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Desk

Date: ca. 1763
Dimensions:
30 3/16 x 62 1/2 x 32 in. (76.7 x 158.8 x 81.3 cm.)
Medium: oak carcase veneered with kingwood; soft-paste porcelain plaques; gilt-bronze mounts; modern leather top
Credit Line: The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. The Arabella D. Huntington Memorial Art Collection.
Inscription: The table is stamped on the underside of the proper left rail, C.C. SAUNIER and JME, and on the underside of the proper right side rail, JOSEPH, with a fleur-de-lys at either end of the name. There is an obliterated stamp next to it. The letters EHB are branded into the underside of the crossbar running front to back on the proper right side, for the nineteenth-century dealer and restorer, Edward Holmes Baldock. The underside of the desk bears a paper label inked with the inscription: LADY CARNARVON. Duveen label: C5733. Inscribed on the back of a single plaque are the crossed Ls of the Sèvres manufactory enclosing the date letter K for 1763. The back of one plaque bears the remains of a paper label inked with the inscription, 2 plaques de / Porcelaine Pour Remplacer . . . / bureau de. . . .
Object Number: 27.132
Label Text:This table originally formed part of an ensemble consisting of a writing desk, a filing cabinet surmounted by a clock (by Julien Le Roy, 1686-1759), and an inkstand. All three pieces survive, albeit in different locations. The suite was purchased from Simon-Philippe Poirier (c. 1720-1785), a marchand mercier specializing in porcelain-mounted furniture, in 1763 or 1764. It stayed together until at least 1818, when the probate inventory of the Flemish-born banker Guillaume-François Vandenyver in Paris recorded the set, or one identical. Thereafter, the inkwell was reported in the collection the Duke of Sutherland and today forms part of that of J. P. Morgan at the Wadsworth Atheneum (fig. 00), whereas the desk, its filing cabinet, and clock were last described and illustrated together in the catalogue of Alfred de Rothschild's collection in 1884 (along with the Molitor secrétaire, cat. 33). Lord Rothschild bequeathed the desk to Lady Carnarvon, whose collection was sold in May 1925, when the desk was purchased by the London dealers Lewis and Simmons. It was then acquired by Duveen, who sold it on to Henry E. Huntington. The clock and filing cabinet (serre-papier) are now in the Musée du Louvre, Paris (fig. 00).
The collecting of porcelain-mounted objects is evidence, as the nineteenth-century collection of Alfred de Rothschild and early twenty-century collections such as those of Samuel H. Kress and Huntington attest, of the prevalence of a decorative theme. The Huntington set is mounted with soft-paste Sèvres porcelain plaques identical in design and set within the pale turquoise-blue ground called petit verd. One of the plaques on the desk bears the date letter for 1763, and the uppermost plaque on the clock also bears the date letter for 1763 and the mark of the painter Jean-Baptiste Tandart. The six different models of furniture mounted with porcelain plaques at The Huntington exemplify the diversity of furniture types decorated in this manner and usually made for women.
In the 1760s and 1770s, Joseph Baumhauer produced a number of porcelain-mounted pieces for the marchands merciers Poirier and Daguerre (c. 1740-1796), including the example discussed here, four similar writing desks, now in the collections at Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire, England, Boughton House, Northamptonshire, England, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon (this latter desk also stamped EHB), and one formerly in the collection of baron Henri de Rothschild and subsequently in that of Jean Rossignol. All six pieces are characterized by their construction, in particular the contours and decoration of their drawer fronts, the design of the bronze frames to the plaques, and the disposition of plaques with serpentine outlines within a rectilinear formation. The wide brass frames disguise the particular shape of these plaques, each of which rests in a recessed panel of conforming shape, suggesting that the Sèvres plaques were not designed for such an arrangement. It is noteworthy that this is the only desk in the group to be fitted with thirty-two plaques; each of the others has twenty-four.
