MARQUETRY FURNITURE BY CHRISTIAN MEYER FOR THE COURT OF CATHERINE THE GREAT
By Dr Tatyana Semenova and Dr Iraida Bott
The rediscovery of this exquisite pair of card-tables by Christian Meyer for the Imperial Winter Palace is an exciting chapter in the history of Russian decorative arts and a further addition to the oeuvre of Christian Meyer as well as the small group of items to have survived from the largely lost or dispersed furnishings of Catherine the Great's private apartments at the main Imperial residence in St Petersburg.
Despite the fact that the name of Christian Meyer is firmly established in the history of Russian marquetry furniture, his creative achievement and biography call for further study. Neither the dates of his birth nor death are known, or any details about his early training. Most probably of German origin, Christian Meyer arrived in St. Petersburg from Copenhagen on 28 June 1774 and shortly after received his first commissions from the court of Catherine II. Although never officially appointed court cabinet-maker, Meyer executed numerous orders from the various proprietors of the Russian Empire and practically served as court supplier for thirty years. With his role as cabinet-maker to the Empress, Meyer enjoyed the Empress' particular confidence and was entrusted to teach her beloved grandsons the noble craft of carpentry, as documented in a note written on 28 March 1784 by Catherine II to her Parisian confidant Baron von Grimm:
"I have composed great upbringing instructions for masters Alexander and Constantine.... Meanwhile the noble gentlemen are learning joinery under guidance of Mr. Meyer, a German joiner. They are sawing and planing for the greater part of the day. Learning joinery is an amusing way to bring up little tsars, is it not? Since master Alexander is no longer amused by toys, they have been replaced with joinery'.
Christian Meyer is rightly regarded as the best St. Petersburg cabinet-maker of the late 18th century. He was the only one who was called 'the Empress's' joiner and highly praised as the one who 'could be taken on trust'. His first commissions in 1784 were for the Empress' favourite A. D. Lansky, and included a door inlaid with precious woods as well as parquet flooring for his St. Petersburg house on Millionnaya Street. As a manufacturer of intricate floorings, Meyer's name also features in 1786 documents, having supplied parquetry for the Raphael Loggias in the Hermitage, commissioned by the Empress herself. Typical for 18th century Russian woodworkers Meyer was skilled in the laying of intricate parquet as well as the techniques of fine marquetry cutting for the decoration of furniture. Judging by the amount and the level of commissions, and, moreover, by his stock of expensive exotic woods, Meyer must have also sold to other masters. By 1793 Meyer had about 50 craftsmen working in his workshop, allowing him to produce such elaborate pieces for the court in such relative short time. It is therefore even more surprising that so few of Meyer's works are known.
While initially known for his fine joinery and in particular the exquisite parquet floors in contrasting timbers, Meyer appears to have turned to furniture making entirely following the success of David Roentgen's furniture deliveries to the court of Catherine the Great. It can hardly be a coincidence that he received his first payment for two cabinets just a year after the extensive delivery in 1784 from Roentgen's workshops in Neuwied. Building on his skills and experience in the cutting of inlay and marquetry, Meyer initially also decorated all his furniture in fine marquetry. Of the many pieces he produced for the Winter Palace only few survive, including a beautiful pair of corner cabinets decorated in such fine marquetry, delivered in 1786-87 and still preserved at the Imperial Hermitage.
Catherine II watched all new trends in European culture and considered the furnishing of the Winter Palace, the main imperial residence, an important matter of prestige for her personally and for Russia as a whole. Her private apartments contained a number of marquetry pieces, with various types of tables making up the biggest part. Archival information on the decoration is scarce, however, it is well documented that her apartments featured numerous card tables and the historian Alexander Uspensky describes a gathering with courtiers arriving to join the Empress for the various fashionable games and how numerous card tables were placed in the dining room, the small 'Bright Study' and the 'Diamond Chamber'.
