Writing Table thumbnail 1
Writing Table thumbnail 2
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Image of Gallery in South Kensington
Not currently on display at the V&A
On display at Cliffe Castle Museum, Keighley

Writing Table

ca. 1775-1780 (made)
Artist/Maker
Place of origin

This delicate table was made in the workshops of the most inventive cabinet-maker of the 1780s - David Roentgen. From his workshops in Neuwied, Germany, he sold pieces throughout Europe. He even designed them to be taken apart for packing - in this case, the legs unscrew.

The frieze panels, showing neither locks nor handles, open to provide a central drawer fitted with a writing panel, and with a nest of small drawers. The drawer is opened by pressing a metal stud under the front of the table. When it is fully opened, it automatically releases the catches of two side drawers that hinge out from the body of the table.

The top is decorated with Roentgen's particular form of marquetry, which used fine slips of different woods to create exceptional detail. It shows a scene from the Trojan Wars, as described in Virgil's poem the Aeneid, Book II, with Aeneas escaping from the burning city of Troy with his father and his son.

This table is currently shown at Cliffe Castle Museum, Keighley, West Yorkshire. Another table with the same marquetry scene of the top (1060-1882) is on show in the Furniture Galleries at the V&A.


Object details
Categories
Object type
Materials and techniques
Maple (some stained), tulipwood and holly, on a carcase of oak, cherry and pine, with gilt-brass and brass mounts
Brief description
Writing table of oval form, with tapering, square legs, inlaid on the top with pictorial marquetry showing Aenes rescuing Anchises from Troy.
Physical description
Writing-table, veneered in maple with oval top, inlaid with the escape of Aeneas bearing Anchises from the burning Troy, and military trophies in coloured woods, with brass mouldings and ormolu ornaments. It has internal drawers and fittings, and is said to have belonged to the Princess de Lamballe, who was superintendent to the household of Queen Marie Antoinette.
Dimensions
  • Height: 80cm
  • Top diameter: 73.7cm
Style
Object history
The acquisition record for this table describes it as 'By David de Luneville' and records that it belonged to the Princesse de Lamballe. At the Chateau de Sceaux, in a apartment on the first floor set aside for the princess (daughter-in-law of the duc de Penthièvre, owner of the chateau), an inventory taken after the duc's death in 1793, listed as item 8 'an oval marquetry writing table with several drawers, a top depicting a historical subject, and tapering legs, adorned with gilded brass' (Archives Nationales, Paris, Minutier Central, Etude XXXV 962, maître Tion. Inventaire après décès du Citoyen Bourbon, Penthièvre, April 27 1793, p. 462, Château de Sceaux, appartement no. 8, cabinet). Whether or not this particular table was the one listed has, as yet, not been established.



The table is also noted as coming from the Barker Collection, per T. M. Whitehead. This is presumably Alexander Barker, the collector/dealer who lived at 103 Piccadilly and who died in October 1873. His collection was sold at Christie's, 6-11 June 1874. The table was purchaed for £420.



This was the first piece by David Roentgen to be purchased by a public collection.
Historical context
This table is a production of the workshop of David Roentgen, who took over his father Abraham's workshop in Neuwied, Germany, in 1772. Abraham had already become noted for luxurious marquetry furniture, but David developed the designs of the business, in particular developing a new form of marquetry. Traditionally, marquetry used many small pieces of veneer, cut by saw and fitted together like a jig-saw, to cover the surface of the carcase wood completely. David Roentgen created his designs in a different fashion. He covered the ground with large areas of veneer, on this table the whole top. He then placed on the flat surface smaller pieces, such as the wall or columns shown here, marked their position, then cut into the veneer ground with a special tool known as a 'shoulder knife' (a blade held in a very long handle, which could be steadied and levered against the shoulder to exert pressure). He inlaid the pieces into the recess made, then repeated the process with every smaller pieces, such as the small pieces of veneer that form the plants running over the columns.



The Roentgen workshops used relatively few expensive tropical woods, although here the main panel is outlined in a cross-banding of mahogany and the inner drawers are veneered in tulipwood. For the pictorial marquetry woods such as maple and box were used but were often stained in vivid colours, such as the green which survives unfaded on the inside of the drawers. Marquetry makers had traditionally relied on two techniques to give liveliness to their work: they had dipped the individual pieces of marquetry into hot sand to singe the edges, which could give the effect of shadow on a three-dimensional object, and they also engraved the inlaid plaques and filled the engraved lines with coloured mastic (usually black) to create the details of the design. David rejected both such ideas in the 1770s and set about creating his complex design using only very small or fine pieces of wood, as on the clothing of Aeneas here. He was however, very interested in dyeing woods for marquetry. The top of this table shows faded evidence that some of the woods were dyed and inside the drawers, the deep green is a reminder of the startling nature of such colouring in the eighteenth century.



