This magnificent secrétaire en armoire is a masterpiece by the celebrated ébéniste Bernard II van Risen Burgh, also known as BVRB. With its harmonious outline, precious decoration of antique Japanese Lacquer and finely-chased ormolu mounts it represents a moment of perfection in French mid-18th century decorative arts. It is also one of the rare items of French furniture whose uninterrupted history is known since its creation, having only changed hands once since the 18th Century.
MADAME DE POMPADOUR
Among the fabled collections of furniture and works of art amassed by Mme. de Pompadour, her collections of antique Japanese lacquer held a prominent position amongst her most prized and valuable possessions. Her educated connoisseur's eye and appreciation of precious and finely-worked surfaces were clearly drawn to the art of Japanese lacquer-workers and their astonishing accomplishments. She was also deeply interested in the history of these items, to which she accorded equal importance. This was clearly highly relevant to her when she purchased the celebrated Van Diemen box in 1753. This precious Japanese lacquer box was offered to Anton van Diemen, the Governor of the Dutch East India Company between 1636 and 1645, and was considered the most beautiful Japanese lacquer item known in Europe at the time (B. Rondot in X. Salmon ed., Madame de Pompadour et les Arts, Paris, 2002, p. 320).
In the inventory complied after her death around fifty Japanese boxes and coffers are listed. In addition, a large number of items of furniture are recorded decorated in Lacq or Ancien Lacq, referring to antique Japanese lacquer, including eight commodes, around ten encoignures, two writing-tables and various other smaller items of furniture. Most of these were at her main residence in Paris, the hôtel d'Evreux, now the palais de l'Elysées, but other items were recorded at Versailles and Saint-Ouen (Jean Cordey, Inventaire des biens de madame de Pompadour rédigé après son décès, Paris, 1939).
A key figure in Mme. de Pomadour's life as a collector was the celebrated marchand-mercier Lazare Duvaux, whose Livre-Journal complied between 1748 until his death in 1758 records her purchases, totaling 380,000 livres in ten years (T. Wolvesperges, Le Mobilier en Laque au XVIIIe Siècle, Paris, 1999, p. 365). One of the powerful innovative dealers active in Paris in the mid-18th century, Duvaux was behind the creation of many of the most extraordinary items of furniture and bronzes d'ameublement conceived in this period, including precious furniture mounted with lacquer and porcelain, and gilt-bronze objects and vases incorporating porcelain, marble and hard stones. He acted as a liaison between the different craftsmen, sourcing the precious materials, providing preparatory designs and supervising the creative process.
The most expensive purchase Mme. de Pompadour made from Duvaux was almost certainly the present secrétaire, which is listed on 19 February 1757 as:
- 2729. Un secrétaire en forme d'armoire à abattant, plaqué en ancient lacq, orné partout de bronze d'or moulu, les dedans plaques en bois de rose à fleurs, les cornets d'argent, garni en velours et l'armoire en étoffe, 5000 L. (L. Courajod, Livre-Journal de Lazare Duvaux, marchand-bijoutier ordinaire du Roy 1748-1758, Paris, 1873).
After the death of Mme. de Pompadour in April 1764, numerous sales of her collections took place, over the course of almost an entire year, and including most but not all of her possessions. This secrétaire is not listed in any of the Annonces, Affiches et Avis Divers advertising these sales and was probably negotiated privately to its new owner: Charles, 3rd Duke of Richmond, Lennox and d'Aubigny (1735-1806), the British Ambassador to France between October 1765 and May 1766. During his embassy in Paris, the duke acquired a spectacular set of Gobelins tapestries, seat-furniture by Louis Delanois and various items of ébénisterie. Horace Walpole's diaries for 1765-66 note several shopping trips that he went on with the Duke and Duchess of Richmond: 11 January 1766 - 'Went with Duke and Duchess of Richmond to shops'; 27 January 1766 - 'To shops with Richmond, and home with them while they dined'; 12 November 1765 - 'To manufacture of French china with Duke and Duchess of Richmond etc.', which refers to their visit to the factory at Sèvres, a passion they shared with the late Mme. de Pompadour (H. Walpole, Paris Journals, vol. VII, pp. 271, 294, 298). Mme. de Pompadour's Japanese lacquer secretaire by BVRB, however, was certainly his most important purchase. The secrétaire remained in France probably until the early 1770s. It was probably removed to Britain by 1772 - a letter from Lord Albemarle dated 30 June 1772 was found hidden inside the carcase during restoration carried out after the sale in 1993 - where it remained in the collections of the Dukes of Richmond and Gordon at Goodwood House until its sale in 1993.
