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Boulle at Blenheim: Blenheim Palace's state rooms contain splendid furniture by Andre-Charles Boulle and in his manner, collected by the 9th Duke of Marlborough in the 1890s after his marriage to Consuelo Vanderbilt. In the first of two articles, Peter Hughes discusses these unpublished pieces in detail, and identifies those by Boulle himself.

The state rooms on the south front of the palace named after the 1st Duke of Marlborough's great victory over the armies of Louis XIV contain a fine collection of French furniture, including, ironically, Boulle marquetry pieces from the reign of that very monarch. The furniture was probably acquired by the 9th Duke after his marriage to Consuelo Vanderbilt in 1895, although no documentation survives for its acquisition. It appears to reflect the same taste which led the duke, soon after his accession in 1892, to have the First, Second and Third State Rooms redecorated with white and gold panelling in an early Louis XV style (Fig. 2). According to one recent study of the palace, the perfectionist duke later came to regret his early redecoration of these rooms. (1) Nevertheless, the carved and gilded panelling is of high quality and provides a splendid setting for the Boulle furniture, some of which can be attributed to Andr6-Charles Boulle, while other pieces fall either into the category of furniture by Boulle's contemporaries or into that of later Boulle-revival furniture, either of the late eighteenth century or of the mid-nineteenth century.


A kneehole writing-desk, about 1680

In the centre of the First State Room is a kneehole writing-desk of about 1680 (Fig. 1), veneered with brass and pewter marquetry on a ground of tortoiseshell backed with red pigment. The desk clearly dates from the late seventeenth century and displays in the four corners of its top (Fig. 3) the arms of Louis-Marie-Victor, second duc d'Aumont (1632-1704). The cypher in the central oval of the top also combines the letters LMV, for the duke's Christian names, beneath a ducal coronet. The duke, who was made a cavalry colonel at the age of ten and a guards captain at the age of sixteen, attained some fame as a soldier, accompanying Louis XIV into the Southern Netherlands as a brigadier, where he played a leading part in the capture of Armentieres, Bergue, Furnes and Courtrai. (2) In later life he served as a Gentleman of the Bedchamber to Louis XIV and in 1697 was responsible for directing two balls at court to celebrate the marriage of the duc de Bourgogne. (3) St-Simon depicts the duke as a hard and peremptory personality, who had his elderly mother confined to a convent in 1681 when she wished to marry a younger man, and who finally died of apoplexy on the Wednesday of Holy Week, 1704. (4) The desk clearly belongs in the category of furniture by Boulle's contemporaries, but it is not at present possible to suggest which cabinetmaker might have made it. The cypher in its oval frame is flanked by seated gods and goddesses, Jupiter and Juno at the top and Ceres and Neptune below. The gods and goddesses are overlarge for the spaces they occupy and rest somewhat uncertainly on plinths made up of diaper pattern. This pattern, like those that Andre-Charles Boulle was introducing into Parisian marquetry at this period, is probably derived from a diaper pattern in Japanese lacquer. It is sophisticated in character, but somewhat uncertainly employed. The desk belongs to a type known in France as a bureau brise, on which the desk top is hinged along the centre. The front half of the top folds back (Fig. 4), while the top drawer fronts, which are only simulated ones, fold forward to increase the writing area. The inside of the top and the desk's writing surface are veneered with the same marquetry pattern: three panels of pewter scrolls inlaid on a ground of blondish wood and banded with purplewood, each panel being composed of four smaller pewter frames enclosing a central frame which is either circular or lobed.


A mantel clock, about 1690

Close in date to the kneehole desk is a small mantel clock on the chimneypiece of the Green Drawing Room (Fig. 5), veneered with red tortoiseshell and surmounted by a figure of Fame. The movement is by Francois Rabby (1655-c. 1717), the son of an engineer, who married a clockmaker's widow in 1686 and would thus have been received into the clockmakers' guild on advantageous terms as the new husband of the widow of a deceased master. (5) The clock can be dated c. 1690, about the time when Rabby became established at the sign of the Tete Noire on the Place Dauphine, just across the Seine from the Ile de la Cite, the heart of the Parisian clockmaking trade. The case, which would have been made by a cabinet-maker, not by Rabby, is not dissimilar from the cases of London-made clocks of the same period, being a rectangular box with a slightly domed lid. It differs, however, from the case of a similar London-made clock in the greater richness of its gilt-bronze mounts: the scrolling foliage at the bottom of the dial glass, the simulated brocade overhanging the lower edge of the case and the Corinthian pilasters at the corners of the clock. As with other French clocks of this period, the dial is a gilt-bronze disc with the enamel numerals inserted individually, but it has also been inlaid with a decorative ring of tortoiseshell, leading the winding holes to be specially edged with brass reinforcements, to protect the tortoiseshell when the key is inserted.


