- Place of origin:
Roentgen, David, born 1743 - died 1807 (maker)
Zick, Januarius, born 1730 - died 1797 (designer)
Kinzing, Peter, born 1745 - died 1816 (locksmith)
Gervais, Elie, born 1721 - died 1797 (engraver)
- Materials and Techniques:
Marquetry of boxwood, mahogany and walnut, with stained burr maple, holly and maple (both stained in some places) and other woods, on a carcase of oak, pine, cherry, maple and mahogany, with gilt brass and lacquered brass mounts; the slab of <i>bleu turquin</i> marble; locks and mechanism of steel and brass, with lead weights
- Credit Line:
Bequeathed by Sir Bernard Eckstein, Bt
- Museum number:
- Gallery location:
Europe 1600-1815, Room 1, case PL4 
This commode, or decorative chest of drawers, has many small secret drawers, some fitted with mirrors and compartments. Although it may have been used as a dressing table, it was chiefly made as an object to inspire admiration and envy.
The German cabinet-maker David Roentgen, whose workshop designed and made this piece, was famous throughout Europe in the 18th century. He was celebrated for very refined marquetry described as à la mosaïque ('mosaic fashion'). Unlike most makers of the time he did not use hot sand to shade wood or engraving tools to add fine detail to his designs: almost every detail, including shadows and fine shading, was carried out in different coloured woods.
He also prided himself on extremely complex locking mechanisms and startling gadgetry that might fling open several drawers at the turn of a single key, as on this piece, where the side doors are opened and the sprung drawers within open in a flash when the keyis turned. It was this aspect of his work that particularly appealed to clients throughout Europe. In 1817, the writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) published a fairy story, The New Melusina, that had been written some years earlier. In it he described the fairy palace, comparing it to Roentgen's work: 'Whoever may have seen a trick writing desk made by Roentgen, with springs and secret drawers that can be set in motion, whereupon writing space, paper, letters, pigeonholes and money compartments are all revealed all at once or one at a time, will have some idea of how this palace unfolded before our eyes....'
Rectangular commode or chest of drawers with canted front corners, the three cupboard doors, each decorated with a panel of marquetry illustrating scenes from a performance of the Commedia dell'Arte, the top set with a slab of grey marble (bleu turquin). The commode is veneered with boxwood, mahogany and walnut, with burr maple (probably originally stained grey), maple and holly (both stained in some areas) and with other woods, on a carcase constructed of oak, pine, cherry, maple and mahogany. The commode is set with complex, weight- and spring- driven mechanisms that are controlled by a single key. These cause the side doors and some interior drawers to spring open in different combinations at the turn of the key in different positions.
The front is articulated and framed by pilasters, rising above short feet and finishing in fluted blocks dividing the three panels of the frieze, these each with three flutings. Three apparent drawer fronts at frieze level disguise a single, long drawer. Beneath this are three doors, the outer ones hiding concealed drawers.
The central door panel is almost square and shows a scene in marquetry of a stage setting, with draped curtains at the top, the clever servant Harlequin to the right, moving towards a door, with, in the centre, his sweetheart, the lady’s maid Columbine, with the old man, Anselmo. The two side doors are each set with an oval panel of marquetry, framed by burr maple, the spandrels showing recessed panels, each set with a plainly turned gilt-brass disc. The oval panels are outlined with gilt-brass beading and show groups of figures in fictive theatre boxes, appearing to watch, through round-headed arches, the action shown in marquetry on the central door; the back wall of each box is set with an oval relief panel of a classical bust. On the left-hand panel, two men are seated, in conversation, while a young woman leans at the front of the box, watching the action. On the wall hangs the hat of one of the men. On the right-hand panel, two older women are seated in a box, with a man standing behind them. On a table sits a bottle or decanter and the man’s hat.
The sides of the commode are each set with a rectangular marquetry panel filling the whole space beneath the frieze. On the left-hand (PR) side two musicians are shown, a seated cellist and a standing violinist, playing from two scores on a trestle music stand. The scores carry the headings ‘Bass’ and ‘Violino’ but the music beneath is not readable. The light comes from a window at the right; on the left-hand wall are a couple of French horns. On the right-hand (PL) side a similar interior is shown in reverse, with the light coming from a window to the left. A young man is seated at a draped table, holding a wine bottle, and with his hat before him: an older man stands to the right, with his hat on, his right hand on the shoulder of the younger man, his left hand grasping a glass filled with wine.
