Sèvres-Mounted Furniture & The Role of the Marchands-Merciers Simon-Philippe Poirier & Dominique Daguerre
Furniture incrusted with Sèvres porcelain plaques has always been popular among aficionados of the French 18th century decorative arts, and considered the epitome of refined cabinet-making.
The greatest ébénistes – such as BVRB, RVLC, Carlin, Riesener and of course Weisweiler – often made precious furniture under the direction of marchands-merciers such as Poirier and Daguerre, who enjoyed a monopoly in buying porcelain plaques from the Manufacture Royale de Sèvres.
Simon-Philippe Poirier (c.1720-85) joined the corporation of marchands-merciers in 1742. That year he also married Marguerite-Madeleine Hécéguerre, daughter of the Paris marchand-mercier Michel Hécéguerre. As so often, family ties played a major role in helping Poirier become established; his uncle was the great dealer Thomas-Joachim Hébert, and his son François-Alexandre became a fabrics dealer. Poirer set up on Rue Saint-Honoré at the sign of the Couronne d'Or (Golden Crown), in the heart of the 18th century luxury trade, not far from the dealers Dulac and Bazin. His most active competitors at the time were the dealers Lazare Duvaux, Gersaint and Darnault and Julliot.
The marchand-mercier was probably the most prestigious type of Paris dealer, defined in L'Encyclopédie as a 'merchant of everything and maker of nothing.' In the 18th century Marchands-merciers were the obligatory intermediaries between wealthy clients and talented craftsmen. As well as their co-ordinating role, the marchands-merciers were prominent in following, and even influencing, changes in taste. Their financial clout enabled them to order or import the most precious materials – such as lacquered panels, Chinese porcelain and, as in the present case, expensive Sèvres porcelain. Marchands-merciers were also 'talent-spotters': Poirier hired Carlin the same year he qualified as maître, while Daguerre commissioned highly ambitious furniture from Weisweiler almost as soon as he arrived in Paris. This is precisely the case with our secrétaire from the former Gustave de Rothschild Collection, made around 1778-80.
The links between Poirier and Daguerre and the Manufacture de Sèvres are beyond dispute. Poirier appears to have been one of the factory's leading clients: between December 1758 and December 1770 he spent 700,000 livres on porcelain: a huge sum given the size of the business. We know that marchands-merciers enjoyed a discount of around 9%, but apparently re-sold at factory prices (Sèvres had its own shop in Paris at this time). Poirier therefore earned around 35,000 livres a year merely from trading in Sèvres porcelain.
Poirier rapidly acquired an extensive clientèle. Among his most illustrious customers were the Marquis de Marigny, to whom he supplied the famous commode by Joseph in 1766 (rep. in Th. Wolvesperges: Le Meuble Français en Laque au XVIIIe Siècle, Paris 2000, p.198); and the Duc de Choiseul-Amboise, who owned a two-light guéridon with porcelain top. The Duke's 8,000-livre I.O.U. to Poirier is now in the Archives Nationales in Paris (P.F. Dayot: A Public View of a Private Space: The Bedroom of the Duc de Choiseul in Paris – Waddesdon Miscellanea 2009, vol. I, pp 23-35).
From 1763-68 Poirier supplied the Earl of Coventry with furniture and objets d'art for his home at Croome Court. Most of them reflected the 'Greek style' then in vogue.
In 1772 Simon-Philippe Poirier teamed up with his cousin Dominique Daguerre, with Daguerre taking control of the business in 1777. Poirier and Daguerre did not have a monopoly on the purchase of Sèvres plaques but, from 1760-93, they each bought around 1,700. Only around 170 plaques were sold to other dealers over the same period (G. de Bellaigue & S. Eriksen: Sèvres Porcelain, 1987, p. 129)
Poirier had been producing porcelain-mounted furniture since the early 1760s, in limited series of 10 or 15 barely differing from one another except for the colour of their plaques. They included tables en chiffonnière assigned to BVRB or RVLC; small tables à gradin; secrétaires en cabinet; and jewellery caskets. Daguerre kept this lucrative business going, continuing to work with Martin Carlin (1730-85) before turning increasingly to Adam Weisweiler (1744-1820), who made a number of Sèvres-mounted pieces of furniture, usually individually rather than in series. Daguerre later went into partnership with two other dealers, first Francotais then Lignereux, and supplied a number of items to Marie-Antoinette. Her collection of lacquered furniture was deposited with him in October 1789.
