Furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl is among the most intricate, precious and rare. This jewel-like German Rococo ormolu-mounted bureau de pente, applied all-over with plaques of opalescent mother-of-pearl combined with polychrome-painted silver foil, is part of a unique group of three pieces similarly decorated; the other two are small commodes. Probably made in South Germany in the mid-1750s by Franz Zeller (1697-1780), court cabinet-maker to the Electors of the Palatinate, celebrated for his skill in tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl marquetry, this distinctive group is the only furniture of this type and date known to have survived although a later mother-of-pearl encased secrétaire à cylindre was supplied by the Parisian ébéniste Jean-Henri Riesener (1734-1806) in 1786 for Marie-Antoinette’s boudoir at the chateau de Fontainebleau (1). The closest comparable within the group to this bureau de pente is a commode with virtually identical mounts known as the ‘Peacock feather commode’ because of its painted silver foil decoration and colouring. It was almost certainly acquired by William VIII, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel (1682-1760), for Schloss Wilhelmstahl in Calden, where it remains today. The present bureau de pente may have been purchased at the same time, and was probably intended to be en suite.
THE RELATED COMMODES FROM WILHELMSTAHL AND MANNHEIM
The ‘Peacock feather commode’ from Schloss Wilhelmstahl with near-identical mounts is dated circa 1755. It is recorded in the ‘Kabinett des Landgrafen’ at Wilhelmstahl in the 1788 inventory as: Eine Pariser Comode auf 4 Füssen ruhend, so durchaus mit Perlemot grünlicher Couleur in zinnern Einfass in Form von Pfauen Federn eingelegt, mit zwey Schubladen versehen, messing vergoldeten Beschlägen und reichen Zierrathen von dergl. Laubwerck und Blumen ornirt, worauf eine bläulich marmorne Platte [A Parisian commode on four legs, with mother-of-pearl and green painted peacock feathers inlay, with two drawers, ormolu foliate and floral mounts surmounted by a bluish marble top] (2). Interestingly, this commode is immediately followed in the inventory by a green-painted writing-desk with ormolu mounts, and feasibly this rather sparse entry is describing the present bureau de pente: Ein grün angestrichener Schreibtisch mit vergoldeten Leisten, auf 4 geschweiften Füssen mit drey Schubladen und messingen vergoldeten faconnirten Beschlag, oben auf dem Blatt mit schwarzen Leder bezogen. Auf diesem Schreibtisch ein dergl. Aufsatz zu Schreibmaterialien und Büchern mit drey Schubladen [A green painted writing-desk with three drawers (the third drawer probably referring to the drop down top) and gilt mounts, on four cabriole legs, the hinged writing surface lined with black leather. On the writing-desk a configuration for stationary and books] (3). In 1926, the commode was illustrated still in situ in the ‘Kabinett’ at Wilhelmstahl although no green-painted writing-desk is shown, suggesting that by this date it had left the collection (4).
The Wilhelmstahl commode is similarly applied with mother-of-pearl plaques but these are combined with painted peacock feathers on silver foil in shades of blue and green, and it has a Bardiglio Bleu Fleuris marble top, a marble considered rare and highly prized for its delicate veining. Its dimensions (excluding the top) are 34 1/3 in. (87.3 cm.) high by 37 in. (94 cm.) wide by 19 2/3 in. (50 cm. deep). The individual decorative style and the close similarity of the mounts suggest it was made by the same maker or workshop as this bureau de pente. It seems likely these two pieces were intended to be an ensemble. This would have been particularly effective given the stylistic relationship between the two; the mother-of-pearl and the green-painted foil decoration of the present bureau de pente depicting dense and naturalistic foliage – perhaps a theatrical foil to the ‘Peacock feather commode’. The commode, and possibly this bureau de pente, were probably acquired by William VIII, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel (1682-1760) in the mid-1750s for Schloss Wilhelmstahl, designed by François de Cuvilliés (1695-1768), architect to the Elector of Bavaria. Johann August Nahl the Elder (1710–1781), ornemeniste, sculptor and stucco worker, the son of Johann Samuel Nahl, court sculptor to Frederick I of Prussia, was engaged to design a series of opulent Rococo interiors, which included furniture, between 1747 and 1761, for the Landgrave’s maison de plaisance, Schloss Wilhelmstahl (5). Each room in the princely appartments was individually decorated with Rococo painted and gilded rocaille paneling, plasterwork and rich silk hangings, and furnished with the finest Rococo furniture, all conceived in relation to each other - the carving found on the chairs and settees matching the stuccoes in what is now called the ‘Frederician Rococo’ – possibly further evidence that the Wilhelmstahl commode and the present bureau de pente were ensuite. The interiors of Wilhemstahl and its furniture are largely intact today, and undoubtedly one of the most prized items in the collection is the mother-of-pearl commode.
