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Boulle's Inlays

Andre Charles Boulle was one of those artists who now and then in the history of a country's craftsmanship stand out as the initiator of some new process. His invention or method by which he beautified cabinet work by the introduction of foreign substances, was quite new—it was something that had not been thought of by any one else. This famous artist was a worker in ebony, gradually improving his work by inlays and clever coverings with ornaments of brass and other metals. His great success, however, was inlaid tortoiseshell, cut out and encrusted with arabesques, and ornaments of thin brass and white metal, many of which were elaborately engraved, as well as being inlaid. Boulle appears to have been a man of many abilities, for in royal patents granted to him in respect of his inventions and processes he is described as : " Architect, painter, carver in mosaic, artist in cabinet-work, craftsman in veneer, chaser and inlayer; and designer of figures." Briefly describing the most popular of his processes, it may be explained that his work in tortoiseshell and brass was effected by cutting the two substances together in fanciful fretwork, and then pressing the cut-through materials together, thus forming an inlay. After this process had been carried out the metallic portions of the inlay were surface-engraved, the graver's tool thus giving life to the object. Objects so decorated in some instances represented insects and animals, in others his ornament was merely decorative scroll-work or fanciful design. The colouring of Boulle work differs, sometimes it is brown, at others red or black, the colouring matter being placed under the tortoiseshell inlay.

Most of the Boulle pieces were very massive, such objects as commodes, bureaus, and desks being further enriched by the free use of handsome metal handles, and corner ornaments. Boulle also made smaller tables and cabinets for private houses, together with caskets, ink-stands, bookcases, and cupboards. He was an artist who was much copied, and connoisseurs are reminded that comparatively few of the pieces met with in dealers' shops, or coming under the hammer, were made by the great master or in his workshop. Some of his imitators used horn instead of tortoiseshell, adding blue or vermilion paint, until some of the work became extravagant and almost ludicrous. Inferior Boulle work was made up of the portions cut out of the metal and tortoiseshell sheets which had been first operated upon in the construction of the better pieces. The name given to this second quality by French artists was coutre partie, as distinct from the premiere partie, that consisting of the original fret or inlay. Many of the collectors' pieces which come into the market nowadays are found to be defective, and others have been indifferently repaired at an earlier date, such pieces being " restored " by those who have not had the experience of the original maker.

The finest and most reliable examples of Boulle work which may be inspected are those met with in the Wallace Collection, and the few very choice examples in the Victoria and Albert Museum, especially a Boulle cabinet in the Jones bequest, which is said to have cost its owner £5,000. One of the most beautiful examples in the Victoria and Albert Museum is the commode in the style of Bergin, bequeathed by the late Mrs Julia Bonnar. It was formerly in the possession of her father, Captain Charles Spencer Ricketts. The top of this beautiful commode is covered with brass and tortoiseshell inlays, enriched by the addition of mother-of-pearl and green and blue enamels. These are wrought into mythical designs in which Cupid and Psyche figure. In the Wallace Collection there are two cabinets of ebony with marqueterie of tortoiseshell and white metal on yellow metal, and mounts of gilt-bronze cast and chased after the style of the Louis XIV. period, but said to have been made by a skilful imitator in the reign of Louis XVI. There is also a cabinet of ebony and marqueterie of the same materials, in the metal being set a medallion of Henry IV., King of France. That cabinet is also of the style of Louis XIV., but probably made later. Another well-known example in Hertford House is a cabinet of ebony with panels decorated with floral designs in marqueterie of various woods ; the ornamental bands and plaques are in marqueterie of metal, ebony, and tortoise-shell. The style is closely allied to the earlier period of Louis XIII., but the tentative marqueterie work denotes a transition to the style of Louis XIV., and presents the curious characteristics of that peculiar work of the ebenisterie of Andre Charles Boulle. A prominent feature of this magnificent cabinet is the crowning decoration of gilt-bronze, consisting of a military trophy, in the centre of which is a medallion of Louis XIV. in his early manhood. In the same collection there is an armoire in ebony, also by Boulle. It is enriched with marqueterie of metal and tortoiseshell, the mounts of gilt bronze being cast and chased. The central ornament of the face of the armoire is a nymph and young satyr, at the sides being plaques in low relief, symbolising Summer and Autumn. Another piece of Boulle's work is a coffret de mariage (marriage casket) in ebony, standing on a base of the same wood. Both are decorated with the usual marqueterie and gilt bronze ornament. There is a second marriage chest in the collection, the special feature of which is the peculiar red tortoiseshell of the inlays.

Collectors need not be disheartened on account of the many fine pieces named as representative of the style, for minor examples are often rich in marqueterie and inlay, some of which are made up of bois du roi ("King wood "), the name given to a species of West Indian wood which is somewhat darker than mahogany.

It was when China and Japan had sent over their wonderful productions in lacquered wares that European connoisseurs became interested in this, to them, new art. As a natural consequence, cabinet-makers in France and afterwards in England commenced to manufacture the nearest approach to Oriental lacquer or varnished wares they were able to produce. To a large extent, they were successful, but they had to contend with the natural difficulties of producing a gum or lacquer to take the place of the Oriental lac which could only be applied under conditions which prevailed exclusively in the country where the trees from which the lac was obtained grew. The most celebrated exponents of European lacquer work, as applied to furniture and household furnishings, were the Martins, who about the middle of the eighteenth century produced some of their marvellous works of art in the " Royal Manufactory," the title given to their factories and cabinet works, one of which was in faubourg Saint Martin, another in the faubourg Saint Denis, and the third in the rue Saint Magloire. The French Dauphin purchased many cabinet specimens, and other members of the royal house of France added to the nation's treasures. Some of these choice examples are still stored at Versailles. The Martins were specially famous for their black lacquers, and they applied their special varnish, closely copying the Chinese, upon all kinds of metals and woods, as well as on leather and pasteboard.

In the reign of Louis XV. porcelain was evident everywhere, A room was considered incomplete unless filled with priceless china. It was a time when the potters of Saxony had discovered the art of making a hard paste like the Chinese. In the reign of Louis XVI. there were some 'additions to the furnishings of the palace. Then delicate paintings became evident, and Sevres porcelain was in the ascendent. Many of these delightful ceramics were introduced, harmonising with the rosewood veneers. The dead gilding of the bronzes incorporated in furniture was relieved by Sevres plaques and panels. Those combinations formed a happy relief to the wood-work and took off some of the extravagance of ornamentation, just as the porcelain of China and Japan relieved the severity of the marqueterie and bronze of the Louis XIV. period. Undoubtedly the Sevres panels and porcelain were fittingly appropriate to the furniture of that day, for they would not have been suitable on Boulle cabinets of Louis XVI.

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

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