These magnificent sarcophagus-shaped coffres en tombeau are almost certainly those delivered in 1688 by André-Charles Boulle to Henri-Jules de Bourbon, prince de Condé, on the occasion of the marriage of his daughter Marie-Thérèse to François-Louis de Bourbon, prince de Conti. This documentary evidence of such a fascinating royal provenance is underlined by the bands of fleur-de-lys ornamenting their concave friezes. Lavishly decorated with spectacular gilt-bronze mounts that seem to fuse seamlessly with the scrolling foliate pattern of the première and contre-partie marquetry in brass, pewter and tortoiseshell, these coffers are not only some of the most exquisite examples of André-Charles Boulle's genius but, together with their stands, form the only true pair of such sumptuously large-scaled coffers, of which only three other examples are known.
Henri III Jules de Bourbon-Condé (1643-1709) was the eldest son of Louis II de Bourbon, known as le Grand Condé, and his wife Claire Clémence de Maillé Brézé, a niece of Cardinal Richelieu. A prince du sang, with considerable wealth and grand residences, including the hôtel de Condé in Paris and the châteaux of Chantilly and Laversine, the prince de Condé was also a patron of Boulle. Inventories of 1709 surviving at the Archives Nationales (MC, ét. XCII/390, le 7 mai 1709, IAD du prince de Condé) record the magnificent decoration of these residences and list a number of pieces in Boulle marquetry. Payments recorded in the comptes privés du duc de Bourbon as well as those of other members of the family furthermore list several payments to Boulle, including the following, in 1685:
no159. Au sieur Boulle pour coffre de bois de noyer de Grenoble pour le carosse de SAS,
no341. Au sieur Boulle pour fourniture de coffres et caisses, 480L''.
The most intriguing entry, however, can be found in the Comptes de la Maison de Condé:
'7 août 1688. [paiement par le prince de Condé]: A Sieur Boule ébéniste de la somme de 1260 L pour deux coffres de toilettes de marqueterie qu'il a faits pour le service de SAS. Mademoiselle de Bourbon à l'occasion de son mariage avec Monseigneur le prince de Conti'; this almost certainly records the payment to Boulle for the present coffers.
It is interesting to note that the price for each coffer is identical (with a reduction of 10 to that charged by Boulle four years earlier for the Grand Dauphin's coffer (700 livres), which lends weight to the present identification.
This entry is followed by a payment to 'Sr Gravelli' of 236 livres for having the two coffers 'garni' (i.e. trimmed) in leather. As we will see below this further sets this pair apart from the other three known coffers of this scale and pattern.
Unfortunately after this mention no further reference to the coffers as a pair can be found in any of the inventories of the Conti family, nor in those of Marie-Thérèse's sister, the duchesse du Maine or their parents, the prince and princesse de Condé.
The only mention of Boulle coffers is found in the inventory of the prince de Condé in 1709, at the château d'Ecouen where 'un grand tombeau de marqueterie avec des bronzes dorés' is described and that same year another single coffer is described at the large Parisian hôtel particulier of the Contis:
'un coffre de toilette avec son pied en table, le tout d'ébène, et marqueterie de cuivre orné des ornements, serrure de cuivre doré d'or moulu, prisé 300 livres', while a later inventory describes the latter on a stand with doors: 'un coffre de toilette porté sur son pied en bas d'armoire à deux guichets fermant à clef de marqueterie de cuivre à fond d'écaille garni de moulure et ornement de bronze doré d'or moulu, 300 L'. Interestingly there is evidence on the present contre-partie stand that suggests that some very narrow doors could have at some point been fitted between the back scroll supports and the dado.