A pedestal clock, about 1690

A much grander clock is a pedestal clock veneered with brass and pewter marquetry on a ground of red tortoiseshell, displayed in a corner of the Third State Room (Fig. 7). The movement is signed GRDRON A PARIS, denoting either Antoine I Gaudron (1640-1714) or his younger son, Pierre Gaudron (1677-1745). (6) The clock is of a model also represented in the Royal Collection, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the chateau of Vaux-le-Vicomte. (7) The Metropolitan Museum clock, which has a movement by Isaac Thuret (horloger du roi, 1684) differs slightly from the other three, in that it originally incorporated a mercuric barometer within its pedestal. Although the barometer has since been removed, the segmental circle above the female mask at the front of the pedestal of the New York clock still has the climatic indications for the barometer dial incorporated in its marquetry. The former presence of this barometer in the clock pedestal led J.N. Ronfort in 1986 to identify the Metropolitan Museum clock with one offered as first prize in a lottery held in May 1691 by the clockmaker Isaac Thuret. (8) At the time of making this identification Ronfort attributed this clock model to Andre-Charles Boulle, but he will now be including it, with an attribution to the cabinetmaker Alexandre-Jean Oppenordt (1639-1715), in his forthcoming catalogue raisonne of the work of Boulle and of his contemporaries. Oppenordt, who was the father of the early-eighteenth-century designer Gilles-Marie Oppenord, is known to have collaborated with the clockmaker Isaac Thuret and with the King's designer, Jean Berain. On the evidence of a letter of 1693 from the Swedish envoy Cronstrom to the architect Nicodemus Tessin, it appears that furniture could be ordered from Berain, although the latter was a designer, not a cabinetmaker. (9) Such furniture would probably have been made by Oppenordt to designs by Berain. It is thus interesting that the published engravings of Berain include a design for a pedestal mounted with a female mask (Fig. 6) bearing a pronounced resemblance to the pedestal of this model of clock. Oppenordt seems to have favoured the use of both prominent gilt-bronze masks, as on the front of the pedestal, and of volute shapes, such as those which appear near the top of both clock case and pedestal. Three other features of this model are also worthy of note: first, the sun in his splendour surmounted by a royal crown, which forms the cresting; second, the charming lace headdresses of the sphinxes, of the type favoured by ladies at court and known as commodes; and, third, the use of arabic numerals, rather than roman ones, on the clock dial, which seems exceptional for this date.


A sarcophagus-shaped toilet coffer, about 1684

Turning to the Boulle furniture securely attributed to the master himself, the north-west corner of the Third State Room displays a sarcophagus-shaped toilet coffer and stand, veneered with contre-partie marquetry of tortoiseshell on a ground of pewter and dating from about 1684 (Fig. 8). The Blenheim coffer is of the same model as a pair of coffers in the J. Paul Getty Museum, (10) except that the Getty coffers formerly had bearded male masks on their front corners, which are absent on the Blenheim example. (11) The contre-partie coffer of the Getty Museum pair has a stand with marquetry of the same pattern as the stand at Blenheim, although it is clear from the comparison that the Blenheim stand would originally have had tapering front legs decorated with marquetry and each flanked with rams' heads at the top and surmounted by gilt-bronze triglyphs. The present front legs, in the form of gilt-wood caryatids, probably date from the early nineteenth century. (12) The central leg of the Blenheim stand is, however, in its original state, unlike that of the corresponding Getty Museum stand, which has been truncated and fitted with a different model of gilt-bronze mask. All three coffers have lids in two sections, an upper lid, opened by means of the keyhole in the upper concave section of the coffer, and a lower one, opened through the keyhole in the lower concave one. On all three coffers both keyholes are framed by entwined gilt-bronze dolphins (Fig. 9), suggesting the possible ownership of Louis, the Grand Dauphin (1661-1711), son of Louis XIV and Marie-Therese d'Espagne. This connection has already been made for the Getty coffers in an article in The J. Paul Getty Museum Journal, (13) which quotes an unpublished inventory of 1689 describing the Grand Dauphin's collection:

 6. Un cabinet de marqueterie en
 forme de tombeau dont le fond est
 d'ecaille de tortue, de cuivre jaune et
 d'estain, garni de six bandes canelees
 de cuivre dore ornees par le haut de
 testes de femmes et par les bas de
 mufles de lion, haut de trois pieds
 neuf pouces long de sieze pouces
 onze lignes et large de trieze pouces.
 Fait par Boulle.