SECRETAIRES BY BVRB
The only other secrétaire of this model by BVRB in Japanese lacquer - of an identical form and sharing most of ormolu mounts - is the extremely closely related secrétaire (now lacking its apron mount) in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle. Both the Riahi secrétaire and the Royal Collection secrétaire are discussed by X. Salmon, op. cit., p. 349-351. Supplied by the marchand Simon-Philippe Poirier (and bearing his trade label to a drawer) the Royal Collection secrétaire was acquired by the duchesse de Mazarin and was part of her collections at the hôtel de Seignelay until it was sold in her sale of 1781 (C. Faraggi, 'Le goût de la duchess de Mazarin', L'Estampille/L'Objet d'Art, January 1995, no. 287, p. 92). It was purchased by the marchand Lebrun but subsequently changed hands until it was acquired by the dealer Benoist for George IV in 1820. That Mme. de Pompadour's secrétaire was supplied by Duvaux, who was a contemporary rival of Poirier, whose label adorns that in the Royal Collection, proves almost categorically that Mme. de Pompadour's secrétaire and the Riahi secrétaire are one and the same.
A further example of this form decorated with Chinese lacquer was sold M. Baudoin, Paris, 14 June 1946, 107. Another example with Japanese lacquer panels is known to exist, but this is described as 'Louis XV-style' and only incorporating some old elements. The latter was sold Ader, Picard, Tajan, Paris, 11 November 1984, lot 78.
Besides the Riahi and Royal Collection secrétaires Japanese lacquer listed above, BVRB executed a larger series of exactly the same model decorated in floral marquetry, of which approximately ten examples are recorded. One of these was sold from the Riahi collection, Christie's, New York, 2 November 2000, lot 15; another, supplied to the Earl of Coventry in 1763 for the tapestry room at Croome Court, Worcestershire, was recently acquired by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco - Legion of Honor. This model appears to derive from the monumental marquetry secretaire by BVRB supplied in March 1755 by Lazare Duvaux for the King's use at the Trianon. This imposing piece consists of a glazed cabinet upper part surmounting a writing-section with a fall-front above a base section with doors. Standing almost three metres tall and extremely richly mounted, it is an overpowering piece intended to impress (P. Verlet, Le Mobilier Royal Français, vol. II, rev. ed., Paris, 1982, pp. 61-62, no. 8). Duvaux evolved this unique piece into a model of more human proportions, retaining the characteristic double-arched cresting but placing it above a very compact case of gently sinuous outline. The mounts edging the cresting and flanking the doors on the Trianon piece are repeated on the smaller series, but all the other mounts have been adapted to fit the smaller, more jewel-like dimensions. Mme. de Pompadour's lacquer secretaire is probably the first of the 'smaller' series to be executed, followed, in May 1758, by an example in floral marquetry, supplied by Duvaux for the King's use at the Château de St-Hubert.
BERNARD II VAN RISEN BURGH (BVRB)
Bernard II van Risen Burgh's illustrious career had started three decades prior to executing the 'Pompadour/Richmond' masterpiece. During every phase of his life, he executed small series of very luxurious and precious items of furniture, aimed at the wealthiest and most discerning clientele. He became master before 1730 and from the out-set of his career appears to have worked almost exclusively for the most illustrious marchands-mercier, initially collaborating regularly with Thomas-Joachim Hébert and other contemporaries, later working even more intensively with Lazare Duvaux. Furniture mounted with precious Japanese and Chinese lacquer was one of his main specialities, which he developed to full fruition as a young master in the early 1730s. The finest group of lacquer furniture by BVRB is the commission made for Karl Albrecht Elector of Bavaria in 1730-33, which is still in its original setting in the Residenz in Munich. The opulent lacquer pieces are the earliest items of furniture by BVRB decorated in this costly material, and arguably his greatest work executed in that decade (B. Langer, Die Mobel des Residenz Munchen, Munich, 1995, nos. 15-20). Royal patronage soon followed in France and in 1737 a Japanese black lacquer commode was supplied by Hébert for the cabinet de retraite of Queen Marie Leczinska at Fontainebleau, now in the Louvre (D. Alcouffe, Le Mobilier du Louvre, Dijon, 1993, vol. I, no. 42). The present secrétaire, and its companion piece in the Royal Collection, can thus be seen as a continuation of one of his main and most luxurious specialities, and of the Royal commissions he was granted throughout his life.
The Riahi secrétaire is indeed a chef d'oeuvre, and is truly a reflection of the spirit of the exhibition 'Louis XV, un moment de perfection de l'art français'.