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The French Interior in the Eighteenth Century.

To open John Whitehead's beautifully produced book is to enter that world of sumptuousness and refinement for which France in the eighteenth century was unrivalled. The title does not convey the wide range of topics it covers. Indeed this book makes an ideal introduction to the whole realm of decorative arts for someone who comes new to it.

There are essays on the decreed disposition of the various rooms; the styles -- regence, rococo and neo-classical; the fashionable influences, Greek, Turkish, above all, Chinese. We read of royal patronage and the part played by royal mistresses: of the rich clientele and their architects and cabinet-makers: of the exigent rules that governed entry into a craftsman's guild. There is a survey of the elements that embellish the interiors -- furniture, porcelain, clocks, mirrors, wallpapers, tapestries and textiles, silver, even picture frames among other exquisite follies.

The book contains a feast of two hundred and thirty-nine skilfully selected and beautifully printed colour plates. From them one gathers that Mr. Whitehead's taste favours the exuberance of rococo and the charm of chinoiserie. They enable us to marvel at the perfection of the Marquis de Paulmy's palest blue salon, now part of the Arsenal in Paris: the exquisite parquetry bonheur-du-jour in the style of the superlative ebeniste, Roger Vandercruse-Lacroix, for years known only as RVLC until identified. One admires the garlanded grace of the gilt bronze and blued steel mirror made for Marie Antoinette by the sculptor Gouthiere; and most remarkable of all the rare blue and white commode with jewel-like silvered gilt mounts carried out in the lacquer technique known as Vernis Martin which has never been replicated.

From this book we learn that Louis XV's dressing table appointments of silver, glass and white Mennecy porcelain also contained cups and saucers and embroidery equipment. There is a description by a contemporary of the contents of Voltaire's rooms, 'so clean you could kiss the floor', but with no really comfortable chairs. Also, how in the adjacent apartment his mistress, Madame du Chatelet's bedroom is decorated. Everything matches, we are told, so that 'even the dog basket is yellow and blue, like the chair frames, writing desk, corner cupboards and secretaire'.

In eighteenth century Paris a great many people used luxury as a means of asserting their wealth and position. For some the decoration of their houses and the acquisition of works of art were full time occupations. 'And you must stuff rooms fuller than they will hold with granite tables and porphyry urns, and bronzes, and statues, and vases', wrote Horace Walpole to the Countess of Suffolk in 1765. Thirteen years later the American, John Adams, felt much the same 'I am wearied to death with gazing wherever I went at a profusion of unmeaning wealth and magnificence', he wrote.

Proof of extreme over-indulgence comes from two painted miniatures that adorned snuff boxes that belonged to the Duc de Choiseul, one time Chief Minister to Louis XV. They show that the chambre de parade in his house was completely transformed, walls, draperies, upholstery, even the parquet floor from their winter attire of dark blue damasks to pale flowered silks in summer.

If Mr. Whitehead's informative prose is a trifle pedestrian, his book is a pleasure to look at and to handle. It has an exemplary index.
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Author:Julius, Muriel
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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