Aglimpse of beauty andunrivalledluxury; PROFILE Richard Edmonds revels in a tome dedicated to some of the finest and most opulent furniture ever made.
WONDERFUL subjects demand beautiful books to display them well, and this lavishly illustrated book on the amazing mechanical and marquetry furniture of Abraham and David Roentgen, Europe''s principal furniture makers during the 18th century, is a notable example of publishing at its best.
This was not just furniture made for the wealthy using the finest woods and marquetry artists available, there were certain other things which made Roentgen furniture astonishing, thus arousing the interest of the great European courts in France, Austria, Germany and Russia, (where Catherine the Great was always on the lookout for quality or novelty or both).
In contemporary terms, the modern luxury market encompasses finely designed commodities made by superlative craftsmen using exceptional materials (in terms of jewellery alone you only have to think of Cartier and Tiffany whose workmanship is remarkable).
David Roentgen, (the son of Abraham Roentgen, who founded the company in Germany in the mid-18th century,) was an enterprising salesman, who knew all about these things, and was a man who set his sights on Europe''s wealthiest collectors generally drawn from the aristocracy.
And it was the ingenious refinements of Roentgen furniture which drew attention.
You didn''t just get a writing table or a desk, but a desk with superlative marquetry work in different colours, fine ormolu decoration (ormolu is bronze overlaid with gold leaf) which took perhaps the shape of a sphinx or a classical head, or a small gallery placed on top of a secretaire, along with an infinity of special springs which released secret drawers. The Antiques Roadshow has interesting furniture, but I have yet to see a Roentgen desk brought in for a valuation - the lucky owner probably knows it will already be worth half a million pounds and rising.
Furniture at this level of rarity would have been ordered by Roentgen''s aristocratic patrons through a middle man, a negotiator, who would sell a diamond necklace to cover a gambling debt perhaps, or purchase on behalf of the client a Chippendale dining table or a set of rare prints from an Italian dealer.
Roentgen would very likely not come into contact with the client, and the bill would be paid eventually (sometimes a bill went unpaid for years) by the middle man, who would, in turn be paid by the prince, the king (through the court finance office) or whoever. These negotiators were the "marchands merciers" of the French courts, their greatest man was Lazare Duveaux, who dealt directly with Marie Antoinette, to whom he supplied luxuries of all kinds from Roentgen furniture to the latest porcelain. And obviously Roentgen''s inlaid marquetry dining suites, commodes, rolltop desks, simple inlaid caskets or whatever, went everywhere there was money.
There is a suite of Roentgen furniture at Buckingham Palace, and another at Chatsworth ordered by the Duke of Devonshire at a time when many English grandees, as well as wealthy aristos throughout Europe, chose Roentgen furniture for their palaces. A German gilt-bronze mounted and brass-inlaid mahogany table by Roentgen, was sold by Sotheby''s (London) in July 2012 for PS133,250.
But in this gorgeous book is the complete story of it all, including a picture of an automatic doll playing a tune on the clavichord. I would like to have been a fly on the wall, the day Marie Antoinette''s automaton, for this wonderful piece was meant for her as a surprise, was delivered toVersailles.
Automatic toys have been known since the Ancient Greeks and a taste for automatic mechanism developed during the Renaissance, in terms of automatic fountains. But Roentgen always went one better than most, and David Roentgen delivered in the winter of 1785, an automatic masterpiece, where a mechanical doll, dressed in the latest fashion, played music by Gluck (who had taught the queen while still a child in Vienna) and resembled the queen herself.
All a bit creepy really, but, it was a triumph of some brilliance for Roentgen who was awarded, in 1779, the coveted title of Cabinet Maker and Mechanical Engineer to to the king and queen of France.
Over the ensuing centuries many things have been lost or destroyed in the fires stoked up by wars and revolutions, and the mechanical doll herself, finally lost favour with Marie Antoinette, (she found it creepy too) and it was finally given to an engineering institute in Paris, L''Academie des Sciences.
At least, it is known to have survived the French Revolution.
But having phoned the Queen and got no reply, I''m planning to head up to Chatsworth this summer, I can''t wait to see their examples of Roentgen''s brilliance.
Extravagant Inventions: The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens by Wolfram Koeppe et al is published by Yale (PS50).
This writing desk is in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Extravagant Inventions The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens by Wolfram Koeppe et al
Automaton of Marie Antoinette, called La Joueuse de Tympanon (The Dulcimer Player) C 1782-84, courtesy: Musee des Arts et Metiers, Paris
Reading and writing stand (1711-1793), courtesy The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
You can see fine examples of Roentgen furniture at Chatsworth House