table took our breath away when we first encountered it. The magnificent overall design, the
spectacular carving, the rich patina of the walnut, all combine to make this
the ne plus ultra of 19th century re-evocation of French Renaissance style.
overall structure, it owes its design to a 17th century look perfected in the
Loire Valley during the reign of Louis XIII.
A small, oblong table made of walnut, its base would have been comprised
of legs at four corners united by an H-shaped stretcher and by one or two legs
joining the stretcher and the top. The
legs would all have been torsades, those massive and elaborate double spirals
(what the British call barley twists), alternating broad and narrow widths,
while symbolizing not only eternal life but also a master carver's
accomplishments. Heavy, four-sided blocks
would have united the legs with the "H" elements of the
stretcher. Multiple pendentives would
have been suspended from a crossbar under the table, elongated but not far
enough to reach the stretcher.
Supporting it all would have been bun feet. Disguised within the frieze below the top, a single drawer,
spanning the length of the table, would have been inserted.
stopped right here with our description, a glorious example of Renaissance
craftsmanship would be evoked, such as the otherwise unadorned table, sold at
auction for FF190,000 (approximately US$32,000) in 1991 from the Perrier
Collection of Haute Epoque furniture.
table takes just such a basic object and elaborates on it to become its own
distinctive work of art. The highlight
is the set of four magnificently sculpted angelots (cherubs) at the corners of
the top. The cherubim are especially
enchanting, their heads slightly angled and hair wind-swept, as if they are in
the act of turning to greet us. The
detail of the carving, including the chubby smoothness of the faces, the
wispiness of the hair, the slightly pouty mouths, and the intricacy of their
wings, all evoke an Italian master such as Rosso Fiorentino or Bernini.
smaller angelot, with a more stern visage, does double duty as a drawer-pull
set amidst a frieze of grotesque decoration.
Since our most recent trip to Rome, we have become fascinated with
grotesque decoration discovered by Raphael and his cohorts in the underground
remains (grotto) of Nero's Domus Aurea.
Within a short period, it was turning up everywhere as standard
ornamental motifs involving acanthus leaves and other vegetation in long
flourishes, volutes, strap-work, and with the addition of masques and
candelabra, all depicted within rectangular panels. Here, the vocabulary is limited to vegetation, but depicted in
swirls and sweeping curves of various widths and sizes.
motifs adorn the blocks uniting the legs with the stretchers and dividing the
stretcher in two below the central leg.
This too is standard ornament traceable to Nero's house, having a small
central bud and long leaves pointing out to the corners of the square.
pendentives or toupies suspended from the top are unusually wide, which may account
for there being only two instead of the more traditional four. Magnificently rounded and balanced, they are
masterpieces of the furniture-maker's skill.
stopped right here, the table would be sufficient as a triumph of 19th century
reinterpretation of French design from the period known as the Second
Renaissance. But there's more. The top of the table lifts up and stays
perpendicular. Hinged supports,
disguised as volutes, pull outward from the sides so that additional panels can
fold out and sit upon them. Research
has not yielded answers as to the uses for which these extensions were
designed. We could not term this a
worktable, since it is far too beautiful for drafting or designing. Nor does it lend itself to dining, since it
is too narrow and could be awkward with the top up. Perhaps it was designed as a way to hide important papers in
plain sight by secreting them between the levels of the top? Whatever the objective, the extension design
remains an enigma and part of the charm of this remarkable piece.
Collection Bruno Perrier Haute Epoque (Catalog for Sale at Auction on April 6,
1992 at the Hôtel Drouot, Paris); Boccador,
Jacqueline, Le Mobilier Français du Moyen Age à la Renaissance, Editions d'Art
Monelle Hayot (Saint-Just-en-Chaussée, 1988); Ward-Jackson,
Peter, Some Main Streams and Tributaries in European Ornament from 1500 to 1750
(Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1969)