The commode is lavishly mounted in gilt-brass, the mounts including panels on the pilasters and on the three apparent drawer fronts, as well as facings on the visible faces of the feet. On the facing panels of the feet, the ‘frieze’ of the feet and the pilasters, the gilt-brass is cast with mille-raies (horizontal ribbing). Each leg is additionally set on each side, with a spandrel bracket in the form of a scrolled console in gilt brass, steadying the feet against the underside of the main carcase of the commode. On the front corner feet, the consoles are cast as if slanted, to follow the canted corner. Lacquered brass mouldings are set along the base and below the frieze and the fluting of the frieze sections above the pilasters is also lined with lacquered brass. The back of the back feet is veneered in burr maple and they carry mouldings all round
The frieze of the commode is set with complex gilt-brass plaques between the blocks above the pilasters. The plaques are rectangular, with inset corners and are recessed into the deep burr maple facing of the false drawer fronts. They are edged with a gilt-brass beading which is set separately into the recess. The corners, which are not recessed, are set with plainly moulded gilt-brass roundels. The main plaques are made in two layers, the background worked with mille-raies. On the larger panels in the centre front and at each side, the centre is marked by a square plinth, with base and cornice, centreing on a spiralling roundel of acanthus leaves, with a plain. burnished frame against a ground of milles-raies. At either side of the plinth the head of a retriever dog, in profile, holds a laurel swag in its mouth, hanging in a curve to run along the base of the mount, overlapping the veneered frame. To either side of the plinth, the mille-raies base layer of the mount is set with a rectangle of plain, burnished gilt-brass, with inset corners. The two corners nearest the centre on each plaque are set with moulded roundels in gilt brass.
A narrow moulded cornice of mahogany finishes the carcase at the top. The grey and white marble top is outset over each pilaster, the edge square but with a small quadrant cut into the upper edge.
The frieze opens as a single, broad drawer, the carcase of cherry, and the central cupboard (hinged at the right) similarly shows a single space, lined with cherry veneer. On each side, the outer cupboard opens to show a door of cherry, with a raised centre panel with inset corners set with moulded, gilt-brass roundels. Each cupboard is set with three drawers, the fronts thickly faced with burr maple, each cut back in layers leaving a U-shaped outer frame (which, with the three drawers shut, gives an overall appearance of veneered side frames and veneered fronts to dust boards. Within these, a rectangular panel on each drawer is set at the corners with moulded, gilt-brass roundels; an innermost panel, with inset corners, is set centrally with a handle of gilt-brass, in the form of a wreath hanging from a ribbon bow, surrounding and acanthus roundel.
The front half of the upper drawer on each side hinges to the outside, revealing two inner drawers, veneered with flame-figured mahogany. In the front, hinged section, a mahogany flap rises on hinges along the front edge, to reveal a shallow compartment, lined with mahogany. The back face of the this section shows two drawer fronts, also veneered in mahogany, with a recessed centre panel to each, set with a central handle of gilt brass in the form of a circular wreath around an acanthus roundel. The drawers and frames are shaped as the outer drawers, to suggest a dustboard between the drawers, set within a frame. The inner drawers are treated in exactly the same manner.
The marquetry panel would have been designed by the artist Januarius Zick (1730-1797) and the actual working drawings for the marquetry would have been prepared by Elie Gervais (1721-1797). The technique used is David Roentgen’s innovative marquetry à la mosaïque. This avoided the traditional use of fine, engraved lines to create detail, and of scorching of the edges of individual pieces to shade the pieces and suggest three dimensionality. Instead, Roentgen’s workshop used individual piece of wood to create every element of the design. Although different woods were used, often quite large elements were cut from a single piece of wood, the individual pieces stained different colours or different shades of the same colour, and the element assembled like a jig-saw on the carcase wood. In this marquetry penwork is only used for the music scores. The marquetry contains many pieces that were stained in colours that would not have been natural to timber, but these have lost their colour over the years. It is likely, for instance, that the areas of burr maple were originally stained a grey colour, perhaps to imitate marble.
The finest mounts, especially those on the frieze drawer, were made in France by François Rémond and show two-tone gilding and the finest possible chasing and fixings, allowing the superimposition of different plates with different casting and chasing, creating the greatest amount of contrast. The fixings include bolts cut with screw threads brazed to the back of some plates and fixed with nuts, or brazed-on tenons that pass through slots in other plates and are held in place by removeable pins. Simpler mounts such as the milles-raies, and the roundels were made in Neuwied, but these too are fixed invisibly, using spikes or pins attached to the back of the mounts.