Unfortunately, time was not kind to Catherine's private apartments at the Winter Palace. After her death, they underwent multiple renovations and were irretrievably lost to fire in 1837. The furniture of her personal rooms was deemed to have perished, although other parts of the palace's interiors had been rescued. The 18th-century furniture preserved in the St Petersburg museums and bearing Winter Palace inventory labels, would suggest that furniture from the Empress' apartments too could still exist.
The research linking the various tables to one workshop began with the study of a kidney-shaped table at the Hermitage. It had a table top decorated with floral design, featuring a basket of lilies, carnations and roses as its central piece. Apart from the splendidly crafted table top, it was notable for its unusual octagonal legs, with each facet alternatively veneered with light and dark woods and decorated with an inlaid husk ornament and brass. These characteristic legs were found in eleven more tables, four of which are today in the museums of St. Petersburg and the rest in private collections. Most of these are felt-top and either kidney-shaped or fold-over card tables. Apart from the similarity of legs, the tables also all feature marquetry tops. The tables' compositional and decorative elements clearly coincide: their tops feature beautiful designs with floral bouquets in the centre, surrounded with copious shoots evenly covering the rest of the space. A certain aridity of pattern is compensated with gracefulness of lines and freedom of filling the space; together they make a joyful impression resembling oriental carpets in their splendour and richness.
Within this group there are several card-tables which deserve particular attention. One of these is preserved at the Pavlovsk Palace museum, while other tables appeared at auction (Christie's London, 20 June 1985 and 22 June 1989, and Sotheby's London, 12 June 2002), and remain in private collections. The only known pair, the two tables presented here, are particularly interesting in that they bear the inventory label of the Winter Palace.
The identification as tables from the Winter Palace as well as the authorship of Christian Meyer is further underlined by the exciting discovery of a 14 May 1779 invoice signed and dated by Christian Meyer:
Ein paar reiche Lomber Tische mit (?) Bronze garniert und mit grünem Samet bezogen - - - 300. rubel
2 paar reiche Tische mit glatten Bronzen garniert und mit rothem Safian bezogen re = paar - 200. - 400.
1 paar Lomber Tische mit Bronzen garniert, und mit grünem feinem Leder bezogen - 120.
2 paar dito mit Bronzen - - 220.
Listing a total of six pairs of games tables, his invoice includes 'two pairs of rich tables with straight (or flatt?) Bronzes and covered with red Safian leather', which describes tables exactly like the two offered here.
The stylistic similarities between these tables, and in fact much of Meyer's marquetry furniture, and furniture made in England at this time lead to suggestions that the tables were conceived by one of the many foreigners who joined the court at the time. However, no notable English cabinet-maker appears to have been at the court at that time, nor is there any evidence that any significant consignment of furniture ever arrived in Russia from England. 'Anglomania' prevailed in Russian society in the 1770s and '80s, and the Empress's enchantment with Englishness was so great, it culminated in a major architectural project at Tsarskoye Selo.
Preserved at the Hermitage collection of engravings is an album of ornamental compositions Ornaments in the Etruscan and Grotesque Styles by Michael Angelo Pergolesi, known as one of the chief assistants to the Adam brothers. Pergolesi had been invited to work in London having made the acquaintance of Robert Adam in Italy and between 1777 and 1792 published two albums - Designs for Neoclassical Ornaments and Ornaments in the Etruscan and Grotesque Styles. Both served as manuals for cabinet-makers and marquetry-cutters as well as private clients and the sheets at the Hermitage, dating to 1777-82, are signed by the author. The ornaments in these engravings are remarkably fine and graceful and the designs are found strikingly closely translated into the fine marquetry of Christian Meyer. Not only random elements are echoed, but entire compositions. The borrowings from the English album by no means contradict the authorship of Meyer; rather, they are explained by Anglomania and the Empress' role in promoting it.
While it is not documented how or when these two tables left the Hermitage it is most likely that they were sold in one of the many auctions organised by the Soviet government in the 1920s or 30s and it is hugely exciting to see them return to the market.
Dr Iraida K. Bott is Deputy Director of Scientific Research at the Tsarskoye Selo State Museum, St. Petersburg, while Dr Tatiana Semenova is Curator of furniture at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.