- Place of origin:
ca. 1760--65 (made)
Vanrisamburgh, Bernard II (designer and maker)
- Materials and Techniques:
Oak carcase of frame-and-panel and dovetailed construction, pieced out in fruitwood(?), mounted with panels of Japanese lacquer, extended by black-japanned veneers, and with chased gilt brass mounts; top of black and 'gold' <i>Portoro Macchie Larga</i> marble; steel locks and key
- Credit Line:
Bequeathed by John Jones
- Museum number:
- Gallery location:
Furniture, Room 135, The Dr Susan Weber Gallery, case BY3, shelf EXP 
Japanese lacquer became popular with the richest collectors in France from the end of the 17th century. By the middle of the 18th century fashionable cabinet-makers had seen its potential as a material that could be used to decorate modern pieces such as this commode (a decorative chest of drawers). Bernard Vanrisamburgh was particularly well-known for using lacquer in this way, and he probably made this commode, although it does not carry his 'BVRB' stamp. In the 1750s, when the Rococo style was at its height, curvaceous shapes were favoured, even for furniture. Japanese lacquer was extremely expensive and was used as thin sheets, veneered onto a carcase, usually of oak. Cabinet-makers might well have been deterred from trying to glue such thin sheets to a surface that curved in two planes at once (a shape called bombé) but in fact they developed great skill in doing this. The lacquer would have been salvaged from Japanese screens or cabinets and the panels would have been sliced through the middle so that the French craftsman could make each of them into two panels for veneering onto new furniture.
A Rococo two-drawer commode with two drawers and a marble top, standing on cabriole legs. The commode is veneered sans-traverse with five Japanese lacquer panels framed by gilt brass mounts. Three separate lacquer panels on the front of the commode appear as one single scene.
The commode is constructed throughout in oak, apart from some of the pieced-out sections, which may be fruitwood. Supported on four principal upright members (integral with the legs), it is mostly framed panel construction. The backboard, top, bottom and dustboard are each made with three panels, their frames either dovetailed or tenoned to the uprights. The panels are recessed on both faces from their frames, and on the principal (top or outside) face they have a distinctive moulded border of shallow concave profile, mitred at the corners. The commode sides are made with narrow horizontal boards, joined by tongue-and-groove to the uprights. In each drawer the bottom is made as two framed panels, while the sides are dovetailed to the brick-built drawer-front and to the back.
Construction: detailed description
The carcase was evidently constructed in a specific sequence, which the following account attempts to replicate. The front uprights are each made from two laminated sections, the main piece made of oak, the smaller piece probably fruitwood (or another diffuse-porous wood); this is joined to the outer front corner of the main piece at an oblique angle. Each front upright has a vertically serpentine rebate cut into its inner front corner, to accommodate the serpentine-sided drawer-fronts. The first stage of assembly was probably to join the carcase sides – each formed from at least four horizontal boards – to the front uprights, by tongue-and-groove. The bottom board and dustboard are each formed with four short rails tenoned to full-width front and back rails, framing three roughly square panels in which the grain runs from front to back. The front rail of the dustboard is joined to each of the commode’s front uprights by a dovetail sliding in from behind, and its sides are housed in grooves in the carcase sides. The bottom board appears to be fixed by the same methods, though the evidence at the front uprights is concealed
The back uprights are each pieced out with an additional piece of oak on the back face, from the top to just below the bottom board; this is shaped to form the serpentine back profile of the sides. These uprights double up as the end uprights of the backboard frame, its top and bottom rails therefore being tenoned directly into them; the bottom rail laps over the back edge of the bottom board, but the top rail is positioned slightly below the top of the uprights, to allow the top board to lap over this edge. In the backboard frame the tenons of the two muntins, separating the horizontally-grained panels, are double-pegged in the top and bottom rails. This appears to be the only use of pegs in the commode’s construction. The uprights are then offered up to receive the carcase sides (by tongue-and-groove) and the back rails of the bottom board and dustboard (by sliding tenons). The back uprights could not be joined to the rest of the carcase (other than the backboard) until after the dustboard and bottom board had been fitted.
In the top board, framing three front-to-back grained panels, the side rails are tenoned to the back rail but not to the front rail (in this respect differing from the construction of the bottom board and dustboard). All four outer rails are dovetailed to the carcase uprights, by a single dovetail at each end. The side rails and back rail are additionally secured to the uprights by a small tenon or tongue at each end. These serve primarily to fill the top of the grooves in the uprights, which were made to house the tongues of the carcase sides and the tenons of the backboard’s top rail.
Because the panels are recessed from the surface of their frames, the drawers slide solely on the framing rails and muntins of the bottom board and dustboard. Their movement (when opened or closed) is controlled by drawer guides at the sides. Each bar is joined to the front upright by a sliding half-dovetail, and at the back it is joined by a sliding tenon to a block that projects inwards from the back upright. Both dovetail and tenon slide into place sideways, from the inside of the case. The outer half of each block is cut away on its top face, probably so as to reduce the thickness by which it is nailed down to the supporting board.