The carcase is built as a dove-tailed box in pine, the top with an additional, shallow (4 mm) frame in oak, with a mitred, lap-jointed frame and an applied central muntin (this cut with the grain running laterally). The top surface of this panel has been worked with a toothing plane, that would normally be the precursor of veneering. The top is simply glued to the top of the main carcase. A pencil drawing of the key of the commode is on the right panel.
The backboard of the commode is of oak, constructed with three panel following the division of the commode into three sections. The frame is of mortise-and-tenon construction, the inner edges of the frame and the muntins chamfered. The panels are chamfered and the central panel is worked with a toothing plane on the inner side, suggesting that it was originally intended to veneer this, obviating the use of the separate, inner back to the cupboard (see below). The backboard is attached to the carcase with screws.
A single dustboard runs just below the frieze section, the board sitting in recesses cut into the inner faces of the sides. Beneath this the carcase is divided into three by two vertical divides that are jointed to the base board and the underside of the dustboard with running dovetails.
The feet are attached with large, integral screw shafts to the underside of the carcase and steadied with the mounts that form spandrel brackets, these further attached with screws to prevent movement of the feet once the commode is assembled.
Once the backboard is removed, a second backboard is visible within the central compartment, consisting of a lap-jointed oak frame containing a flush-mounted panel of cherry. The backboard, which is veneered with maple on the front face, to complete the lining of the cupboard, is attached with screws. The two outer compartments are fitted with runners for the drawers, each runner consisting of a rectangular section of wood forming a drawer guide, cut with a running dovetail on the outer edge, locating in the sides and the divider panels. To the underside of this is glued a wider board that provide the runners. These runners are not required for the lowest drawers, which run on the base of the case.
The drawers, of cherry, of dove-tailed construction, do not reach the full depth of the carcase. Behind them, in each side compartment, runs a vertical pine trough, providing containment and guidance for two lead weights in each, providing the power for the sudden springing open of the cupboard doors and drawers when the lock is sprung. The top drawers on each side are reinforced with steel plates on their back edges, the lower of these providing the axles for small boxwood wheels that carry the weight of the drawers on the runners.
The locking mechanism was almost certainly the work of Peter Kinzing (1745-1816), who made clocks and other mechanisms for David Roentgen from 1772 onwards. It is designed to make the opening of the commode into a startling event. Springs and weights, working together, serve to open the doors and drawers with a dramatic suddenness. The frieze drawer, cupboard doors and the hinged interior compartments are all worked by the single key. The key can be placed upright or upside down, and moved inwards against springs to allow it to be turned at three different depths, each turn controlling a different lock or locks to allow different parts of the commode to be opened. Large-scale technical drawings of the commode were made in 1982 by C. Fitz and copies are held in the Furniture, Textiles and Fashion Department. These show in detail the system of weights, pulleys and springs that control the doors and drawers. A video made in 2015 also shows how these work, and instructions for opening are noted below on this entry under ‘Usage’. The quality of the engineering is superb but the mechanism has been slightly modified at later dates, with added paddles to operate some outer levers.
The mechanism continues to work well, with little corrosion to the steel elements, but the action is delicate. People should be on hand to catch the doors when they spring open, to prevent damage if they jar against the stops when left to the power of the springs.
Place of Origin
Roentgen, David, born 1743 - died 1807 (maker)
Zick, Januarius, born 1730 - died 1797 (designer)
Kinzing, Peter, born 1745 - died 1816 (locksmith)
Gervais, Elie, born 1721 - died 1797 (engraver)
Materials and Techniques
Marquetry of boxwood, mahogany and walnut, with stained burr maple, holly and maple (both stained in some places) and other woods, on a carcase of oak, pine, cherry, maple and mahogany, with gilt brass and lacquered brass mounts; the slab of bleu turquin marble; locks and mechanism of steel and brass, with lead weights
Marks and inscriptions
Weimar R Schloss 21
Inscribed on a label on the underside of the marble slab. This is likely to be a label related to an inventory of the Weimar Residence, made in the 1920s. The numbers do not appear to relate to a particular room in the castle.
