Sunday, November 8, 2009

Furniture Discussion, First in a Series... The 18th Century French Rafraichissoir

A delightful blog entry in one of my favourite blogs discussing taste and decoration was written by much admired fellow blogger An Aesthete's Lament. I recommend the entry as I do this very amusing and enlivening blog.

Recently the blog discussed a charming mid 20th Century adaptation of an 18th Century furniture form that is usually only known to serious antiquarians today... As a serious antiquarian and particular enthusiast of the decorative arts of 18th Century Paris and Versailles, my current entry aspires to provide my welcome visitors with an antiquarian's view and history of this admittedly fetching and almost forgotten form of serving table.

Among the most delightful and civilized tables for a specific use in 18th Century France, there was the rafraichissoir. It has often also been called a servante The essential purpose of the rafraichissoir was to allow a host and his guests to dine alone unaccompanied by waiters and other domestic servants that could overhear private conversations. Bottles of wine would sit chilling in 2 (or sometimes 3) wells that were actually removable buckets inset in the top of the table. These receptacles, were usually silver plated or brass. The remaining area of the table top was usually (but not always) covered with a marble surface. And below that was a frieze drawer for extra napkins, cutlery, a corkscrew or whatever else was required. This was usually placed along the front just below the marble. A standard rafraichissoir also had one or sometimes a pair of tiered shelves below to hold covered dishes, or extra plates for later courses. Invariably, it was customary to rest the four legs of a rafraichissoir on brass casters to allow it to be wheeled about as needed. And sometimes, though not always, there were handles on the sides. In short, the rafraichissoir's main purpose was to allow the small group more privacy by providing all the required items for the duration of the dinner without the prying eyes and ears of servants - thus eliminating servant's gossip on which many a historian has relied for years!

The usual rafraichissoir that developed around 1770, was most often apparently made by the Parisian ebeniste Canabas who seems to have made a specialty of them. You see a good example of the kind of rafraichissoir his workshop produced in the illustration of the pair below.

The lovely pair of rafraichissoir illustrated here were lot 813 at an auction at Christie's in New York on 20 October 2006.

Incidentally, as early as the 1770's these very useful tables were already customarily being made of mahogany before that wood really became so very fashionable on the eve of the French Revolution. In the engraving by Moreau le Jeune, entitled Le Souper Fin, you can see the very setting and social gathering at which it would have been put to (not surprisingly) very good use.

Understandably, as the curvaceous Louis XV style gave way to the more rectilinear Louis XVI and later Directoire Styles, the rafraichissoir similarly became more rectilinear as well. In the other illustration, you will note a restrained rafraichissoir of approximatly 1785-1790 that has enjoyed the benign fate of so many of these charming tables and is now used as a planter when not enlisted to service in a dining room. Incidentally, the lovely drawing room is in the Chateau de Chesnaie as illustrated in Meubles et Ensembles Époque Louis XVI by Yvonne Brunhammer and Monique de Fayet published in Paris by Éditions Charles Massin in 1965.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Visiting Great Homes and Collections, 1st in a Series: Chateau de La Motte Tilly, France

The Chateau de La Motte Tilly stands on the site of what was formerly an old Medieval house and was built in 1748 by the brothers Pierre Terray de Rozières, Consieller au Parlement and Procueure général `a la cour des aides along with his more important brother the Abbé Joseph Terry who was the money man for the government and Louis XV's last Contrôleur General des Finances. To anyone familiar with the increasingly precarious state of the growing treasury deficit at the time, it's obvious Messr L'Abbé did not have an enviable job. Though for the record, his policies and those of the king at the time would have averted the cataclysm of 1789 had only Louis XV and his reforming ministers had a few more years and the King not struck down with smallpox in 1774 which ended this happy reign in the joyful 18th Century too early.

