On 9 July Christie’s King Street will present Taste of the Royal Court and The Exceptional Sale, two auctions that include superlative examples of the kind of 18th century French furniture prized by the world’s leading collectors of decorative arts. Here, we present an expert guide to collecting, illustrated by some of the standout pieces in these two sales.
1. André-Charles Boulle (1642-1732)
A pair of Louis XIV ormolu-mounted brass-inlaid tortoiseshell, ebony and ebonised torchéres. By André-Charles Boulle, late 17th century, restored by Etienne Levasseur circa 1787-89. Estimate: £600,000-1,000,000
André-Charles Boulle was the pre-eminent French cabinet-maker of the reign of Louis XIV who perfected the art of brass and tortoiseshell marquetry to the extent that the technique is now associated with his name. The Exceptional Sale on 9 July 2015 includes two magnificent examples of his oeuvre, a matched pair of première and contre-partie pier tables, and a pair of contre-partie torchères.
As Ébéniste du Roi to Louis XIV, Boulle was free of guild restrictions. Both console tables and torcheres perfectly demonstrate his genius and inventiveness in form, construction and, above all, the harmonious and masterful blend of translucent tortoiseshell and lustrous brass inlay off-set by sculptural gilt-bronze mounts.
2. Charles Cressent (1685–1768)
An early Louis XV ormolu-mounted bois satiné and amaranth bureau plat (bureau à espagnolettes bouclées). By Charles Cressent circa 1738-45. Estimate: £1,000,000-1,500,000
Along with Boulle, Charles Cressent is one of only a small handful of makers who are mentioned by name in the catalogues and inventories of the 18th Century — he was le fameux Cressent, and his works are highly sought after and rare.
DECORATIVE ARTSExceptional: The best of 18th century Decorative ArtsRead more
Trained as a sculptor, Cressent made his name with incredible ormolu mounts that actually got him thrown in jail on a couple of occasions. At the time guild regulations stated that furniture makers were not allowed to create their own mounts but he insisted on casting, chasing and gilding his pieces to perfection.
This bureau is a masterpiece of 18th-century French furniture. It combines these amazingly sculptural mounts with the quality ébénisterie Cressent was also known for, on a monumental scale. It was made at a time when the strict forms of the Baroque style were being left behind in favour of the more sinuous lines of Rococo. There is only one other bureau of this model, which is in the collections of the Louvre.
3. The Martin Frères, Guillaume (1689–1749) and Etienne-Simon (1703–1770)
A Louis XV ormolu-mounted blue and gilt Vernis Martin bureau en pente. By Pierre IV Migeon, circa 1735-40, the vernis decoration attributed to the Martin Frères. Estimate: £120,000-180,000
The brothers Guillaume and Etienne-Simon Martin were vernisseurs; they worked in lacquer and painted decoration. They had enormous success imitating the lacquer that was coming out of China and Japan, which they produced both for clients and for cabinet makers, becoming so good at it that this style became known as vernis Martin — what we call ‘Japanning’ in English.
This stunning blue bureau is incredibly contemporary — it reminds me of Yves Klein blue — and yet is an early example of the Rococo style, made around 1737. It’s very rare to see this colour in European japanning — it didn’t exist in oriental lacquer and was rarely produced in Europe. So while this bureau is inspired by the Far East it’s very much a European interpretation of ‘chinoiserie’. Only a handful like this are known of and they very rarely come up for auction, so it’s as collectible as it is decorative.
4. Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier (1695-1750)
A pair of Louis XV ormolu-mounted candlesticks. Attributed to Juste-Aurèle Meissonier circa 1745-50. Estimate: £60,000-100,000
Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier, the foremost and most extravagant pioneer of the Rococo style in the decorative arts, was a French goldsmith, sculptor and designer who excelled in producing designs for furniture and works of art.
His influence is exemplified in the Exceptional Sale by a superb pair of asymmetrical candlesticks, and for undoubtedly being the inspiration for a richly carved and opulent sofa à chassis, executed by one of the greatest sculptors of carved furniture of the mid-18th century, Nicolas Heurtaut in 1753.
5. Jean-Claude Chambellan Duplessis (1699–1774)
A Louis XV ormolu-mounted chinese flambé-glazed porcelain vase. The mounts attributed to Jean-Claude Chambellan Duplessis, circa 1755, the porcelain second quarter 18th century. Estimate: £600,000-1,000,000
This Louis XV ormolu-mounted Chinese flambé-glazed porcelain vase attributed to Jean-Claude Chambellan Duplessis is the essence of the 18th century in one object. Not only for its quality and its innovative combination of Asian and European materials but also as something produced purely for its decorative value rather than its utility.
