of the Royal Garde-Meuble (household depository). Prior to the French Revolution, he amassed a great fortune through his private business activities as well as through his Royal posting (fig 8). He thoroughly remodelled the administration of the Royal Garde-Meuble, which for the first time since its creation was allocated a building entirely dedicated to its purpose and a new palace was built by Ange-Jacques Gabriel at Place Louis XV. This building, completed in 1774, was equipped with exhibition and storage rooms, shops, workshops and staff apartments (fig. 2). Furniture, wall hangings, carpets, lamps and decorative objects for royal estates were stocked there, as well as Crown acquisitions from public sales, such as the numerous items from the Duc d’Aumont auction of 1782. It also included the conservation of the French Crown Jewels such as gems, the Regent diamond, Royal French Blue diamond, Côte-de-Bretagne red spinel, precious weapons and the ceremonial armour of François I and Henri II, encompassing historical souvenirs related to Royal origins and gifts from foreign sovereigns accumulated over the centuries. Prefiguring the current French Heritage Days, the Garde-Meuble was open on the first Tuesday of every month between Quasimodo Sunday, first Sunday after Easter and St. Martin.
After accepting the position of Intendant and Controller of the Garde-Meuble Royal after the death of Pierre-Élisabeth de Fontanieu in May 1784, the Baron de Ville-d'Avray settled in the townhouse apartment and like his predecessor, considered the first floor as a display area. Whilst he kept part of the Fontanieu furniture, he enriched it by commissioning pieces from the best craftsmen of the time, i.e., the cabinetmaker Jean Henri Riesener, the carpenters George Jacob, Jean-Baptiste Boulard, the bronze artists Quentin-Claude Pitoin and Delaroue (see D. Castelluccio, op. cit.).
The mantel clock with the turbaned princess which he had purchased for the King's service was placed in the salon situated at the corner of the building and which was regarded as the most prestigious and most decorated room in the apartment (fig. 7), with the richness of the furnishings in harmony with the rest of the décor. It included, amongst others, a rich giltwood console table with ram’s heads and a speckled red marble top (identified by C. Baulez, cf. fig. 9) which enhanced the magnificent chimneypiece, a Savonnerie rug, "very beautiful and made to last for 25 years" and later, part of Georges Jacob's furniture purchased from the Marquis de Vaudreuil, including a pair of marquises which were auctioned by Sotheby's in Paris on 8 October 2015, lot 176.
A major renovation project was undertaken at the end of the 20th century to restore the magnificence of the décor, enabling the return of the legendary splendour to this locale. It was combined with an acquisition policy designed to complete the collection of artworks alongside the existing furniture.
"The Queen’s 'gift' gets a rival"
“Thunder strikes - at Trafalgar?” - The Daily Mail of 27 March 1956. The following day, Le Figaro reported: "Is the Buckingham Palace clock, Queen Marie Antoinette’s clock?".
During the Le Cabinet de l’Amateur exhibition held at the Orangerie in 1956, the presentation of a "Negress clock" raised questions within the British Royal Collection on the provenance of a clock within their collection. The mantel clock in a room at Buckingham Palace in 1844, bought by King George IV between 1820 and 1830, and noted as a gift from Louis XVI to Marie Antoinette, seemed to have a rival. Indeed, the clock with the turbaned princess from the collection of Count Jean de Ribes, which was loaned to the Exhibition at the Orangerie in 1956, had a movement signed by Furet and Godon, described exactly as the clock bought by the French Garde-Meuble in 1784, allowing for a confirmed pedigree. The clock in the Royal Collection, which was presented at an exhibition at Versailles a year earlier and described as belonging to Queen Marie Antoinette, has a movement signed Lépine.
Pierre Verlet, an authority on French Royal Furniture, in his article in the magazine Connaissance des Arts, published concomitantly to the Le Cabinet de l’Amateur exhibition in 1956, stated that the clock from the de Ribes Collection was the clock which was presented to Marie Antoinette by the Garde-Meuble by citing indisputable elements to his argument, such as the signatures of the clockmakers Furet and Godon as well as that of the restorer, Richard, on one of the springs of the mechanism (see the image of signature in the article by P. Verlet op. cit.). Verlet further endorsed this in his reference work Les bronzes dorés français du XVIIIe siècle, (op.cit. Paris, 1987). Since the 1956 article, this French Royal provenance was once again recognised during the Marie-Antoinette exhibition at the Grand Palais in 2008, even though Queen Marie Antoinette never got to fully enjoy it during the les étrennes presentation in January 1792.
Furet and Godon - clockmakers, Martincourt - bronzemaker
Jean-Baptiste-André Furet worked with his father and later took over his father's workshop and moved to Rue Saint-Honoré. He joined François-Antoine Godon in 1784 and the signature FURET & GODON appears on several deeds and twice on our clock, on the movement hidden under the turban and on a plate on the musical mechanism. The association does not seem to have endured for very long, as Furet was declared bankrupt in 1786. Godon resided in Spain in 1786 where he appears to have won the trust of the Prince of Asturias, the future King Charles IV, to whom he owes his title of "Mechanic and clockmaker to the Chamber of His Catholic Majesty". His main task seems to have been to negotiate art and luxury goods, especially with Spain. Living in Paris and frequently traveling to Madrid, he provided the Spanish Court with a large number of items made in Paris, i.e. Sèvres porcelain supplementing the Asturias service, clocks in his name, but also paintings and later paintings from Revolutionary seizures and auctions.
In his research on Étienne Martincourt, published in L'Objet d'Art in 2017, Christian Baulez illustrates several clocks together with decorative arts and furniture from 1780-1785, featuring bronzes by Martincourt, or pieces attributed to the bronze artist. There are indeed great similarities between the bronzes decorating our mantel clock and the bronze repertoire of Martincourt. However, the inseparable putti which was an aesthetic of that era, along with arabesques and floral garlands were also widely employed by the cabinetmaker Riesener to adorn his furniture. A mantel clock of great richness by Furet and Godon, with bronzes attributed to Martincourt, displaying this collaboration with Riesener is in Patrimonio Nacional Collections, Madrid (ill. J. Ramón Colón de Carvajal, op. cit.).
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