It seems that this form of plaque may have been first designed for a very different style of furniture. A commode made by Bernard van Risenburgh II (c. 1696-1766) for Louise-Anne de Bourbon-Condé, Mademoiselle de Sens (1695-1768) is mounted on its front and sides with ninety Sèvres plaques of similar shape and decoration, dated 1758 and 1760. This chest of drawers is the only surviving example of a piece of furniture in which the serpentine outlines of the plaques were visible because the brass frames were also contoured, creating a surface pattern of rococo character that complemented the bombé form of the commode and its rococo mounts. Its plaques are painted with bouquets of flowers oriented for their diagonal placement, suggesting that they were made for this particular piece of furniture. On several of the group of bureaux cited above (notably the Waddesdon, Philadelphia, and Rossignol desks), the floral bouquets were painted as though they were destined for a horizontal arrangement. Each of the plaques of the Huntington bureau, however, is decorated with a wreath framed by flowers and scrolls forming a circular centerpiece without a definite orientation and so could have been arranged either diagonally or horizontally.
In contrast to the careful planning that lay behind the successful arrangement of the ninety plaques on the Condé commode, the mounting of plaques on the Huntington desk was clearly an afterthought. Evidence for this lies in the traces of boxwood stringing and remnants of a decorative veneer, now concealed by the brass frames, on the right side and back rails of the desk. Given the three stamps on the underside of the carcass, the question is, by whom? The desk was almost certainly made, by Joseph, with a decorative veneer. This suggests that it reached a near-finished state before the changes were made. An examination of the woodwork and cabinetmaking techniques suggests that the changes took place in Joseph's workshop, but the reason for making these changes is unclear. At least two explanations seem feasible. One is that the owner took it back to the supplier, Joseph, and commissioned the change (there is some precedent for this practice, especially among royal circles). The other is that the client for the near-finished or finished desk fell through, and Joseph created a new decorative scheme, perhaps based on plaques newly acquired, for a different piece. If this were to be true, it is certainly possible that the first client was male and the second female. The plaques would have been more appropriate on a desk owned by a woman, and we know that, although the bureau form was more associated with men than women, some women, especially at this date, used them for writing and storing letters and papers (see the essay by Carolyn Sargentson in this volume).
In addition to the technical evidence cited above, the bureau at The Huntington and the writing desks at Waddesdon Manor, Boughton House, in Philadelphia, and in the Rossignol sale all correspond perfectly to the style of contemporary pieces of furniture produced by Poirier and Daguerre in collaboration with Joseph Baumhauer. The stamps of Claude-Charles Saunier (1735-1807, master 1752) and Edward Holmes Baldock, therefore, indicate that both cabinetmakers merely did repair work. Saunier, a contemporary of Baumhauer, also worked with Sèvres porcelain plaques, Asian coromandel lacquer panels, and Wedgwood cameos, the latter especially, indicating that he, too, worked for the marchand mercier Daguerre in the 1780s. Most of his furniture was in the neoclassical style, with the rare exceptions of a few pieces decorated with porcelain. However, as the previous discussion has shown, the wooden structure and the veneering of the Huntington desk, as well as the unusual mounting of the Sèvres plaques, closely resemble those of other bureaux by Baumhauer and do not occur in the oeuvre of Saunier, further evidence for the fact that Baumhauer produced the desk and inserted the porcelain plaques and that Saunier repaired it at a later date.
Edward Holmes Baldock worked in London as a furniture dealer and restorer. Like Poirier and Daguerre before him, he acquired French furniture for resale in London and is known to have re-used eighteenth-century porcelain plaques, and possibly bronze mounts, to produce new pieces and to redecorate existing ones. Although the precise nature of his work on the Huntington desk remains uncertain, it was certainly limited to relaying and patching veneer and refinishing the surface. No convincing connection can be drawn between his dubious activity as a restorer and the mounting of the bronze plaques on the Huntington table, but the preparation of the carcass does indicate that, at least on the right hand rail, the recess was never carved deep enough to accommodate porcelain plaques. Rather, it seems that the bronze reliefs form part of the original arrangement and that only thirty-two plaques, including two replacement plaques, were mounted in the eighteenth century. Baldock may have acquired the desk from the Vandenyver sale in Paris in 1818 and reconditioned it at that date.

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