The baluster vase with this beautiful ‘flambé’ glaze was in itself very highly prized in China and when it was exported to France the marchand-mercier — the designer-dealer — would commission the right mounts for the right client. In this case the mounts were almost certainly made by Jean-Claude Chambellan Duplessis, one of the principle designers at Sèvres, the royal porcelain factory outside Paris.
The quality of the mounts is incredible: the design and casts of the bronzes with their intricate shape; their chasing — the chiselled design of the surface which gives it texture and life — goes from matte to detailed to burnished, and gives you a sense of natural forms. The design is meant to imitate the flow of leaves, flowers and water, reflecting the naturalistic taste of the period — it’s Rococo but more restrained and controlled than the earlier asymmetric and wackier designs.
6. Jean-Claude Thomas Duplessis (1730–1783)
A late Louis XV ormolu-mounted chinese celadon crackle-glazed porcelain two-handled vase. The mounts attributed to Jean-Claude-Thomas Duplessis, circa 1770, the porcelain 18th century. Estimate: £700,000-1,000,000
In the third quarter of the 18th Century, as a reaction to the excesses of the Rococo, a new style came the fore which would be the beginning of French ‘Neoclassicism’. Known as the goût grec, it was a style inspired by the architecture and designs of ancient Greece. Pieces were characterised by bold forms with straight and angular lines and strong motifs, as opposed to the later Neoclassical style known as the goût étrusque, with its fine arabesques and foliage following forms found in ancient Roman and Etruscan decoration.
Three objects in the Taste of the Royal Court collection epitomise this style: a two-handled vase and a pot pourri vase are attributed to Jean-Claude Thomas Duplessis, the son of Jean-Claude Chambellan Duplessis (the likely author of the Louis XV ormolu-mounted Chinese flambé-glazed porcelain vase), and his successor at Sèvres.
7. Martin Carlin (1730–1785)
A Louis XVI ormolu-mounted tulipwood, amaranth, sycamore, holly and mosaic parquetry table à ecrire. By Martin Carlin, circa 1775, retailed by the marchand-ébéniste Nicholas-Pierre Severin. Estimate: £400,000-600,000
Martin Carlin was one of the greatest ébénistes of the Louis XVI period and produced furniture of almost unparalleled quality. He worked very closely with marchands-merciers in Paris, particularly Simon-Philippe Poirier, and some of his most luxurious and costly pieces were mounted with porcelain plaques from the Sèvres factory, which were supplied by dealers like Poirier.
His beautiful Guéridon table contrasts a delicate porcelain plaque with the black ebony veneers and rich ormolu mounts. Such contrast was also achieved in wood alone, with pieces like this stunning writing-table formerly in the collection of the Marquess of Bath at Longleat, which is veneered in mosaic ‘parquetry’ of different woods in geometric patterns and mounted with jewel-like gilt-bronzes.
Such pieces continued to be highly prized toward the end of the 18th Century and into the 19th Century and many English collectors bought extensively in the numerous sales that followed the social and political upheaval of the Revolution — indeed, the 2nd Marquess of Bath acquired this table in the early 19th century.
8. Pierre-Philippe Thomire (1751–1843) and Dominique Daguerre (d. 1796)
A pair of Louis XVI ormolu-mounted Sèvres fond écaille porcelain vases. The mounts attributed to Pierre-Philippe Thomire, circa 1785, almost certainly commissioned by Dominique Daguerre. Estimate: £80,000-120,000
Pierre-Philippe Thomire is probably the most celebrated maker of gilt-bronze of the late Louis XVI and ‘Empire’ periods in France. He took over from Duplessis fils at Sèvres and like his predecessor created mounts for porcelain produced at the factory, often commissioned by the marchands-merciers.
His Louis XVI Ormolu-mounted Sevres ‘Fond Ecaille’ porcelain vases are the product of this kind of collaboration; the basic urn-shaped form of the vase, with flattened neck below the lip, derives from a group of three drawings for a vase specifically designed by the marchand-mercier Dominque Daguerre to be mounted with ormolu, dating from the early 1780s and preserved in the Sèvres Archives.
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