The second commode in the group was formerly at the magnificent Mannheim Palace in Baden-Württemberg, where it is recorded in the 1804 and 1835 inventories (6). The cabinet-maker Franz Zeller to whom this commode (and the present bureau de pente and Wilhelmstahl commode) is attributed was court cabinet-maker to Karl Philipp III (d. 1742), and his successor, Carl Theodor (1724-99), Prince Electors of the Palatinate. Carl Theodor was responsible for a period of cultural development in the region, which saw many craftsmen and artists like the cabinet-making Zeller family setting up workshops in Mannheim, Heidelberg and Frankenthal. These craftsmen sought to emulate the fine craftsmanship found at other European courts, especially France, but with an individual quality that distinguished their work as from the region; this may explain why furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl and polychrome silver-foil was created.
In 1730, Franz Zeller, was entrusted with the refurbishment of the new apartments and parquetry floors in the Mannheim Palace, submitting two designs in the typical Rococo idiom for presentation to the Elector; these survive in the State Archives, Karlsruhe; he was also working for the Elector at Schwetzingen (7). It was possibly in this period that he was sent by the court to Naples, a centre for piqué work, where he became so adept in the craft of inlaying tortoiseshell with mother-of-pearl, gold and silver, that the architect, Johann Friedrich von Uffenbach, travelled to Mannheim to study his work. In 1750, Carl Theodor ordered the construction of an eastern wing for the palace to house his art and scientific collections, the treasury, the library and archive. Between 1750 and 1756, Zeller was commissioned to furnish the library, which included bookcases, a marquetry table top and the parquetry floor, considered one of his greatest achievements (8).
Zeller’s renowned skill in tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl inlay, together with the existence of the commode at Mannheim where he was court cabinet-maker, has led to the credible proposal that Zeller was the maker of all three pieces of mother-of-pearl furniture in the group including the present bureau de pente. The Mannheim commode measures 32 ¼ in. (82 cm.) high by 28 ¼ in. (72 cm.) wide by 22 in. (56 cm.) deep. Its ornamentation differs from the other two examples; the silver foil is painted in hues of pink and purple perhaps to emulate exotic flowers, and the mounts are not the same, suggesting it was probably a separate commission but undoubtedly by the same maker or workshop.
MOTHER-OF-PEARL: A GERMAN TRADITION
The German tradition of incorporating mother-of-pearl inlay in cabinet-making dates to the late 17th century in the production of clock-cases for so-called Prunkuhr, large and elaborate timepieces made for show (an example of a Prunkuhr, with mother-of-pearl inlay, circa 1725-30, sold Christie’s, London, 5 July 2007, lot 40, £311,200 inc. premium), table cabinets and writing-desks. Inlay in mother-of-pearl, horn laid on a coloured ground, and brass was typical of Augsburg; similar marquetry is found on a table and two candlestands from the collection of the Earls of Malmesbury, now in the Badisches Landesmuseum in Karlsruhe (9), on a comparable set at Waddesdon Manor, previously in the Demidoff collection (10), and on a table at Pommersfelden (11). A number of pieces of furniture veneered with tortoiseshell and inlaid with pewter, copper, brass and mother-of-pearl, collectively known as ‘Boulle’, are in various German museums. Kreisel illustrates a writing table made for the Elector Max Emanuel of Bavaria once in Schloss Schleissheim and now in the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, and a cabinet in the Museum des Kunsthandwerks, Leipzig (12).