Inscribed in pencil on the underside of the marble slab. Both these inscriptions probably refer to an inventory of furniture in the Weimar Residence (Residenzschloss Weimar) possibly made in the 1920s. Apparently the numbers 20 and 21 do not relate to specific rooms in the Schloss. Information to Wolfram Koeppe, Metropolitan Museum of Art from Gert Dieter Ulferts of the Klassik Stiftung Weimar, 2012.
Drawing of a key
In pencil, on the outer top frame, to the right
H.J. HATFIELD & SONS LTD
PRINTED, CLEANED, REPAIRED
86 & 88
Printed in black on two emerald green paper labels, affixed to short uprights to either side of the frieze drawer, inside the back panel, so only visible if the back is removed. The firm was founded in 1834 by John Ayres Hatfield as makers of gilt bronze. In 1881 it passed to his nephew Henry John Hatfield. By 1901 it was established in Charlotte Street and remained there until the Second World War when it was bombed. The firm continued after the Second World War and is still in business. The address on these labels suggests that the firm undertook work on this before 1939.
Drawing of a figure of man
In pencil, on the underside of of the left (PR) bottom drawer
Height: 839 mm, Width: 1312 mm, Depth: 655 mm
Object history note
This commode is one of a small group of commodes made in the workshop of David Roentgen between about 1775 and 1785, all with similar, but not identical marqutery showing scenes from a performance of the Commedia dell' Arte. The form, with doors covering the drawers, was by then known as a commode à vantaux (a commode with doors) but, with the central section formed as a cupboard, it might also be called a commode en bas d'armoire (a commode in the form of the base of a cupboard).
Three commodes are known of this patter, one in the Metropolitan Museum, New York (inv. no. 1982.60.81) and another in the collections of the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum in Munich (this one being, in all probability, the pair to the V&A commode). Panels from others in the group, surviving either as panels or re-used as part of furniture made in the 19th century, suggest that there were at least three other commodes made to this pattern. For a discussion of the commodes see Wolfram Koeppe ed., Extravagant Inventions. The princely furniture of the Roentgens (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012), pp. 130-133 and 222-227 (the latter an essay by Mecthild Baumeister on 'The Hidden History of a Roentgen Commode'. The commode now in the Metropolitan Museum appears to be the earliest of the series and the mechanism of that commode is simpler than those in Munich or in the V&A.
The V&A commode, with the one now in Munich, were almost certainly in the collections of the Grand Duke of Sachsen-Weimar in the 1920s, though their previous history is unknown at present. A commode of this form was sold from the collections of HRH the Grand Duke of Saxony, Sotheby's, London, 10 June 1932, lot 136. it has been claimed that the Munich commode was that one and the photograph published in the sale catalogue at the time seems to show the Munich commode. The commode sold in London, however, was sold to Lady Eckstein and it was from her son, Sir Bernard Eckstein, that the V&A received its commode as a bequest in 1948, so it is likely that there was simply a confusion over the photographs in the sale catalogue.
Other pieces that contain elements of commodes that have been destroyed include:
A cabinet on stand, sold Ader Picard Tajan, November 1975. This was sold again at Sotheby's, New York 19 November 1993, lot 70, as a German piece, and it was not until it was sold by Sotheby's London 16 December 1998, lot 188 that the re-construction was attributed to Alfred Beurdeley (1808-1882). This showed two oval panels similar to the outer pair on the V&A commode but not the central panel. The frieze drawer mounts had been transferred to the frieze of the stand.
A small cabinet-on-stand by Charles-Guillaume Winckelsen (1812-1871), c. 1867, sold Sotheby's, London, 31 October 2006, lot 557, was set with a panel similar to the main panel of the V&A commode. It is not certain whether the panel dated from the 18th century or 1867 (could this be the missing centre panel from the group re-used on the cabinet attributed to Beurdeley?)
Commode of rectangular form, veneered with maple (?), a stained burr wood, walnut, holly (stained in parts) and maple (stained in parts), with panels illustrating a performance of the 'Commedia dell'Arte'; mounts of gilt-bronze mounts and slab of grey marble. German, from the workshop of David Roentgen, c. 1776-9, the marquetry based on the designs of Januarius Zick, the drawings for the marquetry cutters made by Elie Gervais, engraver. The finer mounts (those on the frieze drawer) were probably made by François Rémond in Paris, the simpler mounts made in the Roentgen workshop in Neuwied.
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
Wilk, Christopher, ed. . Western Furniture 1350 to the Present Day. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1996. 230p., ill. ISBN 085667463X.
