‘A Closer Look’ at 18th Century French Furniture

Waddesdon Manor, former Rothschild residence, has an amazingly comprehensive collection of eighteenth century French fine and decorative arts. Throughout the course of the nineteenth century, Edmond and Ferdinand developed immensely lavish residences in which to display their. Today, Waddesdon Manor contains some impeccable examples of French furniture which they are highlighting in their current exhibition, “A Closer Look: Spotlight on French Royal Furniture by Jean-Henri Riesener (1734-1806)”. Described as “perhaps the most celebrated cabinetmaker of the 18th century” and a favourite of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, his work is undoubtedly magnificent. The exhibition is a fantastic tribute to Riesener’s craftsmanship and French furniture design in general.

Over the course of eighteenth century, France was perhaps the dominant force in defining taste and style throughout Europe, rendering French furniture extremely desirable. The combination of fashionable styles and impeccable artistry meant that French craftsmanship reigned supreme.

Charles Cressent was one of the most highly revered masters within the Régence and early rococo periods. His work was characterized by plain veneered, bombé commodes lavished in highly sculptural and decorative ormolu mounts resulting in almost a total loss of form and function in favour of the curvaciousness and movement of the gilt bronze. Many of these features are beautifully demonstrated by the commode pictured, c. 1730, found at Waddesdon Manor.

Jean-François Oeben, one of the chief cabinetmaker’s to Louis XV, was a proponent of later rococo and the Greek styles of the mid-eighteenth century. He was famed by his ingenious mechanical examples, where hidden drawers and chambers are revealed to only those who know the secrets of these masterpieces. Oeben’s furniture maintains a sense of the rococo: the cabriole leg is still present, as is a curvature of the of the sides of many cabinets and commodes yet the design is overall remarkably more ordered, controlled and rational as floral marquetry tends to take precedence over the ormolu. The image featured, of one of Oeben’s writing/toilette tables c. 1750 from the Getty Museum, demonstrates this evolution of French style.

Riesener’s period of eminence comes after Oeben, and is characteristically neo-classical. This is visible from the use of decorative motifs such as running guilloche, egg and dart in addition to fluted, tapered legs. We can see this from the example above, dated c. 1780-85, also from Waddesdon Manor. As mentioned previously, and highlighted throughout Waddesdon’s exhibition, Riesener’s close connection to Louix XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette renders his work not only of decorative interest, but also historic, as examples of the opulence ultimately leading to Revolution.

In post-revolutionary France, the Empire style championed by Napoleon is exemplified by the furniture of Bellangé. The drawing pictured, depicts a set of designs by the craftsman c. 1800 and demonstrates the transition to heavier furniture using darker woods and a mixture of decorative motifs taken from a mixture of ancient cultures such as classical and Egyptian. The furniture is, on the whole, considerably more immobile and has a weight of grandeur and dominance that the lighter neoclassical examples simply did not possess.

One of the desirable features of French furniture is that it is commonly stamped thanks to the Parisian guild systems in place. Statutes introduced in the seventeenth century enforced the stamping of furniture, ensuring that works been produced by registered ‘masters’ and their workshops. This helped to maintain quality control in addition to self-preservation and distinction of the guilds. The guild regulations were very strict – Charles Cressent was fined and even imprisoned several times for producing his own bronze mounts – a practice that was strictly forbidden. Today, stamped furniture is particularly helpful in terms of identification, as they bear the name or initials of the master of the workshop. English furniture, however, is generally not stamped, and therefore more difficult when faced with questions of attribution.

Waddesdon Manor’s desire to highlight the French furniture within the collection is easily justifiable, but it is not only within country house and museum collections that these pieces of incredible craftsmanship can exist. Original, stamped, French furniture could be yours to take home! There are several pieces of Louis XIV through to Empire furniture available with Nicholas Wells Antiques ranging from commodes and chairs to desks. The chairs and writing table below are stunning examples of French design stamped by Pothier and Boudin respectively. For more information on Waddesdon Manor’s ‘A Closer Look’, an exhibition that will both intrigue and inspire, please follow the link below:

If you fancy a touch of Waddesdon glamour, take a look at some examples of French furniture currently available at Nicholas Wells Antiques – amazing pieces all in need of a good home.