The fashion for 'French' style furniture veneered with Oriental lacquer re-used from imported Oriental screens was introduced in the 1750s by cabinet-makers such as Thomas Chippendale and Pierre Langlois. This elegant ormolu-enriched commode reflects the exotic style of bedroom-apartment furnishings of the mid-1760s. While its garden-pavilioned landscapes corresponded with contemporary Chinese-papered rooms, its glossy black surface also harmonised with 'Etruscan' apartments enriched with Wedgwood Etruria-ware, also fashionable at that time.
Stylistically, the commode relates most closely to the documented oeuvre of Pierre Langlois (d.1765) of Tottenham Court Road. The use of lacquer panels within a japanned carcass of serpentine outline is characteristic of Langlois' work and Lucy Wood identifies a recognizable group of similar design, including a pair formerly at Uppark Park, Sussex which feature the same chrysanthemum-flowered chinoiserie borders and similarly scalloped skirt (see L. Wood, Catalogue of Commodes, 1994, p. 77, figs. 62-63). Further commmodes from this group include a pair in coromandel lacquer almost certainly supplied to Francis Seymour, 1st Marquess of Hertford for Ragley Hall, Warwickshire and sold at Christie's London, 4 July 1996, lot 300 (£308,000) and another formerly in the collection of the Dukes of Newcastle, Clumber, Northumberland, which was sold by the Marquess of Cholmondeley, Christie's, London, 29 March 1984, lot 105.
The commode further relates to the marble-topped pier-table-commodes supplied by Langlois in 1763 for the Gallery in Horace Walpole's Thames-side villa, Strawberry Hill. One of the commodes and a matching 'coin' (corner cabinet) is visible in a drawing of the Gallery by Thomas and Paul Sandby (reproduced in C. Wainwright, The Romantic Interior, New Haven and London, 1989, p. 105, fig. 85).
The commode's pilasters terminate in Roman acanthus issuing from whorled volutes in the French fashion much favoured by Langlois. The trifurcated feet mounts appear on other documented pieces such as the commodes he supplied to Sir Lawrence Dundas, Bt. and later sold by the Marquess of Zetland, Christie's, London, 3 July 1997, lot 102. These mounts, which are attributed to the emigrè specialist bronze-caster and gilder Peter Dominique Jean, strengthen an attribution to Langlois.
A very similar commode was sold anonymously, Christie's, London, 19 November 1987, lot 86.
THE PROCESS OF USING ORIENTAL LACQUER AS A VENEER
The following is a translation taken from Andri-Jacob Roubo's L'Art du Menuisier Ebéniste, Paris, 1772, pp. 1020-1021, describing the use of Oriental lacquer as a veneer. Roubo (d. 1791) was a menuisier- ébéniste and writer working in Paris in the latter half of the 18th Century:
'The lacquer panels ordinarily used by French ébénistes are taken from Chinese or Japanese cabinets or screens, whose panels or leaves are generally decorated on both sides, and separated through the middle in order to be suitably thin- (by being reduced with a plane) for use as veneer or general cabinet-work. Precautions have to be taken both while cutting the leaves and reducing the depth to prevent splitting or cracking the varnish; so they must be protected by cushions or woollen blankets while cutting in the vice. And the same care must be taken while planing the back; which requires placing them on the work-surface in a doubled over blanket, so that the irregular surface of the lacquer caused by the floral pattern or other ornaments is protected.
While reducing the thickness of the wood behind the Chinese lacquer or varnish, it is necessary to retain a certain thickness to prevent cracking; and when placing the lacquer veneer on the ground, it is necessary to heat both the lacquer and the ground, and protect the lacquer with blankets on which one places cushions or wooden wedges with 'goberges' or gluing - clamps as necessary; but never use 'valets', in case while fixing them by hitting the varnish would be damaged or split.
As far as possible, the joints of the lacquered works are to be surrounded by brass mounts or borders because, even with the precautions taken in cutting the lacquer leaves, it is almost impossible not to cause certain splits - which causes the joints to appear and looks unattractive.
In addition, even when one cuts the lacquer as cleanly as possible, the unmounted edges will soon get damaged, which always look bad.
The French imitation of Chinese varnish - as far as it has been possible until the present time - produces a more stable work than those veneered with lacquer. In the latter case, in other words when varnishing (japanning) furniture, it is necessary to construct the ground work with good quality and well-seasoned timber and with as much strength as possible, such as I have indicated in the course of their publication.'