This spectacular bureau is the pre-eminent example of a small group of Russian pieces of case furniture veneered in carved walrus ivory. It is distinguished through an exceptional sculptural quality of its relief panels and the fine detail of the elegant neoclassical green and red-stained engraved decoration.
HISTORY OF THE BUREAU:
Though no definitive mention of this bureau can be found in the Imperial archives of the 18th or 19th centuries, the remarkable craftsmanship of its carved ivory decoration, the use of the Imperial double-headed eagle reserved only for a reigning monarch and the Imperial portraits themselves all point to an important Imperial commission.
The attribution to the specialist ivory carver Osip Christophorovich Dudin is based upon evidence that he was the only master from whom Empress Catherine the Great had ever ordered such pieces. The Russian National Archives contain a bill paid to Master Dudin in February of 1777: To the carver Dudin for purchased ivory carved objects 1 493 roubles (RGEA,f. 468, op. 1, d. 3892, l. 43). This represents the largest sum recorded to have been paid this craftsman by Catherine the Great and very probably includes the present bureau. The attribution is further confirmed not only by the superb quality of the workmanship and finely modeled portraits for which Dudin was renowned but also by the rocaille scrolls surrounding the portraits and the use of colored foil under the carvings all of which are characteristics of his work.
The portraits themselves depicting Russian Emperors from Peter the Great to Catherine the Great as well as that of the Grand Duke Paul and his second wife Maria Feodorovna further underlines the importance of the present bureau as an Imperial commission.
The dating of this bureau to 1777 is deduced from the portrait of Grand Duke Paul, later Paul I which was executed in 1776 at the time of his second marriage to Maria Feodorovna. However, it would most certainly have been completed not later than the fall of 1777 when the future Czar Alexander I was born and whose portrait would most likely also have been included.
The fact that the meticulously kept Imperial inventories did not record such an important piece would suggest that it was intended as an important gift from Catherine the Great to someone within the country or more likely as a diplomatic gift to another monarch and probably already left Russia in the eighteenth century only to be rediscovered at the present time.
THE IVORY PLAQUES
The bureau is embelished with 36 carved ivory plaques. Eight of these are portraits of all the Russian Emperors and Empresses of the eighteenth century. The top depicts: Peter the Great, his consort and later Empress Catherine I, Peter II and Empress Elizabeth; on the fall-front: Catherine the Great, Grand Duke Paul, later Paul I and his future consort Maria Feodorovna, and Empress Anna. (The chronological order was probably disturbed during an earlier restoration.) These portraits were copied directly from images that appeared on medals issued at the time.
Peter the Great's portrait was taken from a medal celebrating the Poltavskaya battle of June 23rd, 1709 (struck by Solomon Guen (worked in Russia 1701-1711) and Godfried Haupt (worked in Russia 1703-1709). The portrait of Catherine I was issued by the Moscow Medal Yard. The image of Peter II was taken from the medal commemorating his coronation in 1728 (struck by Anton Schultz). The portrait of Empress Anna was inspired by a portrait on a medal struck in her honor in 1726 entitled "she is great in peace and in war"(issued by Karl Gedlinger, 1691-1771). The portrait of Empress Elizabeth was taken from a medal issued for her in 1762 (struck by Johann George Vehter,1726-1800). The portrait of Catherine the Great was inspired by the reverse of a medal struck to commemorate peace with Turkey of 1774 (struck by Johann Kaspar Yeger, died after 1790, and Johann Balthasar Gass, 1730-1813). This could perhaps serve as a clue as to the intention of this bureau as it may have been ordered as a gift to celebrate this historic event. The portrait of Grand Duke Paul was taken from a medal in honor of his second wedding in 1776 (struck by Johann Kaspar Yeger and Johann Georg Vehter). The portrait of Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna was taken from the reverse of the same medal.
The plaque on the right of the double-headed eagle depicting a ship was inspired by the medal commemorating peace made with Turkey in 1774.
The third row of plaques on the front depict country scenes possibly borrowed from Dutch engravings of the 17th century. The bottom row of plaques illustrate Russian fables. Two of these depict the fable "the bull did not wish to be a bull and became a butcher." (illustrated in Russian Folk Pictures 17th to 19th centuries, Leningrad, 1774, fig. 48.). Several of the plaques reinterpret a series of folklore paintings by the Dutch artist Paulus Potter (Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg). They illustrate such moral tales as "the donkey shaved the peasant's beard but out of carelessness smashed his head with a hoof". One of the plaques also depicts "the great battle of the Macedonian Czar Alexander with the Indian Czar Porom" (taken from an early 18th century egraving, illustrated in U. Ovsyanikov, Lubok. Russian Folk Pictures XVII-XVIII, Moscow, 1968, fig. 24). Another plaque illustrating two riders is taken from a fragment of a picture by A.F. Zubov celebrating the "triumphal entry of the Russian forces into Moscow after the Poltavskaya victory on December 21st, 1709". The side plaques depict various hunting scenes, also probably inspired by earlier paintings.
IVORY CARVING IN RUSSIA
Carving from walrus and mamonth ivory has had a long tradition within popular Russian folk art since the middle ages, originating in the northern regions but enjoying greater popularity in the second half of the eighteenth century. Several production centers of ivory carving were well known at the time. These included Holmogory, Archangelsk, Moscow and St. Petersburg. In the second half of the eighteenth century the best craftsmen migrated to St. Petersburg to practice their skills. They mostly produced small items such as caskets, work-boxes, toilet boxes, and combs. The wealthier clientele also commissioned miniature cabinets, toilet tables and bureau cabinets. Understandably the most costly objects were furniture items veneered with delicately carved plaques. The Czars long patronized this specifically Russian craft and numerous smaller pieces are still to be found in Russian museums and Imperial residences.
The most famous master of ivory carving was Osip Christophorovich Dudin (1714-1780). Dudin originated from Holmogory, where his father was the most educated man in the village owning a very large library which was used by the great Russian scientist M.V. Lomonosov and undoubtedly where Osip Dudin derived most of his own literary sources. Dudin came to St. Petersburg in 1757 where his advertisement proclaimed as "a master of ivory carving, Osip Dudin makes various ivory items, such as: chess pieces, stamps, tabacco boxes, knife handles, jewelry boxes, work boxes, cabinets made from various woods, canes, violin bows, etc." Dudin's refined and exquisitely carved portraits singled him out as the undisputed master of carved objects in the second half of the eighteenth century. The Imperial records underline his valuable skills by the great sums paid for his objects which were often costlier than jewelry and silver.
Only very few furniture pieces veneered with carved ivory plaques are known to have survived to the present day. Three of these are presently in Russian museum collections. These include a bureau cabinet dated to the mid-18th century with miniatures after the Old and New Testaments (State Russian Museum); another bureau cabinet of the mid-18th century with allegorical scenes (State Russian Museum); a bureau cabinet of the second half of the 18th century with portraits of the Russian Czars and Emperors from Rurik to Alexander I (Tzarskoe Selo, Catherine Palace, illustrated in Palaces of Lenigrad, Leningrad, 1973, fig. 86.); and another pair of bureaux was sold in these Rooms on 14 November 1985, lot 198.