David Roengen's other revolutionary venture was to create designs for furniture which could be 'flat-packed' to be sent all over Europe. This table is a neat example of what he wanted to accomplish. By removing a few screws which hold the mounts at the top of the legs in place, it is possible to unscrews each leg. The marquetry top is also attached with four specially made screws which would allow the marquetry of the top to be carried out independently of the making of the box or carcase of the table, so that the two trades could be carried on simultaneously in different workshops.



He had a large clientele, ranging from the Empress of Russia, to quite middling people. He travelled extensively himself and in 1774 and again in 1779 he visited Paris. In 1780 he was accepted as a member of the Paris guild of carvers and cabinet-makers, which was an extraordinary tribute to his skill but which was also valuable to him in allowing him to sell his wares freely in Paris, without objection from the guild. The French inscription under the writing slide of this table (visible only if the table is partially dismantled) is in French (see Marks) suggesting that it was made for the Paris market.



Roentgen was adept at tailoring his products to his markets, with the same design of table or commode being produced in both luxurious and slightly simpler versions. The Museum itself holds another version of this table (Museum No. 381-1874) and several other versions are known, including one in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.



The design for the scene of Aeneas fleeing the burning ruins of Troy is taken from a painting by Januarius Zick (1730-1797), a painter who supplied many designs to Roentgen. The main figures are close to Zick's design but many elements of the painting have been compressed, with less room between the figures, to reduce the scene to a scale suitable for a table top. Zick's image was re-drawn for the marquetry design, almost certainly by the engraver Elie Gervais (1721-1791) who noted, in November 1774, that he and his assistants worked two days on an oval table, he himself drawing the heads, hands and feet.



A total of 28 tables of this design are known today, including examples in several museums. Two were shown in the 2012 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, New York and published in Wolfram Koeppe, Extravagant Inventions. The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012, nos. 21 and 22, pp. 102-105.



A table of this pattern was sold by Maelrondt, Paris on 15 November 1824, lot 325, 'Une table ovale en marqueterie par David; le dessus représente Enée enlevant son père...' . It is not known to which of the 28 known tables this refers, but illustrates the high regard in which 'David' was held.
Literary referenceVirgil - 'The Aenead', book 2 - The Flight from Troy, showing Aeneas carrying his father Anchises and leading his son Ascanius from the city
Summary
This delicate table was made in the workshops of the most inventive cabinet-maker of the 1780s - David Roentgen. From his workshops in Neuwied, Germany, he sold pieces throughout Europe. He even designed them to be taken apart for packing - in this case, the legs unscrew.



The frieze panels, showing neither locks nor handles, open to provide a central drawer fitted with a writing panel, and with a nest of small drawers. The drawer is opened by pressing a metal stud under the front of the table. When it is fully opened, it automatically releases the catches of two side drawers that hinge out from the body of the table.



The top is decorated with Roentgen's particular form of marquetry, which used fine slips of different woods to create exceptional detail. It shows a scene from the Trojan Wars, as described in Virgil's poem the Aeneid, Book II, with Aeneas escaping from the burning city of Troy with his father and his son.



This table is currently shown at Cliffe Castle Museum, Keighley, West Yorkshire. Another table with the same marquetry scene of the top (1060-1882) is on show in the Furniture Galleries at the V&A.
Bibliographic references
  • Fabian, Dietrich, 'Entwicklung der Roentgen-Schreibmöbel. Funktion, Konstruktion, Oberflächenschmuck, Einrichtung', Schweiz Schreinerzeitung, no. 22, 1982, pp. 552-562, fig. 91.
  • Huth, Hans, Roentgen Furniture. Abraham and David Roentgen: European Cabinet-makers. London and New York, Sotheby Parke Bernet, 1974. ISBN 0 85667 003 0, p. 63, fig. 213.
  • Josef Maria Greber, Abraham und David Roentgen, Möbel für Europa. Starnberg, Josef Keller Verlag, 1980, Band 2, fig. 615, p. 311.
  • Ed. Michael Hall, 'Focus on the Visual Arts. Magic Boxes for Princes', in Country Life, 3 October 2012, vol. CCVI, no. 40, pp. 94-98, illustrated as fig. 7. This is a review of the exhibition held at the Metropolitan Museum of Arts in 2012-2013, 'Extravagant Inventions: the Princely Furniture of the Roentgens'. This table was not shown in the exhibition but is illustrated in the article.
  • Champeaux, Alfred De: <i>Le Meuble II, XVIIe, XVIIIe and XIXe Siècles</i>. Paris, Société Française d'Editions d'Art, 1885, p. 274
Collection
Accession number
381-1874

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Record createdJune 24, 2009
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