The problem is that this description, while doing justice to the extraordinary gilt-bronze fluted bands that are such a distinctive feature of the coffers, gives measurements (121.5 x 45.9 x 35.1 cm) that correspond neither to the Getty coffers (67 x 89.9 x 55.8 cm) nor to the Blenheim one (66 x 86.5 x 54 cm) and which suggest a much higher, narrower and shallower piece of furniture, also, apparently, without any stand. Yet it is difficult to dismiss the idea of a connection with the Grand Dauphin from one's mind. The Comptes des Batiments du Roi for 1684 include an entry under 9 January: a Boulle, ebeniste, pour un coffre de marquetterie pour Monseigneur ... 700 livres.' (14)

This description is too brief to form the basis of an identification, but it seems likely that this type of sarcophagus-shaped coffer was first made for the Dauphin. Although eclipsed by his authoritarian father, the Grand Dauphin was an active collector and a patron of Andre-Charles Boulle. In 1683-84, after the death of the Queen, he moved back to the ground floor of the central block of Versailles and his three cabinets, running eastwards from the south-west corner of that block, became one of the sights of the late-seventeenth-century palace. (15) The third cabinet, the Cabinet des Glaces, was noted for its looking glasses and for its Boulle marquetry floor, panelling, console tables, stools and even chairs. For this cabinet Andre-Charles Boulle was paid 94,000 livres between 1682 and 1686.

There can be little doubt about Boulle's authorship of the Blenheim coffer and stand and, as is often the case, one of the marquetry patterns is found on Boulle furniture of a different model, the back panel of the stand being of the same pattern as the marquetry on the back panels of the stands of two late-seventeenth-century cabinets and stands in the Louvre, which belonged in the early-eighteenth century to Jean de Jullienne, the patron of Watteau. (16) A coffer and stand of the Blenheim Palace type in contre-partie marquetry are described in the auction sale of the marchand, Claude-Francois Julliot, in November 1777. (17) The catalogue description does not mention bearded masks on the corners of the coffer, which might exclude the contre-partie coffer of the Getty Museum pair, if its bearded masks do in fact date back to the eighteenth century. Thus, despite a slight discrepancy in the height of the coffer and stand together, it is possible that the Blenheim piece passed through the hands of Julliot, the leading dealer in old Boulle furniture in late-eighteenth-century Paris. (18)

A pair of toilet coffers with cabriole legs, about 1700

Also in the Third State Room are a pair of toilet coffers attributable to Andre-Charles Boulle, which date from about 1700, one with premiere-partie marquetry of brass on tortoiseshell (Fig. 10), the other with contre-partie marquetry of the same materials reversed. The coffers are less exceptional than the sarcophagus-shaped one, belonging in fact to a fairly common type that is represented in the Wallace Collection, at Boughton House and in a number of other collections. (19) But while coffers of this type are generally supported on stands with straight tapering legs, the Blenheim stands have handsome cabriole legs at both front and back, mounted at the top with acanthus volutes topped by female heads. These stands seem to be much rarer than those with straight legs, although another pair of coffers with stands like the Blenheim ones is known at Schloss Moritzburg, near Dresden, a castle of the Electors of Saxony, while another pair was formerly in the collection of Sir Robert Abdy. (20) The curved-leg stands are in fact closer than the straight-legged ones to the image of a Coffre de toillette monte sur son pied, as shown on plate 3 of Boulle's series of engravings, Nouveaux Deisseins de Meubles et Ouvrages de Bronze et de Marqueterie, published by P.-J. Mariette sometime after 1707 (Fig. 11). The legs of the stand in the engraving do not have female heads at the top, but their general rhythm is much like that of the Blenheim ones. The coffer in the engraving is much more curvilinear than the Blenheim coffers, but the engraved image may have incorporated, like many ornamental designs, an element of fantasy. The gadrooned flattened torus moulding, shown on the shelf or footrest of the stand in the engraving also appears on the stretchers of the Blenheim stands. It is a mount used on a number of different furniture types by Andre-Charles Boulle of the period around 1700, notably on the stands of cabinets on stands, on those of toilet coffers and on the stretchers of his six-legged side tables. On these half-tori Boulle sometimes placed removable gilt-bronze plugs, (21) a feature that the Blenheim stands have fortunately retained.