COFFERS BY ANDRÉ-CHARLES BOULLE
Arguably the greatest of all cabinet-makers, and certainly the most influential, André-Charles Boulle's pre-eminence has remained undiminished since 1672, when Colbert, First Minister to Louis XIV, recommended him to the King as 'le plus habile de Paris dans son métier.' The son of a maître menuisier en ébène, Jean Bolt, Boulle was already a maître by 1666, and was appointed Ebéniste, Ciseleur, Doreur et Sculpteur du Roi in 1672, enabling him to establish workshops in the Louvre and thus avoiding the strict regulation and control imposed by the guilds.
Whereas Louis XIV's first purchases from Boulle post-date 1700, Boulle found favour with both the Queen and the Grand Dauphin, receiving commissions from the Garde Meuble Royal from 1681. His work was also greatly admired by financiers, ministers, foreign plenipotentiaries and the rulers of Europe - including Pierre Crozat, dit 'le Riche', his nephew Louis-Antoine Crozat, Baron de Thiers, Cardinal Rohan, Philipe V of Spain as well as the Régent, duc d'Orléans, and of course the duc de Bourbon and prince de Condé.
Amongst those employed in Boulle's atelier was Jean Mariette, whose 'Nouveaux Deisseins de Meubles et Ouvrages de Bronze et de Marqueterie Inventés et gravés par André-Charles Boulle', published in 1707, depicts various prime examples of Boulle's work present at that date, which helped establish the extent of his oeuvre and includes a design for a sarcophagus-shaped coffer-on-stand decorated with marquetry and with scrolled supports, all features present on the Condé/Conti coffers.
The sarcophagus shape had not previously been used in French furniture in the 17th century and derives from Italian cassoni of the 16th and 17th century. It was the celebrated draughtsman Jean Bérain (1640-1711) who promoted this shape for commodes and bureaux and a drawing preserved in Stockholm features a design for a small bureau of such shape, while a painting of the duc de Chartres shows him seated at a concave and convex-shaped bureau. While Boulle might have just been inspired by Bérain it is possible that they collaborated on the designs for these coffers. Intriguingly, Bérain, just like Boulle, worked for both the Grand Dauphin and the prince de Condé and it is therefore not unlikely that the inspiration for Boulle's monumental sarcophagus coffers came from Bérain.
Boulle produced a variety of precious coffers, differing in both basic dimensions and overall shape. The sarcophagus shape of the present coffers is by far the rarest form and the pair of coffers bought by George Byng from Daval are exceptional in that they are a true pair. The coffer in première-partie marquetry on a tortoiseshell ground is the pendant to the example in contre-partie marquetry on a brass ground. Furthermore their première and contre-partie stands with scrolled supports headed by female masks were conceived specifically for them. Although both stands are clearly described in the Dubois sale of 1785, the première-partie stand was presumably lost after the fire at Wrotham in 1883. The present stand is a faithful copy of circa 1885.
The only other three sarcophagus-shaped coffers of this size, and whose secure attribution to Boulle has a long-established history, comprise the two celebrated examples in première-partie marquetry on a tortoiseshell ground and contre-partie marquetry on a brass ground from the Demidoff collection at the Palace of San Donato near Florence, acquired by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 1982. Not originally conceived as a pair, the Getty coffers were paired up after Julliot's sale in 1777. The third known example is that at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, originally sold by Lord Gwydir in 1828 and subsequently sold from Burghley House, Lincolnshire in 1888, which features contre-partie marquetry on a pewter ground.
The dimensions of all five coffers are identical, the only essential differences between them being that the upper lids of the Wrotham coffers are not domed and do not have the six distinctive channelled gilt-bronze bands, which when lifted reveal tiers of small drawers. Furthermore, the straight-legged stands à gaine of the Blenheim and Getty coffers differ from the scrolled-legged supports of the Wrotham coffers and appear to have been either associated together for a long time or to be dealer modifications of the late 18th century. Further differences lie in the interiors of the coffers, which in the Getty and Blenheim examples have been veneered or decorated with marquetry, while the Wrotham coffers had been lined in leather or fabric; as first documented by the entry in the comptes de Condé in 1688.
