This magnificent pair of Louis XV meubles d’appui epitomize the Ancien Régime taste of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington and victor of Waterloo. Upon his triumphant return to Paris in 1815 as commander of the Army Occupation of France, Wellington capitalized on the legendary dispersals of the great Parisian collections during the Restauration period – working closely with his advisor, the painter Ferre´ol de Bonnemaison, to amass one of the greatest collections of French furniture and objets d’art in England. Intended to enrich both Apsley House in London and Stratfield Saye, Hampshire – the estate acquired for him by a grateful nation in 1817 – the ‘Iron Duke’s’ collection echoed the taste of his contemporaries, led by the Prince Regent, Lord Hertford, the Duke of Buccleuch and the Duke of Hamilton.
With their rigorously architectural style, striking white vernis martin panels and plain ebony-veneered frames offset by ormolu mounts, these elegant meubles d'appui relate to a group of neo-classical furniture developed from the 1760s onwards incorporating earlier marquetry panels by André-Charles Boulle (1642-1732), when the decorative vocabulary of the Grand Siècle was rediscovered and re-interpreted by a younger generation of cabinet-makers under the direction of the marchand Claude-Francois Julliot (1727–94). These works had been continuously prized but demand for them reached its zenith by the 1770s when every important auction catalogue had a section dedicated to the 'meubles précieux de Boule le père' or those in the 'genre de Boule', prompting Boulle furniture to reach very significant prices.
Not surprisingly, the Parisian marchands-merciers sought to capitalize on this demand and mastered the art of ‘updating’ these earlier pieces to suit the current fashions. They commissioned some of the most talented ébénistes of the era such as Joseph Baumhauer, dit Joseph, Levasseur, Montigny, Weisweiler and Dubois to re-fit, refurbish or even refashion earlier Boulle furniture. Newly refreshed or reimagined, they featured panels of Boulle marquetry, Oriental lacquer, vernis martin or pietra dura plaques offset against a richly mounted ebony ground. This new taste was illustrated in the interiors of Blondel de Gagny, Radix de Sainte-Foix, and Grimod de la Reynière. A passage from a letter from the marquis de Marigny, brother of Madame de Pompadour, to his ébéniste Pierre Garnier concerning the choice of furniture for his library is very revealing in the preference for ebony: 'Vous conviendrez avec moi que les meubles en ébène et bronze sont beaucoup plus nobles que les meubles en acajou.'
These meubles d’appui were almost certainly a commission from a marchand-mercier who would have either specified or supplied the mounts to be used. Although the maker of these meubles d’appui is currently unknown, the distinctive combination of mounts suggest that they can be attributed to Joseph Baumhauer (1747-1772). Indeed, all of these distinctive mounts can been seen on a bibliothèque basse by Joseph which was in a sale of the marchand-mercier Julliot and subsequently in the collection of the Marquis de Vaudreuil in 1787 (A. Pradère, Les Ébénistes Français de Louis XIV à la Révolution, Paris, 1989, p.239, fig. 244). The acanthus-cast foot and leaf-tips border mounts are also on a single meuble d’appui stamped ‘Joseph’ sold from Palais Abbatial de Royaumont at Christie’s, Paris, 20 September 2011, lot 141. Interestingly, the same foliate frieze, border mounts and rosettes on the bases also appear in the work of Etienne Levasseur, two examples belonging to Wellington’s fellow collector, the Prince Regent, later George IV (1762-1830). A secretaire à abattant in the King’s drawing room at Windsor Castle (RCIN29945) has the same foliate frieze mount and border mounts and a pair of meubles d’appui with Japanese lacquer panels have identical border and rosette mounts (RCIN2464). Although both men supplied furniture for Julliot, who certainly could have commissioned the meubles d’appui, ébénistes did not work exclusively for one marchand-mercier. Other possibilities could be the marchand Simon-Phillipe Poirier whose furniture often featured the distinctive blue moire watered silk bordered in gold thread that lines the interiors of these cabinets. He also commissioned Joseph to make a commode and a pair of encoignures for the Marquis de Brunoy prior now at the Louvre (Ibid, p.238) which have the same distinctive mounts to the feet. Finally, Jean-Baptiste Le Brun (1748–1813) who was known for dealing in Boulle furniture commissioned a set of six bibliothèque basses from Levasseur circa 1785 for the Salle d’exposition of the hôtel Le Brun.
The exceptionally rare cream ground vernis martin panels on the exterior are clearly reused 18th century panels that were originally much larger and perhaps originally conceived to decorate a Chinoiserie cabinet or study. These panels would have been considered as precious as Boulle marquetry or Asian lacquer by the marchands-merciers and worth saving to be incorporated into a more fashionable form.
In contrast to the plentiful examples of meubles d’appui that employ Japanese or Chinese lacquer or vernis martin with dark grounds, related furniture with white lacquer or vernis martin are incredibly scarce. A closely related example is a suite of late Louis XV furniture comprising a pair of encoignures by Bernard Van Risenburgh (BVRB), and a commode made to match by Joseph. It is now in the Rothschild collection at the Villa Ephrussi (R. Vian des Rives ed., Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, Paris, 2002, pp.180-2). The pair of encoignures were in the Jacques Doucet collection (sold Galerie Georges Petit, Paris 7 June 1912, pl.322), of which the encoignure subsequently endured a 20th century version of ‘updating.’ The lacquer panels were removed and became the doors on a meuble d’appui which was sold anonymously at Sotheby’s London, 30 April 1965, lot 112. Other examples include:
--A Louis XVI commode attributed to Joseph in the Chinese Drawing Room at Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire.
