This exquisite table à écrire, conceived in the neoclassical style popularised by Louis XVI and the court of Versailles, is from a select group of closely-related tables by David Roentgen, and a beautiful example of the cabinet-maker’s unrivalled craftsmanship. It combines the exacting quality of construction and the confident restrained manner, so much appreciated by Roentgen’s demanding patrons.
While the original commissioner is yet to be found it is intriguing that Roentgen’s handwritten invoices to one of his most important clients, the Empress Catherine II of Russia, lists four such tables, supplied in the 1780s, and described as, ‘quatre tables quarries avec des balustrades, chaque pièce 96m 34’. Three further, similarly described, rectangular tables are listed in an inventory of Schloss Ebersdorf, one of the residences of the Princes Reuss, another of Roentgen’s important princely patrons; one of the latter is probably the table illustrated in D. Fabian, Abraham und David Roentgen, Bad Neustadt/Saale, 1996, p. 55, cat. 79.
The aesthetically refined lines, superb choice of timber, distinctive brass mounts including floriated paterae and beaded borders, together with the excellent craftsmanship of this table, are all recognisable characteristics of the younger Roentgen’s distinctive oeuvre, and appear on various documented Roentgen pieces, such as the closely related oval table acquired circa 1785 by William Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire (d. 1811) (W. Koeppe, exhibition catalogue, Extravagant Inventions: The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens, New York, 2012, p. 170, no. 48). Another virtually identical table is illustrated in D. Fabian, op. cit., 1996, p. 91, fig. 192.
David Roentgen served his tutelage under his father, Abraham, the most adept German cabinet-maker of his generation. Roentgen senior’s reputation for excellence was unsurpassed but his influence rarely extended beyond the borders of his own region. David Roentgen, however, recognising the potential opportunities beyond, secured introductions to, and patronage from, the most significant Royal courts of continental Europe including that of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, Frederick the Great and Catherine II.
David Roentgen visited Paris in 1774 where he was exposed to the new neoclassical style then evolving from the gôut grec of the preceding decade. This would have an immense impact on the forms and decoration of the works he produced. It is thought that his association with the ciseleur-doreur, François Rémond, dates to this visit. Rémond supplied much ormolu to the Roentgen workshop in the ensuing years, including some of the spectacular mounts for the furniture supplied to Catherine II, and may well have supplied mounts for this very table. Roentgen recognised that Paris was not only a source of inspiration but also a fertile market for his distinctive products. In 1779, he was awarded the titles of ébéniste-mécanicien to Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette (dual titles, separately awarded, for both King and Queen), to whom he supplied spectacular mechanical furniture; the only previous holder having been the great ébéniste, François Oeben.
In the same year, he secured the sale of his magnificent sécretaire cabinet to the French king, which would remain the most expensive piece of furniture ever purchased by the French royal household. Roentgen was finally elected maître in 1780, allowing him to establish his own Parisian operation, and he appointed Jean-Gottlieb Frost as his Parisian representative. This allowed him to capitalise on the publicity generated by the sale of the royal sécretaire and gain direct access to the fertile markets emanating from the French court. This table is typical of the furniture supplied both via Frost and from Neuwied directly, but it is also conceivable that it could have been produced in Paris under Frost to Roentgen's designs. In 1785, Roentgen withdrew from Paris and Frost announced that he had acquired Roentgen’s Parisian business, however, a strong link with Neuwied was apparently maintained, and it is probable Frost continued to import significant amounts of stock from Neuwied before ceasing to trade in 1789.
In 1784 Roentgen travelled to Russia and was admitted at the court of Catherine II, on the recommendation of Friedrich Melchior, Baron von Grimm, who had described the entrepreneurial cabinet-maker to the Empress in glowing terms. This introduction would not only prompt the production of some of Roentgen’s most spectacular furniture, much of which survives in the Russian state collections, but also would introduce a style of cabinet-making to Russia which was so widely adopted that it is now one of the most recognisable facets in the history of Russian decorative arts.
Following Roentgen’s retirement in circa 1790, he sent out his most talented pupils to set up independent workshops attendant on various European important courts: in 1793, Johann David Hacker was dispatched to serve the Prussian court in Berlin; in 1793, Johannes Klinkerfuss departed for Stuttgart, Johann Christian Härder went to Brunswick, and in 1795, Heinrich Gambs moved to St. Petersburg. These highly skilled craftsmen were just a few of the many who emerged from the Neuwied workshops and would continue to produce exemplary furniture commensurate with their training, and to disseminate the designs and workshop practices of the premier German cabinet-makers into the 19th century (Fabian, op. cit., 1996, p. 266).