The drawers are likewise constructed entirely of oak, each with a serpentine front of ‘brick-built’ construction, made of laminated sections ca. 5.8 cm high with staggered vertical joints. The bottom board comprises two laterally-grained panels (each of two or three planks) framed by the front, back and sides and by a central cross-rail, which is tenoned to the front and back; the cross-rail is flush with the underside of the panels, but on top it projects, with rounded edges. The top edges of the back and sides are also carefully rounded. The sides are dovetailed to the back and the front, and shaped blocks are then glued to the ends of the drawer-front to create its serpentine outline (concealing most of the dovetails). The drawer-front projects above the sides and back, so as to cover the front edge of the top board or dustboard when closed. In the lower drawer the front also extends below the drawer-bottom, and its bottom edge is shaped to form the commode’s front apron. On the underside of each drawer, runners are glued along the back and sides and mitred at the back corners; the side runners of the bottom drawer are bevelled.
The top edge of both drawer-fronts is veneered in an exotic wood, perhaps padouk (Pterocarpus sp.) or perhaps a rosewood (Dalbergia sp.). Apparently the same veneer has been applied to the bottom edge of the top drawer-front and shaved down towards the back; whether this veneer is original is uncertain. On both drawers the locks are fitted over concave-sided oak blocks, glued to the back face of the drawer-front. The lock thus sits proud of the drawer-front, so that its shoot engages in a hole cut into the underside of the top board or dustboard in the main carcase.
Before the commode was conserved in 2010, the marble slab was raised above the carcase by four modern softwood battens that were screwed down to the top, around the front (two pieces) and the sides. Evidently there was also once a batten or plank glued to the back face of the backboard, at the top, between the projecting back stiles. Its removal has left an exceptionally clean surface of pale oak, so (unlike the front and side battens) this may have been an original element that sat flush with the top board.
A black stain has been applied to the top and back of the carcase, apparently at a fairly recent date, although it has accumulated several marks and scuffs. This stain was applied over the softwood battens that latterly supported the marble slab. The removal of those battens has revealed a dirty and oxidized, but unstained original surface on the top of the carcase. The stain also encompassed the older – perhaps original – batten that was evidently once glued to the backboard, the removal of which has exposed clean pale oak. The stain may be contemporary with the softwood battens (and at any rate cannot be older than they are).
The panels in the drawer-bottoms have shrunk, opening up the joints between their constituent planks. In the left panel of the upper drawer one of these cracks has been papered over on the underside.
The lacquer panels are Japanese, probably from Kyoto. They date from the late 17th-century and consist of a black lacquer ground with gold hirimaki-e (low relief) and several shades of gold takamaki-e (high relief). The landscape scenes are typical of the subjects used on Japanese export lacquer.
The stiles of the commode are embellished with black French imitation lacquer; there is also some overpainting of imitation lacquer on the ground of the five panels. Gold imitation lacquer has been used to form the left-hand side of a mountain in the commode’s central scene. This effectively joins together two separate lacquer panels into one long landscape.
The gilt brass mounts are very finely cast and chased. They were cast in pieces, these pieces then braised together into larger sections that were screwed onto the case. The mount on the cul-de-lampe appears to be in the form of a ginger plant, continuing the exotic theme of the commode’s decoration.
Place of Origin
ca. 1760--65 (made)
Vanrisamburgh, Bernard II (designer and maker)
Materials and Techniques
Oak carcase of frame-and-panel and dovetailed construction, pieced out in fruitwood(?), mounted with panels of Japanese lacquer, extended by black-japanned veneers, and with chased gilt brass mounts; top of black and 'gold' Portoro Macchie Larga marble; steel locks and key
Height: 87.5 cm, Width: 144 cm, Depth: 62 cm
Object history note
The commode was given to the South Kensington Museum as part of the John Jones bequest in 1882. It has been attributed to the maker Bernard II Vanrisamburgh (master before 1735, d. 1765/66) on the basis of a comparison with another commode in the V&A’s collection, 1094-1882. 1094-1882, which is stamped ‘BVRB’ by Vanrisamburgh, uses the same bevelled panel construction as on 1105-1882. The use of bevelled panels for the top, bottom, back, dustboards and sides of the commode allowed for the movement of the wood. This very high-quality case-construction is relatively unusual in French cabinet-making of the period.
A copy of this model, by Paul Sormani, is illustrated in Camille Mestdagh, L'Ameublement d'Art Français 1850-1900. Paris, Editions de l'Amateur, 2010 fig. 255. It is not clear whether this was made by Paul Sormani (1817-1877) or by his son, Paul-Charles Sormani (1848-1934), who is known to have copied a number of pieces from the Jones Collection. That copy used floral marquetry in place of the Japanese lacquer of the original.