Sèvres-mounted furniture took on a more varied appearance around this time, in a range of designs often featuring numerous small plaques. Yet the number of plaques ordered and bought from Sèvres seems to have fallen in the late 1770s and 1780s – from an average 100 plaques per year before 1776 to an average of 40 thereafter. With this type of furniture becoming less fashionable in France, Daguerre looked increasingly to England – where his clients included the Prince of Wales, Duke of Northumberland, the Spencers at Althorp, Lord Kerry and Lord Malmesbury. There was even an auction at Christie's in March 1791 which, declares the front of the catalogue, consisted exclusively of items from Paris.
A series of secrétaires en cabinet made a few years earlier than our example offer a stylish precedent. One of the first was made for Madame du Barry, probably in the early 1770s. Such furniture seems particularly suited to porcelain mounts, as it allows the plaques to be positioned vertically, like paintings. The secrétaire from the former Rothschild Collection is of a less standard design, and has some similarities without being identical. This also applies to other secrétaires en cabinet with corner shelving and a shelf between the legs.
Interesting secrétaires of this type include one from a private collection stamped Weisweiler (Christie's Art of France sale in New York, 21 October 1997, lot 256) and dating from around 1780 (the plaques are undated); and a secrétaire once in the Russian imperial collections and now in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (Wrightsman Collection), of similar construction and which can be dated to around 1777 (one of the plaques is dated 1776); the shelving compartments also have quatrefoil decoration, and the legs are connected by a marble shelf. This secrétaire first belonged to the singer Marie-Joséphine Laguerre, then to Empress Maria Feodorovna at Pavlovsk. It is usually attributed to Martin Carlin, as its date renders an attribution to Adam Weisweiler (who qualified in 1778) unlikely, although not impossible.
These two secrétaires form a group with our own secrétaire, made by Carlin or Weisweiler for Daguerre at around the same time. We could also mention a secrétaire once in the Galerie Ségoura (illustrated in A. Pradère: Les Ebénistes Français de Louis XIV à la Révolution, Tours 1989, p.395, fig. 484), stamped Weisweiler but with marquetry decoration only.
The Clientele for Sèvres-Mounted Furniture
The clientèle for Sèvres-mounted furniture has been examined in a number of individual studies.
An exhibition devoted to Madame du Barry's furniture was organized by Christian Baulez in 1992. She owned what was doubtless the finest ensemble of such furniture, with masterpieces including the extraordinary guéridon made by Carlin in 1774 and now in the Louvre, incorporating Dodin's famous painted plaque based on Carle van Loo's Le Concert du Grand Sultan. Carlin also made the matching commode, again adorned on the front with historiated scenes. Among the furniture made in limited series mentioned above, we can cite a secrétaire en cabinet and bonheur du jour, both incrusted with green-ground plaques.
Jean-Dominique Augarde has looked at the Graf Cobenzl Collection, identifying the Joseph bureau plat from the former Rossignol Collection.
An extraordinary set of drawings, probably intended for presenting Sèvres-mounted furniture to Daguerre's clients, is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This type of commercial approach allowed marchands-merciers to present a wide range of furniture to foreign clients; here, in all probability, to the Prince & Princess of Saxony at the Palace of Laeken in Brussels.
The 19th century saw a significant amount of Sèvres-mounted furniture in the Rothschild Collections. Along with our secrétaire, this included the extraordinary ensemble from the Baron Edmond de Rothschild Collection, acquired by the Louvre a few years ago; the tables and secrétaire à gradin in the former James de Rothschild Collection at Waddesdon Manor; Marie-Antoinette's jewellery casket, later owned by Alphonse de Rothschild; and the BVRB commode belonging to Mademoiselle de Sens.
More recently, such furniture featured prominently in leading American post-war collections, with many items later donated to major American museums. New York's Metropolitan Museum has at least twenty pieces of Sèvres-mounted furniture from the Kress, Wrightsman and Linsky Collections, while the Getty Museum has three secrétaires, three small tables and a table-bureau.
The Secrétaire in the former Gustave de Rothschild Collection &
The Production of Sèvres-Mounted Furniture
Both the date of the plaques (insofar as they can help date an item of furniture) and the bronze-register suggest that our secrétaire was made by Carlin. The presence of the Weisweiler stamp indicates how Sèvres-mounted furniture was produced. The central figure was, of course, the marchand-mercier, who hired cabinet-makers to make furniture to his designs; he provided them with the porcelain and also, no doubt, the bronze mounts.
Our secrétaire was probably made around 1778-80, just when Adam Weisweiler was qualifying as maître, so it is more likely to reflect the style and demands of Dominique Daguerre. The interlaced frieze pattern, repeated in the corners around the oval plaques, also features on a commode with green-ground plaques and the Martin Carlin stamp, again from the former Rothschild Collections (sale at Sotheby's London, 24 November 1972, lot 33).
