Featuring elegant lines, exquisite gilt-bronze mounts and the most exacting construction, with spring-loaded drawers, removable legs and red cedar-lined internal drawers, these secrétaires can be considered superb examples of the oeuvre of one of the most successful and celebrated cabinetmakers of the late 18th century, David Roentgen (1743-1807). They are in fact almost identical in construction, proportion and finish to a secrétaire delivered by Roentgen in 1786 to the court of Catherine the Great in St Petersburg; and yet, the striking alabaster-backed medallions with the mask of sun-good Apollo, that centre both secrétaire fronts, almost certainly identify these as the work of one of Roentgen’s most important successors, David Hacker (1748-1801), who established his workshops at the Prussian court in Berlin in 1791.
DAVID ROENTGEN’S SECRETAIRES
A detailed invoice from David Roentgen to the Russian Empress Catharine the Great, dated 23 March 1786, lists amongst about 130 pieces of furniture also four secrétaires à abattant, of which one, listed as nr. 24, is most probably identifiable as the secrétaire that was sold at Christie’s, London, 26 March 1981, lot 80. Featuring the same elegant design as the present secrétaires, with a cabinet-like upper section surmounted by a pierced gilt-bronze gallery and almost square fall-front flanked by D-shaped open compartments and enclosing a fitted interior, it differs only in the circular medallion, which centres the secrétaire fall front, there cast with a reading putto. A photograph taken in the 1930s, showing the first reception room of the apartments of Czar Alexander III at Gatchina Palace, St Petersburg, shows two further secrétaires of this model, both with open D-shaped compartments to the sides, but differentiated by featuring a floral spray cast in high relief to the centre of the front of one, while the other features just the outer beaded circlet, giving that secrétaire a slightly more austere appearance.
DAVID ROENTGEN AND HIS SUCCESSORS
The French Revolution of 1789 and its historical and economic consequences were without doubt key factors in the demise of business for Roentgen’s manufacture; however, using his diplomatic connections and commercial skills David Roentgen managed to establish his best craftsmen with workshops directly at those courts that had taken over in importance following the near closure of the Parisian market. Dividing up his master cabinetmakers and indeed his remaining stock, Roentgen first established David Hacker at the Prussian court in Berlin in 1791; two years later he helped set up Johannes Klinkerfuss at the Württemberg court in Stuttgart; in 1795 he helped position Heinrich Gambs at the court of St Petersburg –by then his most lucrative market; in 1798 he assisted Johann Wilhelm Kronrath establish himself in Weimar; and in 1800 helped place Johann Christian Härder with a workshop at the court of Brunswick. Roentgen’s inventions and exacting standards set the standard for the long-lasting influence of the Neuwied workshop on French, German, Scandinavian, English, and Russian Neoclassical furniture. And those master craftsmen that had been trained in his workshops – and most particularly those listed above, which he had ‘hand-selected’ to continue in his tradition at the various European courts – held up his values and standards in construction and finish, while more and more incorporating the new Empire style.
JOHANN DAVID HACKER, BERLIN
The attribution to Johann David Hacker (1748-1801) is based on the exacting construction (to ‘Neuwied standards’) and finish of the secrétaires in combination with the white alabaster-backed medallions that adorn the fall-fronts. Hacker, an almost contemporary of David Roentgen, had been employed in the latter’s workshops in Neuwied since at least 1779 and would have almost certainly contributed to the enormous line of production required for the vast deliveries to the court in St Petersburg particularly in the years 1783-86. A very closely-related circular alabaster or white marble medallion with bronze mask and in a larger beaded circlet features on the secrétaire front of a large writing cabinet now in the Getty Museum, Malibu (Inv. Nr. 84.DA.87). The spectacular cabinet at the Getty is now attributed to Johannes Andreas Beo and thought to be the masterpiece he produced in the Berlin workshop of David Hacker. Interestingly, it fits the description of a mechanical writing desk presented by the ‘Royal Court Cabinetmaker Mr Hacke’ (sic) at the 1794 exhibition of the Berlin Academy, which had led to an earlier attribution of the piece to Hacker himself. Another, clearly very similar piece of furniture by Hacker is mentioned a few years later in the little Royal Prussian chateau on the Pfaueninsel (‘peacock island’), in Potsdam south of Berlin. In 1798 Carl Christian Horvath publishes a guide to the city of Potsdam and includes parts of an inventory drawn up for Frederick William III, describing the contents of the Schloss on the Pfaueninsel, which lists a mahogany bureau with columns and pilasters of Carara marble and bronze by ‘the cabinetmaker Hackert of Berlin’.
RICARDO ESPIRITO SANTO SILVA
Ricardo Espirito Santo Silva and his two brothers José and Manuel, sons of José Maria Espirito Santo Silva (1850-1915) who founded the Portuguese banking house in 1884, were all passionate collectors and real art connoisseurs. Most celebrated was the collection of Furniture, silver, rugs and paintings which was first put together by Ricardo Espirito Santo Silva (1900-1955) and then presented to the Portuguese state in 1953. Ricardo was one of the major art collectors of his time and one of the most significant patrons of the arts in Portugal. It was in his late forties that he made the important decision to donate the Portuguese commissions from his private collection to the nation. In 1947 he acquired the 17th century Azurara Palace in Lisbon to house and display the collection of over 2000 pieces of Portuguese furniture, silver, textiles, paintings, ceramics and other decorative arts, and to function as the headquarters for the Foundation bearing his name, created as the Museum Schools for Portuguese Decorative Arts.