Historical context note
This commode is an excellent example of the mid-18th century French use of Asian lacquer. In the late 17th-century, export lacquer was imported into Europe in great quantities by the East India Companies. From the early 18th-century, Asian lacquer panels started to be re-used on French furniture. Once detached from cabinets, screens and chests, these panels were veneered onto contemporary joinery.
André Jacques Roubo, in L’Art du Menuisier Ébéniste, describes the process by which panels were prepared for re-use. The panels used on Japanese and Chinese cabinets and screens were typically lacquered on both front and back, meaning that they had to be cut down the middle into two separate pieces before being re-used on European furniture. Once cut, each panel was planed to a thickness of around 1 or 2 mm. The process of splitting and planing the panels was extremely difficult, with the danger of cracking the surface. Individual panels were cut inside a cushioned press in order to minimise this risk.
Lacquer panels were fashionable on French Rococo furniture of the mid-18th century. The shimmering surfaces of the lacquer complemented the flowing curved, or bombé, forms of these objects. Laying a lacquer panel onto a curved surface was technically difficult and necessitated heating the lacquer first to make it malleable. After being planed, the panels were heated and then applied to a carcase. On this commode, the heating has caused some of the lacquer’s black ground to discolour. Imitation lacquer was then applied in a French workshop to cover these discoloured areas.
The use and re-use of lacquer panels was a process largely facilitated, in Paris, by the trade of the marchands-merciers (dealers in luxury objects). Inventories show that merciers sold both stripped lacquer panels ready for re-use, and also finished pieces of new lacquer-veneered furniture. Marchands-merciers acted as middlemen between the cabinet- and mount-makers who made the furniture, and the patrons who bought it.
The re-use of lacquer panels by 18th-century ébénistes was a process filled with adaptation and adjustment. French imitation lacquer was used not only to even out the ground of the panels but also often to add motifs, altering compositions to better suit the form and design of the object that they were being applied to. Asian lacquer panels were further embellished by the use of elaborate gilded mounts.
Serpentine commode mounted with Japanese lacquer and chased gilt bronze, with slab of black and 'gold' Portoro Macchie Larga marble
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
W.G. Paulson Townsend, Measured drawings of French furniture in the South Kensington Museum (London 1899), plates 92-97
Labels and date
[Label text by Peter Thornton]
French (Paris); 1755-65
Veneered with panels of Japanese lacquer, the borders being japanned. Gilt bronze mounts. Marble slab
This was almost certainly made by Bernard van Risamburgh although no mark has been discovered. Certain technical features of this commode are also found on furniture bearing his mark. Moreover, a commode with identical mounts marked with his stamp is in a French private collection; it was made between 1758 and 1760 for the Prince de Condé's Palais de Bourbon
Museum No. 1105-1882 
FRENCH (Paris); 1755-65
Veneered with panels of Japanese lacquer dating from the 17th century, on a carcase of oak, the borders japanned to match the lacquer; gilt-bronze mounts; marble slab
This commode was almost certainly made in the workshop of Bernard van Risamburgh II, who became master cabinet-maker in 1735. Certain features of its construction are also found on furniture stameped with his 'BVRB' mark. For example, the top panels of the carcase of this piece (see photograph) are carefully chamfered in exactly the same manner as those on the commode in the bay to the left that is stamped with his mark (Museum no. 1094-1882).The mounts of this commodes are also identical with one stamped by BVRB which was made between 1758 and 1760 for the Prince de Condé, for use in the Palais Bourbon, Paris.
Commode (chest of drawers)
About 1760–5, using lacquer panels made in the 1670s
Probably by Bernard Van Risamburgh II (active 1735–65/6)
France (Paris), incorporating lacquer panels made in Japan (probably Kyoto)
Veneers: fruitwood (?), painted black
Panels: Japan (probably Kyoto); wood covered in black lacquer with gold hiramaki-e (low sprinkled picture) and gold takamaki-e (raised sprinkled picture) lacquer, with some japanning
Mounts: gilded brass
Top: Portoro Macchie Larga marble
To create fashionable new designs, craftsmen sometimes dismantled older, imported furniture such as cabinets. Here, five panels of urushi lacquer have been applied as veneers to the carcase of a Paris-made commode, with metal mounts concealing the joins. Great care was required in sawing the double-sided panels, reducing their thickness and heat-bending them onto the curved surfaces.
Bequeathed by John Jones
Museum no. 1105-1882
Oak; Lacquer; Gilt brass; Portoro Macchie Larga marble; Andaman padouk; Steel
Cabinet making; Veneering; Casting; Chasing; Fire gilding
Furniture and Woodwork Collection