Of bold and audacious design, this remarkable gueridon stands among the finest examples of Russian decorative arts produced at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. Conceived as part of a larger furniture ensemble composed of a monumental Psyche mirror and a pair of matching tripod tables, it was commissioned in 1803 by Tsar Alexander I (1777-1825) as a gift to the king and queen of Prussia, who placed it at their royal palace at Unter den Linden, Berlin. As a diplomatic gift, the gueridon was intended to demonstrate the prowess of Russian design and execution, and illustrate specifically Russian features and materials.
The history of this remarkable piece of furniture is particularly well-documented thanks to the comprehensive research conducted by Burhardt Groes, published in Apollo Magazine in 1992 (as noted in the literature). Notably, we know that the table was designed by the architect Andrej Voronikin (1759-1814), and that the malachite work was most probably carried out at the Imperial lapidary workshops at Peterhof. Interestingly, he received a ring from the Tsar for his extraordinary and innovative design.
A DIPLOMATIC GIFT
In June 1802, Tsar Alexander I met King Friedrich Wilhelm III (1770-1840) and Queen Louise of Prussia (1776-1810) for the first time in the city of Memel (modern-day Klaipeda, Lithuania). On his return to Saint Petersburg, the Tsar ordered his vice-chancellor to arrange for gifts for the Prussian Queen, a celebrated beauty. This imaginative gueridon, along with its pair (sold Christie's, Paris, 4-5 May 2011, lot 510) and a full-length Psyche mirror, were part of this Imperial offering, which marked the beginning of a long friendship that endured the military and political pressures of the Napoleonic period. The mirror and the accompanying tables were presented to the Royal couple on 12th October 1803, and were installed in the King’s study in the Koniglichen Palais, Unter den Linden, in the Prussian capital. Although the palace no longer exists, a watercolour of 1861 by Leopold Zielke shows the two tables in place standing before the mirror (illustrated).
The daring design for the table was executed by the Russian architect Andrej Voronikin. A serf of Graf Count Alexander Sergejevitch Stroganov, Voronikin gained his freedom in 1786 and later travelled widely with his former master (who was rumored to be his father) across Europe, spending the years 1789-90 in Paris expanding his formal vocabulary. Despite his new-gained freedom, Voronikin remained very close to the Stroganov family, and was quickly elevated to the position of personal architect to the count. In this capacity, he redesigned the interior of the Stroganov Palace, the family country house and the castle of Gorodiné. His virtuosity together with the influence of the Stroganov’s – one of Russia’s most progressive and influential families, in both political and artistic matters – enabled him to enter the Academy of Fine Arts, where he taught from 1802. As such, the command of the present gueridon came at the height of Voronikin’s career. Three years later, he was commissioned what would become his most emblematic work, the reconstruction of Kazan Cathedral, one of whose facades still bears his name today.
Voronikin's style is characterized by the simplicity and strength of his creations, always achieved through his inventiveness and use of the most advanced architectural techniques, as can be appreciated in the present gueridon. The boldly splayed and delicate legs are at the limit of their load-bearing capacity; their slenderness accentuated by the contrast with the heavy malachite top. The whimsical patinated bronze bat wings play more than a decorative role, adding additional support to the superb top by distributing the weight more evenly down the legs. It was this creative genius and inventiveness that cemented Voronikin’s status as the foremost representative of the Russian neoclassical style.
In 1975, two designs were identified with this important commission. One of the drawings, which depicts the side-view of the present tripod table and its accompanying Psyche mirror, bears Voronikin’s monagram and is dated 19 January 1803 (illustrated). Invoices show that no expense was spared for this foremost royal command, for which the Imperial purse paid out a grand total of 13,244 roubles and 84 ½ kopecks.
Despite being a state present designed to exalt Russian savoire-faire, it was probably the German-born cabinet-maker Heinrich Gambs (1765-1831), who carried out Voronikin’s daring design. Gambs began his career in Germany under David Roentgen, but later moved to Russia where he set up a furniture factory after his teacher’s highly successful model. His pieces were initially clearly inspired by Roentgen's work, but he soon developed his own highly precious style, known for its elegant shapes and intricate ormolu mounts, of which the present table is an excellent example. By 1793, Gambs was a leading figure amongst the cabinet-makers of St. Petersburg, and a particular favorite of Empress Maria Feodorovna, whose patronage enabled him to become the principle supplier for the Imperial residences of Pavlosk, Tsarkoe Selo, and the Winter Palace. Gambs’ relationship with Voronikhin was well-established by the time of the commission of the present gueridon, having closely collaborated in the redecoration of Pavlovsk following the great fire of 1803.
Gambs had one section of his workshop devoted solely to the casting and gilding of bronze, distinguishing him from many of his contemporaries. These exacting standards enabled him to produce pieces such as the present gueridon, where gilt-bronze and mahogany – his timber of choice – were perfectly integrated into a harmonious whole. However, the sculptural quality of the idiosyncratic female masks issuing batwings (a characteristically Russian feature), suggest a more specialized manufactory. Their production was most likely outsourced to one of the leading bronze workshops in St. Petersburg, such as that of Pierre Agis, Karl Dreier, or Friedrich Bergenfeldt, a fellow German and close collaborator of Voronikhin. The high quality and finesse of their production was in large part the result of the Russian embargo on French gilt-bronzes, which promoted an indigenous efflorescence in the craft.
The choice of lustrous verdant malachite for the circular top of the gueridon would have been deemed particularly fitting for a state present given the inherent association of this unique stone, mined in the heart of the Ural Mountains, with the Imperial nation. The Russian vogue for stone-cutting led to the creation of some of the most unique and striking furniture and objets d'art of the late 18th century, particularly those embellished with malachite, which were cherished and collected across the continent. A stalagmitic form of copper carbonate, the malachite used for the table top was sawn into very thin veneers and then applied to a stone ground, the veins being laid to form pleasing patterns before being highly polished to create the illusion of a single piece. This laborious process was almost certainly carried out in the Imperial lapidiary workshop at Peterhof near St. Petersburg, Russia’s oldest and most important stone-cutting factory, founded in 1721 by an edict of Peter the Great.