(1) H. Montgomery-Massingberd, Blenheim Revisited, New York, 1985, p. 127.

(2) M Michaud (ed.), Biographie Universelle, Paris and Leipzig, 1843, vol. II, p. 457.

(3) See Louis, duc de St Simon, Memoires, Paris, vol. 1, 1983, pp. 174 and 436-37.

(4) Ibid., vol II, p. 432, and vol. III, pp. 287 88.

(5) J.-D. Augarde, Les Ouvriers Du Temps, Geneva, 1996, p. 386.

(6) Ibid., p. 319.

(7) For the Royal Collection clock, see Carlon House: The Past Glories of George IV'S Palace, exh. cat., The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace, 1991-92, no. 13; for the Metropolitan Museum clock, see W. Edey, French Clocks In North American Collections, exh, cat., The Frick Collection, New York, 1982, no. 33, where the Vauxle-Vicomte clock is also noted.

(8) See J.N. Ronfort, 'Andre Charles Beulle: die Brenzearbeiten und seine Werkstatt im Louvre', in H. Ottomeyer and P. Proschel (eds.), Vergoldete Breozen, Munich, 1986, pp. 484-85.

(9) The letter is quoted in part by A. Pradere, French Furniture Makers, The Art of the Ebeniste from Louis XIV to the Revolution, London, 1989, p. 63.

(10) Nos. 82.DA.109.1 and 82.DA.109.2. See C. Bremer-David, Decorative Arts, An Illustrated Summary Catalogue of the Collections of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, 1993, no. 4.

(11) The bearded masks are clearly shown on the contre-partie coffer in G. Wilson, Selections from the Decorative Arts in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, 1983, no, 6, but had been removed by 1993, when both coffers were illustrated in Bremer-David, op. eit.

(12) Caryatid legs of the same model are found on a pair of stands, probably intended for coffers, in the State Bedroom at Chatsworth and were also on the stand of a conventional rectangular Boulle toilet coffer in contre-partie marquetry, sold Christie's, 20 June 1985 (lot 60).

(13) G. Wilson, A. Sassoon and C. Bremer-David, 'Acquisitions made by the Department of Decorative Arts in 1982', The J. Paul Getty Museum Journal, vol. XI, 1983, pp. 13-18.

(14) J.J. Guiffrey, Comptes des Batiments du Roi, Pads, 1881-1901, vol. II, p. 473.

(15) P. Verlet, Le Chateau de Versailles, Paris, 1985, pp. 262-65.

(16) Nos. OA5451, OA5452. Sec J.N. Ronfort, 'The Surviving Cabinets on Stands by Andre Charles Boulle and the New Chronology of the Master's Oeuvre', Cleveland Studies in the History of Art, vol. VIII, 2003, p. 54, figs.12b and 12a.


(17) 20 November 1777, lot 706.

(18) For an account of C.-F Julliot, sec Pradere, op. cit., pp. 34-36.

(19) See for example R Hughes, The Wallace Collection Catalogue of Furniture, vol. II, London, 1996, nos. 143 (F412) and 144 (F411), and T. Murdoch (ed.), Boughton House: The English Versailles, London, 1992, figs. 111-12.

(20) The Moritzburg coffers photographed by A. Sassoon, J. Paul Getty Center, Los Angeles, photo, no. 170298, one of the Abdy collection pair illustrated in Connaissance des Arts, no. 104, October 1960, p. 67.

(21) I owe this insight to J.N. Ronfort, op. cit. in n. 16 above, p. 59.

Peter Hughes was formerly head curator at the Wallace Collection, where he wrote the Catalogue of Furniture, published in 1996. He has recently become interested in the French furniture to be found in English and Scottish country houses. His second and final article on the Boulle furniture at Blenheim Palace will be published in APOLLO next year.
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Date:Nov 1, 2005
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