The royal provenance for one of the three coffres à bandes was discovered by Pierre Verlet in the inventory of the Grand Dauphin, son of Louis XIV, which refers to a delivery by Boulle in 1684 of a coffer at a cost of 700 livres. This discovery had further confirmed the dating of the three known sarcophagus-shaped coffers to the 1680s.
THE 18TH CENTURY PROVENANCE
References to such monumental coffers in 18th century inventories and sale catalogues are extremely rare and pairs even more exceptional, probably unique. Most of the sale references are to individual coffers with straight-legged stands like the Getty examples, which themselves where only 'paired up' at the end of the 18th century. However, there are two references to a pair of coffers, which can only refer to the present examples.
As such one can find in an anonymous sale in Paris on 12 March 1772:
'No20. Deux coffres en tombeaux, sur des pieds à quatre consoles contournées, avec entre-jambes & un dossier, le tout de belle & riche marqueterie de Boule, estimé à juste titre; ils sont garnis de bronze doré'
The copy of the sale catalogue in the Bibliothèque Doucet bears a manuscript inscription 'du cte Lauraguais', apparently indicating that these pieces were sold by Louis-Léon-Félicité de Brancas (1733 - 1824), the son of the duc de Lauraguais. However, there is no further evidence to substantiate this provenance. Sold for 1501 livres they reappeared thirteen years later in the sale of the marchand-bijoutier Antoine-Alexandre Dubois, where they were described more fully (despite the cataloguer's mistake in describing the marquetry of both as contre-partie).
'No210. Deux beaux coffres en tombeaux nommés toilette, de marqueterie contre-partie, fond d'écaille, cuivre & étain, ouvrant sur le dessus & formant le dôme, encadré de moulures, les angles à mascarons, la face & les côtés enrichis de masques & de consoles à volutes, placés chacun sur un pied à entablement à panneau de marqueterie, ouvrant à un tiroir garni de cadres & rinceaux, supporté par quatre consoles à figures de femme avec entre-jambes; le fond à panneau de marqueterie à encadrement, le tout en bronze doré. Hauteur 52 pouces [140.4 cm], largeur 34 pouces [92 cm]'
They were sold for the considerable sum of 7,409 livres. Trace of them is lost during the Napoleonic wars, but the thread is taken up again with George Byng's purchase of the coffers in 1816/1817 from Nicolas Daval. Daval, marchand de curiosités et antiquités, quai Malaquais, at the corner of rue Bonaparte, was one of the major dealers to whom the English flocked with enthusiasm when in Paris. Two other spectacular items of Boulle furniture which also went through Daval's hands were the magnificent bureau plat from the Wildenstein Collection (sold Christie's, London, 14 December 2005, lot 15) and a pendule acquired in 1819 by Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, Bt. (1754-1846) via F.-H.-G. Jacob-Desmalter for Uppark, Sussex (C. Rowell, 'French Furniture at Uppark', Furniture History Society Journal, vol. XLIII (2007), pp.281-83 and 292).
The coffers are beautifully made with typical French late 17th century construction with bodies made of pine edged with walnut. On the contre-partie coffer the main lid has been turned back to front, possibly to conceal a section of slightly more worn marquetry. The smaller upper lid, however, has been reverted back and therefore faces as it did originally.
The handles on the contre-partie coffer appear to have been added in the late 18th century to ease lifting and transport. It is possible that at that time the vase to the centre of the stretcher might have been added, probably replacing a domed patera. The slight difference in depth to the interiors can be explained by the insertion of an additional oak floor base in one of the coffers.
They each have broad meandering ormolu base mouldings which appear to have been cast from the same mould but have been cut and fitted slightly differently.
While most furniture was rescued from the disastrous fire that destroyed much of Wrotham in 1883, the première-partie stand could unfortunately not be saved and was subsequently re-constructed with mounts copied from the surviving contre-partie stand.