An Artist's Sense of Humour / by Jeannine Cook

Boulle table-top

Boulle table-top

The name of the great 17th century French artisan , André-Charles Boulle, is synonymous with astonishingly complex marquetry veneers of woods, tortoiseshell, pewter and brass applied to elaborate furniture of huge value. I never expected to laugh out loud as I was viewing some of his work. I had always associated him with the work he created for Louis XIV and other illustrious French courtiers. He had been designated a master cabinet maker in 1666, by the time he was 24 years old; Louis XIV appointed him royal cabinetmaker in 1672, and he was a hugely successful artist.

The Wallace Collection has a large collection of his furniture, and each table, desk, wardrobe, chest of drawers is well worth studying closely.  However, I soon decided that Boulle, for all his fame and wondrous skill in marquetery, must have had a sense of fun and humour.

A deviation first to say that marquetry is the art of applying veneered patterns to a smooth surface to adorn furniture, frequently using different types of wood, but also ivory, bone, metals, tortoiseshell, mother of pearl. It is an art which had its heyday in the 16th-19th century, but which is now undergoing a limited revival, thanks to laser cutting.  Previously, a fret saw was used to cut out the complex patterns that were then glued onto the surface of the piece of furniture being made. Labour intensive and exacting, the art was taken to new heights of intricacy and beauty by Boulle in his furniture.  He perfected a new method of cutting out the pieces of marquetery by piling layers one on the other before they werecut out,  “tarsia a incastro” (interlocking intarsia), which made marquetery much more efficient.

This is the table, in oak, pinewood and walnut, gilt bronze, brass and turtleshell, that first caused my laughter and fascination.  It was apparently restored later by Jean-François Leleu, but André-Charles Boulle (1642 - 1732) created it originally.

Side table Attributed to André-Charles Boulle (1642 - 1732) Jean-François Leleu (1729 - 1807), Restorer France c. 1705 1764 - 1807 (Louis XVI style cassolette probably added during restoration by Leleu) Oak, pinewood, walnut, gilt bronze, brass and première- and contre-partie Boulle marquetry of brass and turtleshell (Image courtesy of The Wallace Collection, London)

Side table Attributed to André-Charles Boulle (1642 - 1732) Jean-François Leleu (1729 - 1807), Restorer France c. 1705 1764 - 1807 (Louis XVI style cassolette probably added during restoration by Leleu) Oak, pinewood, walnut, gilt bronze, brass and première- and contre-partie Boulle marquetry of brass and turtleshell (Image courtesy of The Wallace Collection, London)

Side table Attributed to André-Charles Boulle (1642 - 1732) René Dubois (1737 - 1798), Restorer France c. 1705 1755 - 1798 (Louis XVI style cassolette probably added during restoration by Dubois) Oak, pinewood, walnut (some stained black), gilt bronze and première- and contre-partie Boulle marquetry of brass and turtleshell, steel key (Image courtesy of The Wallace Collection, London)

Side table Attributed to André-Charles Boulle (1642 - 1732) René Dubois (1737 - 1798), Restorer France c. 1705 1755 - 1798 (Louis XVI style cassolette probably added during restoration by Dubois) Oak, pinewood, walnut (some stained black), gilt bronze and première- and contre-partie Boulle marquetry of brass and turtleshell, steel key (Image courtesy of The Wallace Collection, London)

On the table top, jaunty monkeys ride pillion on a very strange and fanciful cart. A surprised fish swims out of what seems to be a serpent's mouth, the serpent suspended who know how. Putti play joyfully on a swing in the centre of the odd conveyance.  A dolphin forms part of the carriage "roof" in front and becomes a seat.  Bees swarm in front, another monkey lashes a whip from the driver's section of the vehicle. Birds, linked by an undulating ribbon, swirl overhead.  The whole fantastic scene pulses with energy, it dips and twirls in a marvellous frenzy.

There is a second 1705 companion side table in the Wallace Collection, also by André-Charles Boulle. It too was probably a larger version of a table originally made for the Château de la Ménagerie at Versailles.

Sadly, I cannot find any illustration for this second table. But this too is a wonderfully fanciful piece of marquetery, full of fun.  Monkeys ride astride a barrel, another curious conveyance, or below and behind the "vehicle", whilst others lurch along atop a huge, vertically-slatted cage full of birds, the "vehicle".  A monkey pays the bagpipes to birds on a perch, another plays a fiddle to disapproving birds below.  A monkey drinks a toast to a human figure, another is dressed as a gentleman, yet another dances as he balances on a tightrope bar.  More industrious monkeys are pulling along the whole strange conveyance, while above the whole mad scene, there is a bust of a severe-looking lady looking down disapprovingly from the cross-piece above the lunatic system of transport!

Boulle's sense of humour seems to dictate his choice of design in odd places.  Take a look at the complexities of this amazing toilet mirror back.

Toilet mirror Attributed to André-Charles Boulle (1642 - 1732) Pierre Ladoireau, Goldsmith, gilt-bronze sphinx feet and border France 1713 1800 - 1900 (looking-glass) 1863 - 1863 (coronet added by Delaroche) Oak, ebony, première-partie Boulle marquetry of brass and turtleshell, gilt bronze, brass feet, glass (Image courtest of The Wallace Collection, London)

Toilet mirror Attributed to André-Charles Boulle (1642 - 1732) Pierre Ladoireau, Goldsmith, gilt-bronze sphinx feet and border France 1713 1800 - 1900 (looking-glass) 1863 - 1863 (coronet added by Delaroche) Oak, ebony, première-partie Boulle marquetry of brass and turtleshell, gilt bronze, brass feet, glass (Image courtest of The Wallace Collection, London)

All sorts of things are going on, with cupids gamboling, birds strutting and flying, ladies striking poses, trumpets being played - all in a harmonious, elegant swirl of activity and fantasy.

Again, here's to getting shoved out of preconceptions and assumptions by going to museums!  I will never look at André-Charles Boulle's astonishing furniture again in the same light.