--A pair of Louis XVI tulipwood armoires sold from the collection of Lady Baillie at Sotheby’s, London, 13 December 1974, lot 197; the panels appear to have come from the same source as the present meubles d’appui.
-- A pair of late Louis XV encoignures with white lacquer panels sold anonymously at Christie’s New York, 23 October 1998, lot 160.
Related examples with Asian lacquer include:
--A pair of meubles d’appui with Japanese lacquer panels by Etienne Levasseur formerly with Dalva Brothers, New York.
--A single meuble d’appui with Japanese lacquer panels by Philippe-Claude Montigny sold by Monsieur and Madame Marcel Boucher, Buenos Aires at Sotheby’s, London, 22 November 1963, lot 89.
--A pair of bas d’armoires incorporating Chinese cinnabar lacquer from the collection of the Earl of Iveagh, Elveden Hall, Norfolk; Christie’s House Sale, 21-24 May 1984, lot 527.
--A single cabinet by Joseph with Japanese lacquer panels in the John Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (79.DA.58).
Wellington actively collected during his years in Paris and assembled a collection typical of the great French connoisseurs of the Ancien Régime. He acquired precious hardstone objects from the sale of Cardinal Fesch’s collection in 1816, bronze busts of French monarchs as well as Dutch and Flemish paintings. However, Wellington’s purchases were not all entirely a static homage to the past. He also patronized the ébéniste Jacob Desmalter and a lit á polonaise purchased from him was installed in his bedroom at Apsley house and later reproduced in an 1853 lithograph depicting the interior (M. Aldrich, ‘A Setting for Boulle Furniture, The Duke of Wellington’s Gallery at Stratfield Saye,’ Apollo, June 1998, fig.13).
In addition to what is perhaps the largest group of Boulle furniture by Etienne Levasseur, including four bibliothèques basses and four pairs of meubles d’appui, as well as two pairs of pedestals which may be attributed to him, all of which decorated the celebrated Print Gallery at Stratfield Saye, Wellington also acquired these meubles d’appui, which are also illustrated at the end of the Gallery in the Connaissance Des Arts, November 1964 article. Together with a commode that was subsequently sold at Sotheby’s, London 11 July 1980, lot 186, they are the only pieces of case-furniture known to have left this otherwise intact collection.
The meubles d’appui were purchased by the Duke of Wellington’s agent, Ferréol de Bonnemaison (1766 – 1827). Originally a painter, he first worked with Wellington when he was engaged to restore four Raphaels seized from the Spanish Royal collection and Wellington then commissioned him to copy them for his personal collection before they were returned. At that point, Bonnemaison’s skills as an artist led to his role as an agent on the Duke’s behalf, purchasing Dutch and Flemish cabinet paintings. At the sale the collection of Madame Lerouge on 27 April 1818, the meubles d’appui appear under the heading ‘Meubles de Boule’, and lot 122 is described as ‘Deux très-jolis petits meubles, meme dimension, en laque, parfaitment conservés, montés en ébène et richement garnis de bronze doré, avec dessus en marbre vert de mer’ (reproduced here).
MADAME LE ROUGE
Madame Lerouge, née Barbe Françoise Bellanger (d.1818), was the second wife of the dealer Nicolas Lerouge (1752-1827). Active in the late 18th/ early 19th century, he specialized in Old Master paintings and Boulle marquetry furniture. The son of a laborer from the Champagne, Lerouge is recorded in 1773 as living in the rue de l'Arbre Sec where he had a thriving business. By the time he married his first wife, the widow of the leading dealer Pierre Lebrun, his assets were valued at 20,000 livres. Lerouge then set himself up as a négociant and receveur of the loterie royale de France in the rue de Cléry, not far from his stepson, Jean-Baptiste Lebrun. Lerouge’s first wife died in 1787 and he remarried in 1794 to Barbe Françoise at which time his stock had quadrupled in value to 81,000 livres. Lerouge later moved to the place des Victoires, and after the death of his second wife in 1818 he organized the sale of his stock and retired. In a neat twist of fate, his son Silex Quesnay-Lerouge married the daughter of Ferre´ol de Bonnemaison in 1819.
After they were purchased in the Lerouge auction, the meubles d’appui are subsequently recorded in the July 1818 shipping inventory by Bonnemaison when they were sent with other items bought by the Duke in Paris to be delivered to Stratfield Saye, the Duke’s estate in Hampshire. The cabinets were listed in case 25 ‘deux petits cabinets en laque blanc’ and the marble tops in case 24. Although the current tops are white marble, it’s possible that the original green tops remain at Stratfield Saye. Another closely related pair of meubles d’appui attributed to Levasseur purchased by the Duke of Wellington in Paris have green marble tops which at some point could have been exchanged (Ibid. fig. 7).