The porcelain plaques in the apron have the same shape as those on the sides of Leleu's secrétaires à cylindre, designed to fit the outline of the secrétaires exactly. Two other similar secrétaires are known: one in the Huntington Collection in Los Angeles, sold by the dealer Joseph Duveen in 1924; the other from the former Hillingdon Collection, now in the Louvre, whose blue-ground plaques are identical to those on our secrétaire. Most of the plaques on these two items are dated 1764, 1767 or 1768, which helps date them to 1768-70. Poirier may well have intended to make a third secrétaire à cylindre, then abandoned the idea, leaving four plaques unused. These would have remained in Poirier's stock until he or Daguerre decided to re-use them on a new piece of furniture ten years later.
This way of operating basically meant optimizing the use of stock, and reveals the management skills of the Poirier-Daguerre team. Another example is the desks with porcelain plaques by Joseph Baumhauer, one originally owned by Graf Karl Cobenzl and sold by Artcurial (former Jean Rossignol Collection) in Paris on 13 December 2005 (lot 122). These surplus plaques are dated 1763, and correspond to those mounted on the front of the BVRB commode owned by Mademoiselle de Sens. A second commode may have been planned but abandoned, with a number of plaques left unused. The gifted Poirier promptly came up with gilt-bronze surrounds large enough to hide the shape of the plaques – a solution that perfectly illustrates marchands-merciers' ability to adapt in general, and Poirier's ingenuity in particular.
It is also interesting to note similarities between pieces of furniture incrusted with lacquer and those mounted with porcelain. The same principles apply to making both types of furniture – and the same constraints and difficulties as regards the supply of materials, financing, knowledge of the tastes of a demanding clientèle, network of skilled craftsmen, and sales. It was, therefore, perfectly normal for the production and sale of such furniture to be in the same hands – namely those of the marchands-merciers.
Whereas probably only Poirier, then Daguerre, produced Sèvres-mounted furniture, several other marchands-merciers made furniture mounted with Chinese or Japanese lacquered panels. However, given the structural similarities, some of this furniture can only be assigned to the Poirier-Daguerre team – including an identical table with rounded aprons and fluted legs, made by Martin Carlin in both Japanese lacquer and Sèvres porcelain versions at around the same time. The porcelain version can be seen in the Getty Musuem, the lacquered one in the Victoria & Albert Museum.
The two contoured plaques on the apron were made ten years earlier than the two large oval plaques. This clearly suggests Daguerre had stocked the plaques for re-use or subsequent use. The apron plaques are dated 1768, just like a pair of apron plaques on the secrétaire à cylindre in the Louvre (cf D. Alcouffe, A. Dion-Tenenbaum & A. Lefébure: Le Mobilier du Musée du Louvre, Dijon 1993, p. 190), although the Louvre catalogue does not specify whether it was also possible to remove and inspect the corresponding pair of plaques. A similar secrétaire, with green plaques, is now in the Huntington Collection in Los Angeles (French Art in the Eighteenth Century at the Huntington, 2008, pp 84-7). Fifteen of the 20 plaques adorning this secrétaire bear the date 1767, confirming a dating of 1768-1770 – some ten years before the Rothschild secrétaire was made.
The back of the two oval plaques have their original printed Sèvres labels, each with a price of 120 livres. The manufacture's sale register mentions two plaques bought by Daguerre in the last six months of 1778 for 120 livres apiece (Arch. MNS, Vy7, fol. 81). The relatively high price can be explained by their size and bleu céleste grounds. By way of comparison, the original label on the rectangular bleu céleste plaque on the drawer of the table Daguerre made for the Prince of Saxony (now in the Huntington), and also gilded by Vandé in 1778, has a price of 30 livres; the two rounded rectangular plaques were priced at 54 livres apiece (F. Knothe: French Art of the Eighteenth Century at the Huntington, 2007, n° 26, pp 104-7).
There are no great stylistic differences between plaques from the late 1760s and those from the late 1770s. The same gilded stringing and beading design was used continuously for nearly twenty years, probably reflecting a deliberate wish to keep a simple frame that could go with any type of gilt-bronze mount. From the mid-1770s, the bouquets were less often shown loose, and more often depicted either in flower-baskets or tied by ribbons.
Poirier and Daguerre were in regular contact with the Manufacture de Sèvres, doubtless issuing instructions as to the number, shape and decoration of the plaques they required. This is confirmed by a handwritten inscription on the back of a table by Martin Carlin (Plaque qui appartient à M. Poirier pour en faire 19 pareilles), indicating that 19 copies were to be made of a plaque belonging to Poirier (ex-Lord Lansdowne Collection, 11 December 1970, lot 46).