Stürmer, Michael. 'Die Roentgen-Manufaktue in Neuwied. Teil II: Die Entfaltung der Manufaktur im Zeichen des Klassizismus' [The Roentgen Manufactory in Neuwied. Part II. The development of the Manufactory towards classicism], Kunst und Antiquitäten, vol. VI, Nov/Dec 1979, pp. 32-45, figs. 13, 14
Otto, Celia Jackson, 'David Roentgen, ébéniste méchanicien', The Magazine Antiques, January 1960, pp. 102-105, fig. 9.
Huth, Hans, Roentgen Furniture. Abraham and David Roentgen: European Cabinet-makers. London and New York, Sotheby Parke Bernet, 1974. ISBN 0 85667 003 0, figs. 176-8.
Josef Maria Greber, Abraham und David Roentgen, Möbel für Europa. Starnberg, Josef Keller Verlag, 1980, Band 2, figs. 543-549, pp. 276-278
Fabian, D. Roentgen Möbel aus Neuwied. Bad Neustadt: International Akademie für Kulturwissenschaften, 1986, figs 342-8.
Ramond, Pierre. La Marqueterie. Paris, Editions Vial, 1981, p. 167
Ramond, Pierre. Marquetry. 1st ed. published in English by Taunton Press, 1989. Revised edition, Paris, Editions Vial, 2002, p. 167
Koeppe, Wolfram, Extravagant Inventions. The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012. Catalogue of the exhibition held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art October 2012- January 2013. Catalogue no. 33, pp. 131-133. Further information on the related commode in the Metropolitan Museum's collections is contained in Appendix 1.
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. 4. 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'.
Fabian, D. 'Die Entwicklung der Einlegekunst in der Roentgenwerstatt', in Schriften zur Kulturwissenschaft der Internationalen Akademie für Kulturwissenschaften. 36 (1981), pp. 2-4
Fabian, D. 'Der Sekretär in der Roentgenwerkstatt', in Schweizerische Schreiner Zeitung, 8 March 1985, pp. 220-223
Victoria and Albert Museum. Fifty Masterpieces of Woodwork. London: HMSO, 1955, no. 50
Labels and date
This commode has a severe, box-like shape, with Neoclassical details such as the short, columnar legs and the laurel-swagged handles. The marquetry, however, does not show classical scenes but a performance of the popular commedia dell’arte, in a theatre complete with audience. The commode is fitted with one of the astonishingly elaborate locking mechanisms for which Roentgen was famous from France to Russia.
Designed and made in the workshops of David Roentgen
Marquetry designed by Januarius Zick
Oak and pine; marquetry in several woods; gilded copper alloy mounts; marble top
Bequeathed by Sir Bernard Eckstein, Bt
[Label text by Peter Thornton]
German (Neuwied); about 1785-95
Oak, veneered with walnut and sycamore with marquetry of various woods. Gilt brass mounts. Marble slab of "bleu turquin". Fitted with intricate spring-operated mechanism.
This commode was without doubt produced in David Roentgen's extensive workshops at Neuwied, near Koblenz, on the Rhine. His more elaborate furniture, such as this, was widely famed and fetched very high prices. Louis XVI acquired a complicated desk from Roentgen that cost 80,000 livres in 1779.
A commode very similar to the present piece, bearing the mark of the Château de Versailles, was formerly in Lord Rosebery's collection. It was probably made about 1774. The metalwork and the chair depicted in the central scene are in an earlier style; otherwise both pieces are identical. The marquetry was undoubtedly designed by Januarius Zick who began to collaborate with Roentgen in 1773.
This splendid commode, which must have been an extremely expensive piece of furniture in its day, may be identical with that placed in a closet known as the "Pièce du Caffé" in Louis XV's Appartement du Roi at Versailles. It was described as being Plaque à tableau de bois fond satiné et ombré sur les trois faces avec médaillons à figures en bois de rapport à 3 vanteaux. Le dedans à méchanique; orné de bronze à dessus de marque [marbre] bleu turquin de 4 p[ie]ds 2 po[uces] de large.
Bequeathed by Sir Bernard Eckstein, Bt.
Museum No. W.51-1948 [ca. 1980]
Oak; Pine; Cherry; Maple; Mahogany; Burr maple; Walnut; Holly; Boxwood; Marble; Gilt brass; Iron; Steel; Brass; Lead
Furniture and Woodwork Collection