THE ROTHSCHILD PROVENANCE
This secretaire was formerly in the collection of Alphonse de Rothschild (1827-1905), the grandson of Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812), founder of the Rothschild banking dynasty. Alphonse's father was James (1792-1868), the first prolific art collector in the family, who assembed a suberb collection of paintings and works of art that he displayed in his château de Ferrières (13). Alphonse not only inherited his father’s collection but also his enthusiasm for collecting, in particular Rubens, Rembrandt and Franz Hals. He married his cousin, Leonora, in 1857, the much-loved daughter of Lionel de Rothschild, who in a case of serendipity was the former owner of the Vizagapatam chairs offered in this sale as lot 120.
Stranger still is a much earlier connection between the Rothschild family and the Landgraves of Hesse-Kassel. As suggested above, this secretaire was possibly commissioned at the same time as the commode at Wilhelmstahl by Wilhelm VIII, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel (14). From circa 1771, Wilhelm, the Prince of Hesse and Hanau (1743-1821), the grandson of Wilhelm VIII, was a client of Mayer Amschel Rothschild; Rothschild acted as a financier to the prince, and continued to thrive in this lucrative position when the prince succeeded in 1785 as Wilhelm IX, inheriting one of the largest fortunes in Europe. In 1803, Wilhelm was created Prince-Elector of Hesse, but in 1806, his electorate was annexed by the Kingdom of Westphalia, ruled by Jérôme Bonaparte, Napoleon's brother. William escaped to Denmark with his family and lived there in exile until the French were expelled from Germany. During the Napoleonic wars, Wilhelm used the Frankfurt Rothschilds to hide his great wealth and for loans – is it possible that in this period of upheaval, Wilhelm, heavily reliant on Mayer Amschel for money, gave the present secretaire to him as some form of collateral?
(1) Museum no. V3582.
(2) F. Bleibaum, Schloß Wilhelmstal: Die Bau- und Kunstdenkmäler im Regierungsbezirk Cassel…, Kassel, 1926, p. 62; By 1964, the commode had been moved to the so-called Gallery of Beauties, which houses a series of portraits depicting ladies of the court of Wilhelm VIII that still grace the two anterooms of the Landgrave's apartment (W. Both, H. Vogel, Landgraf Wilhelm VIII von Hessen-Kassel, Marburg, 1964, Plate 9).
(4) Ibid., figs. 42, 66.
(5) Nahl is also known for his designs for the interiors and furniture for the Palais Rohan, Strasbourg (1735), and from 1741, as Directeur des ornements to Frederick the Great (1712-1786), at Schloss Charlottenbourg, and the Potsdam Stadtschloss, and between 1745 and 1747, at Sanssouci.
(6) After January 1860, it was transferred to the treasury at Karlsruhe in South-West Germany together with other furnishings from the princely apartments, and in 1873, was sent to the Karlsruhe Palace; it is now in private hands.
(7) Inv. Nr. 213/80, 8.7.1756.
(8) An example of one of his parquetry floors, made of oak, maple, walnut, cherrywood, and mahogany, still exists in the Schwetzingen Castle in Baden-Württemberg; this floor was seemingly based on floors at Mannheim (R. Stratmann-Dohler, W. Wiese, Mobel fur den Furstenhof, Karlsruhe, 1994, pp. 104-105).
(9) R. Stratmann, 'Eine Garnitur Augsburger Prunkmöbel des frühen 18. Jahrhunderts', Jahrbuch der Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen in Baden-Württemberg, 12, 1975, pp. 157-170.
(10) G. de Bellaigue, The James A. de Rothschild collection at Waddesdon Manor, Furniture, Clocks and Gilt Bronzes, Fribourg, 1974, nos. 114-115.
(11) H. Kreisel, Die Kunst des deutschen Möbels: Spätbarock und Rokoko, vol. II, Munich, 1970, figs. 315-316.
(12) Ibid., figs. 318-22.
(13) C. Collard, M. Aspey (2012-13), Les Rothschild en France au XIXe Siecle (exhibition catalogue), exhibited at the BNF, 20 November 2012-10 February 2013, pp. 36-37, 137.
(14) A. Elon, Founder: Meyer Amschel Rothschild and his Time, London, 1996, pp. 84-103.