The links between Sèvres and the two marchands-merciers are beyond dispute: in 1769 and 1778, Sèvres records mention an oval Poirier vase and a Poirier ewer vase; a Daguerre vase is mentioned in September 1778; a Daguerre vase à monter was produced between 1783-86. Various vase designs still at Sèvres were supplied directly by Daguerre in the early 1780s.
It is interesting to note that the plaques on Carlin's earlier secrétaires cost 96 livres. Geoffray de Bellaigue notes that eleven such plaques were supplied between 1773-76.
Just two types of flower are represented on the oval plaques dated 1778: roses and cornflowers. The combination of these two flowers seems to have enchanted Marie-Antoinette: two of the four table-services supplied to her in 1781 were decorated with roses and cornflowers.
Gustave de Rothschild & the Town-House on Avenue Marigny
Our secrétaire was almost certainly acquired by Gustave de Rothschild (1829-1911). Some years after his 1859 marriage to Cécile Anspach they moved into a town-house at 23 Avenue Marigny, created by knocking together two houses owned by the Duchesse de Bauffremont – one giving on to Avenue Marigny, the other on to Rue du Cirque. Alfred-Philibert Aldrophe was the architect in charge, also erecting new buildings at the same time. The secrétaire was depicted in situ in the town-house by Alexandre Serebriakoff during the early 1970s. The town-house was sold to the State in 1975 and used as a residence for foreign guests.
Marks & Remarks
When it was sold at auction in 1979, our secrétaire en cabinet was dated as Louis-Philippe (1830-48) – probably because certain details had not been spotted at the time. To remove all ambiguity about our dating of the secrétaire to c.1778-80, we need to specify what these were:
– Stamp: the secrétaire is stamped A.WEISWEILER four times – twice on the struts beneath the base, and twice on the back; the stamp is feint and hard to spot
– Marks on the Sèvres plaques: as detailed above, each oval plaque is marked with interlacing Ls; the mark on plaque n°2 is very hard to see, and the red pencil inscription Debrieux / Juillet 1833 may have been mistakenly interpreted. The apron's central green-ground plaque was added after the secrétaire was made; it was made in the second half of the 1780s and was originally rectangular, and intended to be positioned horizontally; one of the ends was rounded to enable the plaque to fit into the central cartouche. The presence of a hole in the carcass in the middle of this cartouche suggests that a bronze mount, like those on the apron of similar Carlin furniture, was originally placed here.
– Ebénisterie: in the 1979 catalogue photograph, the plaques on the secrétaire's fall-front have blackened surrounds. These were made of painted metal and had probably been added to the bands of sycamore veneer in the 19th century, in response to the taste of the time. After being acquired at auction in 1979, the secrétaire was restored to its original appearance by Michel Jamet.
The wooden panel under the fitted interior of the upper section was annotated in pencil with dimensions in feet and inches and a profiled capital.
– Bronze mounts: these retain their original mercury gilding.
Fall-front mounted with two oval Sèvres bleu céleste plaques decorated with roses and cornflowers, opening to reveal two drawers and pigeon-holes; flanked by two-tiered curved gallery shelves with stylized green-stained quatrefoil motifs on a sycamore ground; on a stand with a mechanically opened compartment at each end, and a single drawer in the apron incrusted with two Sèvres bleu céleste plaques decorated with floral sprays, on either side of a central green-ground plaque (added later); tapering fluted legs joined by a marble shelf; gilt-bronze mounts: foliate frieze, écoinçons, pierced galleries, chutes and egg-and-dart borders; white marble shelves (restored); a red ink stamp with the number 1348. underneath, along with a label marked 1348 and another marked PR2; the oval plaque to the left with a Sèvres label marked 120L with interlaced Ls, the date-letters AA for 1778, and VD for the gilder Vaudé; the oval plaque to the right with a Sèvres label marked 120L (the interlaced Ls without date-letter) and inscribed Debrieux Juillet 1833 in red pencil; each side plaque in the apron with interlaced Ls in blue, the date-letter P for 1768, and the mark of the painter Méraud (on the plaque to the right); the central plaque with a Sèvres label inscribed 18L (crossed out) and 12L. Haut 121 cm, larg. 96 cm, prof. 33 cm
- Ancienne collection du baron Gustave de Rothschild, 23 avenue de Marigny, Paris
- Vente étude Couturier et Nicolaÿ, palais d'Orsay, Paris, le 21 juin 1979, lot 138
- Collection privée européenne