unusual to find a dining room table, chairs, a cabinet, and a stool all made
from the same wood and still together after more than a century. These pieces were all attributed to Camille
Albert, the disciple of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc whose efforts to save and restore
the medieval monuments of France led directly to creation of the Neo-Gothic
style of architecture and furniture in the 19th century.
Albertwas active in the late 19th century as architect of the city of Fécamp, a port
in Normandy known for cod-fishing and for distilling Bénédictine Liqueur after
the long-lost 16th century recipe for the elixir was rediscovered in 1863. The Palais Bénédictine was designed and
built by Albert in a combination of Neo-Gothic and Neo-Renaissance styles for
the owner of the distillery, Alexander-Prosper LeGrand. Still used for production, the Palais also
includes a museum of art works from the 14th to the 16th centuries. The pieces described here were all acquired
by us in Fécamp.
Offeredare the dining table, which extends to seat six or more comfortably, along with
six chairs (two armchairs and four side chairs). All, together with Cabinet 4190, appear to be made from the same
oak, perhaps the same tree. We
speculate that the furniture was crafted from trees felled during one of the
hurricanes sweeping across northwestern France and the British Isles, such as
the Great Storm of 1850. From
contemporary accounts, we know that landowners often kept the felled trees to
dry out and to be used for furniture and homes, replacing what was ruined in
the storms and as an early form of recycling.
Examiningthe oak comprising this table and six chairs, we find it uncommonly dense with
little grain visible, signaling that the oak trees must have been ancient and a
part of the landscape for centuries.
There are a number of knots and other anomalies that would have been
shunned by the typical 19th century artisan as too challenging to work with. Here they are embraced, leading us to believe
that the oak from which this furniture emerged had a special place in the
hearts of its owner and maker. Perhaps
after centuries in a pasture shading the cows responsible for Normandy's memorable
butters and creams, the fallen tree lived on with its family at the center of
meals and celebrations as a treasured set of dining room furniture and a
reminder of the power of nature, despite man's efforts to tame it.
Turningfirst to the table, its design is based on the trestle table of medieval and
Renaissance times whose overall structure involves a base in the form of an
H-shaped stretcher upon which is built an elaborate, central vertical
member. The table top is mounted on the
base, using a frieze to mask the draw-leaf extensions. We are very fond of this design because it
involves extensions that match the rest of the table and are inherently part of
its structure, rather than using supplemental leaves that are invariably lost
or made of inferior wood with the expectation that the extended table would
always be covered by a cloth.
Thebase of the table is made of this dark, dense oak and reflects a basic Gothic
design (as shown on page 98 of Viollet-le-Duc's treatise cited below) on four
elongated feet into which lancet arches have been carved. The
vertical member consists of a central, rectangular frame within which a
crocketed ogive arch has been carved, the crocketing in the form of broad grape
leaves rather than the tiny, narrower leaves usually performing this
function. Framing the central panel are
corbels turned on their sides and containing intricate fenestrage or open
tracery in the style of Gothic architecture, especially windows.
Anotherunusual aspect of this design is the broad, perpendicular panels at each end of
the base, containing their own richly detailed tracery. Most tables omit such panels completely or
offer less elaborate decoration, considering that they are under the table and
likely to be obscured from view and appreciation. Framing these panels, and the base itself, are pilasters
decorated in the sweeping diagonal design so beloved by the creators of Gothic
Thefrieze surrounding the top of the table involves an intricate design of
half-moon shapes in a fenestrage style with central sprays of vegetation. Considering the hard, dense oak from which
the frieze is carved, we marvel at the intricacy achieved and are reminded of
the magnificent carvings out of granite, that hardest of stones, at the abbey
of Mont-Saint-Michel at the other end
of the Normandy coast from Fécamp. It
would have been easier, faster and cheaper to leave the frieze fairly plain,
but the maker of this table must have been determined to craft a monument to
his skill, for the ages.
It isin describing the top of the table that we leave behind all notion of the
Gothic and see a more 19th century approach to furniture and its
aesthetic. Back in medieval times, a
table top was rarely seen. It was
designed to be covered by textiles, whose value far outweighed the humble furniture
on which they were displayed, symbolizing the wealth and prosperity of the
owner. By the 19th century and the
advent of cheaper, factory-made textiles, the situation had reversed and it was
the furniture that was more highly valued.
Therefore, the table top deserved a virtuosic turn and, as here, is
The topconsists of an oak frame, the wood being lighter in color, and with broader
grain than the base of the table. A
central "X" pattern of oak divides the balance of the top into two
triangular and two pentagonal sections filled with squares and rectangles of
contrasting woods (mahogany, walnut and either birch or poplar), with two-toned
fleurs-de-lys (of walnut and either birch or poplar) as the focal points. This ornate collection of contrasting shapes
and colors is solid (not veneer), highly pleasing and makes the table top a
work of art in its own right.
The topextends at each end, but the extensions are in plain oak rather than the
patterned treatment of the main top section.
To protect against warping of the top, a metal reinforcing framework has
been added but covered in felt to keep from scratching. While there is still a very slight warp to
the top, this is likely inevitable, considering the age of the table and its
solid construction from different types of woods.
Thetwo armchairs designed for the ends of this table are remarkable in several
ways. First, the seats are higher than
the other chairs, keeping in mind that the extensions of the table, where these
armchairs would be placed, do not have a frieze below them. Therefore it could be more comfortable for
the persons sitting in these chairs to be slightly elevated. Or the objective could have been a simpler
one - to elevate the persons in these chairs above the rest of the diners,
reminiscent of the medieval practice of seating those of noble rank on a level
above their inferiors. Crowned with
elaborate finials, these chairs in a basic trapezoidal or caquetoire design
take on the essence of thrones for the heads of household.
Inkeeping with the medieval belief that only God was capable of perfection or
could make an exact duplicate of anything, all of the chairs share a unifying
structure but each of the tracery designs of their backs is different. This involves some of the most intricate and
finely carved tracery that we have ever encountered, especially remarkable for
it being oak instead of the more easily carved walnut. Each chair merits contemplation for both the
virtuosity of the carving and the way it complements the other chairs. All involve some variation on the basic,
circular, rose window design from Gothic cathedrals, but with ingenious
variations and open-work reflecting the wealth of stylistic elements available
to Gothic designers and their 19th century re-creators.
Eachchair is crowned by an arch tapering into a flamboyant toupie or finial
reminiscent of the flamme or stylized fleur-de-lys design that gave
the "flamboyant Gothic" style
of the late Middle Ages its name. The
chairs incorporate various stylistic elements from the table, including the
half-moon design of tracery from the table frieze (found in the tops of the
chairs), the lancet arches from the table's feet (repeated on the legs and the
sides of the backs), and the grape leaves from the table base (carved into the
outer edges of the tops of the chairs).
It ishard to imagine a more well-matched table and chairs reflecting the pinnacle of
Gothic design. Sturdy, intact, and with
a magnificent patina, they beckon future generations dedicated to this triumph
of 19th century craftsmanship -- harking back to the style of the time when the
tree, from which they were fashioned, was but a sapling.