The brothers Terray, chose a lesser remembered architect François Nicholas Lancret to design this fine seignorial country seat. He was the nephew of the better known painter Nicholas Lancret. The view from the garden side with the reflection of this handsome residence is mesmerizingly beautiful... But it's largely the fine interiors and appointments that concern us here. For any collector or enthusiast of 18 eme French decorative arts, the chateau, which is open to the public, is a must. However don't expect to see total archeological fidelity to 18th Century furniture arrangements. The visit can be very rewarding if you're willing to understand this was a collection arranged in the late 19th and early 20th Century and evokes rather than recreates 18th Century room arrangements. Hence be prepared to see fine stamped 18th Century furniture, paintings, busts and decorative appointments of all kinds and of the highest quality. But also understand you'll see plenty of electric table lamps and other modern day features which is more in the mood of an interior by Maison Jansen of Paris. incidentally, many scenes from the film Valmont were shot here.

Below is the entrance hall...

Below are images of the ground floor reception rooms with a drawing room, library, billiard room and dining room.

In the dining room, there was a very instructive comparative pair of table settings to demonstrate the difference between 18th Century service`a la Française and a 19th Century service`a la Russe.

Here is an 18th Century French table setting with cheerfully elegant Sevres porcelain.

The upper story bedrooms are lovely decorative ensembles in Louis XV, Louis XVI and Empire Styles!

In 1910, a decendant of the Terrays, The Comte de Rohan Chabot, bought the house. Under his stewardship, the restoration of the interiors - of which sadly much is lost due to the pillaging that transpired during the revolution and again during WWII - was greatly brought back to life and evokes the original period with a standard that would please any serious museum curator. The blue drawing room retains the only original boiseries. However the Grand Salon with it's fine seating furniture signed by Tilliard (once owned by Madame de Pompadour) is ravishing and sumptuous and very much in the taste of the 18th Century. Like many a great chateaux in France conserving - to some degree - its original 18 eme spirit, The Chateau de La Motte Tilly also has some rooms appointed in early 19th Century Empire. The Library with its Winterhalter oval portrait of Rohan Chabot's mother, Jeanne Terray de Morel Vindé is another gentle 19 eme touch... Much of this exceptionally lovely house's state of conservation is due to the daughter of the Comte de Rohan Chabot, La Marquise de Maillé, who was responsible for the furnishing of the rooms as we see them today. She was widowed at a young age, and devoted herself largely to the study of Medieval architecture. After her father's death in 1964, she set on a course of action to also install central heating and other modern comforts. In 1972, the chateau was given to The Caise Nationale des Monuments Historiques et des Sites and since 1978, it has been open to the public. Unlike other houses that are also on view, this one does not - nor pretends to - appeal to idle tourists. So happily for those of us who deeply and earnestly want to see great 18 eme French furniture and decorative appointments in the right setting, this is a place to which one must make a pilgrimage! Many thanks to the lovely fun and informed private guide Allison Crossley a delightful UK transplant to France who also runs a long established translation service in the area. She most kindly collected me at the train station after figuratively holding my hand via cell phone as I changed a series of trains from Paris to get there and drove me about once I arrived. She kindly showed me the chateau very leisurely and accepted to be my guest at a very animated friendly lunch at a nearby local haunt which was sensational!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Collections at Auction : 1st in a Series Being The Pescheteau-Badin Auction of The Maurice Aicardi Estate Collection... A Truly Gentlemanly Style!

In November of 2007, The Parisian auction house Pescheteau-Badin, conducted the auction of the collections of the late Maurice Aicardi. This auction house is not as widely known outside of Europe as are Sotheby's, Christie's or even Doyle's and Phillips. But to Europeans - particularly the French collecting circles, it is known for it's very respectable offerings of fine estates of the second rank that don't have the impact that such estates as that of the late Yves Saint Laurent would have enjoyed. Yet, to informed collectors, such auctions are truly a gold mine with possibilities and the excitement of discovery and acquisition!

Maurice Aicardi's taste in arranging his home was clearly influenced by the great taste makers of his time like Charles de Beistegui, Madame Castaing, Georges Geoffroy and Maison Jansen. You see it in the patterned carpets, the leopard skin fabrics on chairs and pillows, the red walls of the chambre `a coucher, the walls covered with lovely paintings including lots of portraits of gentleman and ladies in their bewigged and powdered finery, interspersed with amazing effortlessness alongside prints and drawings in framed with delicate watercoloured mats. This is the nearly extinct easy civilized taste of a generation of European that still emerges at auction from time to time today as the last of this generation passes... And what they can teach us about l'art de vivre is invaluable!

Above all however, Aicardi was a true collector and that is something of which one cannot lose sight as one peruses the photos of his elegant Parisian residence in the Palais Royale.

The decorating seems to have just taken care of itself! This man bought quality! He clearly wanted good representational pieces ranging from the early 18th Century to the early 19th Century. But he was more interested in his acquisitions being fine rather than just accumulating trophies to impress. Like Beistegui, he had no qualms about putting a pair of Consulat chairs in a room with a Louis XVI semainier under a Regence portrait. But unlike Beistegui, he was collecting more than decorating and clearly sought good examples of good straight forward period furniture and other decorative art. Such collectors of French furniture from Louis XIV to the Restauration were more concerned with quality than labels or just stage set decorating and that breed are noticeably on the wane today. And before the last of these very seigneurial decorative ensembles and collections completely disappear, they should be recorded, photographed, studied and appreciated for the lessons they can impart to us in this hurried world where it's unlikely anything like this way of life they represented will be seen again. Helas!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

La Ville De Versailles, A Serious Series of Visits: 1st in the Series Being An Introduction with MUCH MORE TO COME!

Although I had been taken there as a child, I consider my first visit to Versailles was in 2000 to quietly celebrate my recent 40th birthday in late 1999. I recall working on a epic scale appraisal and subsequent liquidation sale of the estate of a rather prominent interior designer that summer and autumn during which time the workload was so intense that a birthday in France was unthinkable. Those same circumstances also regrettably impeded me from going to France to see the historic preview of the Sotheby's auction for the Chateau de Groussay which I have ever regretted. But duty has to come first I suppose... Anyone who knows anything about the life of an art/antiques appraiser knows it's hard work and late hours in often inclement environments. And this one was not only huge. It was gritty and ugly! The decedent had been murdered brutally and left no will. He also left behind a cornucopia of personal property as well as his stock in trade that took up his residence (where I had to record the contents amidst clear bloodstains in the master bedroom where he was murdered), a showroom in Miami's well known "Design District" which is not particularly safe at night when I would have to routinely continue working, and 2 warehouses in the poor "Little Haiti" area of Miami with NO AC in August and in which I also had to work routinely well into the night just to keep up with the work load and the deadlines. What sustained me during this epic assignment was the determination to reward myself when it was over and go spend a week in the city of Versailles about which I knew nothing by first hand experience and of which I deeply yearned to know more. To other colleagues and friends also interested in the great Chateau de Versailles, the ancien régime, and the decorative arts of the joyful 18th Century this seemed odd indeed. Invariably, the response was either "You mean you're going to Paris of course..." to "Why don't you stay in Paris and just take the train into Versailles? You'll be bored to death... What will you do when you're not in the Chateau? There is nothing there!"

Thank God I learned a long time ago to follow my instincts which were heavily reinforced by years and years of reading. And was I ever rewarded! La Ville de Versailles is glorious! Not only that, in spite of the inevitable demolition here and inexcusable alteration there, the city is home to historic buildings including homes of royal mistresses, artists, courtiers and all the old "friends" about whom any lover of the French court from the age of Louis XIV to the Revolution has read in endless histories, diaries, letters and memoires of the period. The rewards of a sojourn in early 21st Versailles are manifold! Outside of the chateau itself, there are virtually no crowds. The smaller Musée Lambinet which is a former 18 eme Hôtel Particulier converted into a museum similar in mission statement to that of the Carnavalet and which is largely devoted to the history of La Ville de Versailles is peaceful and pregnant with glorious collections including period rooms, paintings, porcelains, objets d'art and has hosted major landmark exhibitions on such masters of the 18th Century as the painter
Jean-Jacques Bachelier or the Sculptor Simon Boizot. Stay tuned for more about this subject to which I have devoted many rewarding years of study and visits. Et Vive le Roi!