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Writing cabinet
  • Writing cabinet
    Kimmel, Michael, born 1715 - died 1794
  • Enlarge image

Writing cabinet

  • Place of origin:

    Dresden (Probably., made)

  • Date:

    1750-1755 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Kimmel, Michael, born 1715 - died 1794 (maker)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Veneered in kingwood, with marquetry including mother-of-pearl, ivory and brass, on a carcase of pine and stained alder or birch; mounts of gilt brass and gilded wood

  • Credit Line:

    Purchased by H.M. Government from the estate of the 6th Earl of Rosebery and allocated to the Victoria and Albert Museum

  • Museum number:

    W.63-1977

  • Gallery location:

    Europe 1600-1815, Room 3, case PL6 []

No specialist knowledge is required to appreciate the elegance and luxury of this writing cabinet. The carefully controlled curves of its shape and ornament are a perfect example of the German Rococo style of the 1750s. The sophistication of the choice of materials and of the worksmanship produces great delicacy of decoration on what is, in form, a massive cabinet.

A cypher ‘AR’ at the top of the bank of drawers inside shows that it was made for Frederick Augustus, who succeeded his father as Elector of Saxony in 1733 and was elected King of Poland in 1734. His court at Dresden competed with Paris as a centre of the luxury trades. We do not know who made the cabinet, although the names of Michael Kimmel (or Kümmel) and of Johan Christoph Hesse have both been put forward. Kimmel was described in 1949 as 'a young man with great skill in working in brass and with Indian woods, and well practised in the newest French and English designs'.

The form of the piece is based on English designs for what we would now call a 'bureau', but the use of strongly coloured tropical hardwoods in combination with such lavish gilt-brass mounts, follows French fashions. The Dresden court was aware of both traditions. English style cabinets such as this had been accepted as 'masterpieces' by the cabinet-makers' guild in Dresden since 1731. Interest in French design was high throughout Europe in the 18th century but for Augustus III, the marriage of his daughter Maria Josepha to Louis XV's son and heir Louis, in 1747, gave him a close connection with the court in Paris.

Physical description

A two-tiered writing cabinet, the lower tier with a sloping, hinged writing surface enclosing drawers, above four long drawers, the top tier with two doors enclosing drawers and pigeonholes; the exterior shows rich marquetry and gilt bronze mounts in Rococo style.

Description
The writing cabinet is in the form of an English bureau, what would have been called in the 18th century a ‘desk and bookcase’. This consists of a cupboard with double doors above a base with four long drawers below a writing compartment with sloping front. Its surface decoration is, however, much more influenced by French design, with the use of strongly coloured tropical hardwoods set off by gilt-brass mounts. Both the writing compartment and the upper cabinet fitted are with small drawers and compartments. The cabinet shows swelling forms on the main doors and the side panels and many of its elements are curved in form. It is veneered in kingwood, rosewood and other tropical woods, with inlays of mother-of-pearl and brass, and mounts of lacquered or gilded brass. The design of the marquetry and mounts is of fanciful, rococo, naturalistic form, incorporating C- and S-scrolls, foliage, flowers, branches and fruit, on a ground of geometric marquetry. There is almost no repetition of forms in the marquetry or mounts; although the design is loosely symmetrical, the motifs do not (with few exceptions) repeat directly or in mirror form.
The identification of woods has not been confirmed by microscopic analysis.

Design
The cabinet appears to be in three sections, with a slope-fronted writing compartment set between a lower section in the form of a chest of four long drawers, with a central recessed arch, or shallow kneehole, that runs through all four drawer fronts, and an upper section with two doors set between three pilasters, below a free-form, broken, scrolling pediment with exaggerated rococo finials.
The lower drawers are simple, without fitments. The writing compartment is fitted inside with banks of drawers to either side at the back, the fronts of these serpentine in outline and set with a marquetry design that runs across all the surfaces together. One each side the bank consists of two full-width drawers above a third level that includes two drawers, the outermost on each side very narrow, and hingeing in the middle when withdrawn, to swing to either side. Neither of these narrow drawers are fitted for ink or sand pots, but may have been used for these.
The flap of the writing compartment is serpentine in outline, the top surface set with marquetry.
Between the banks of drawers is a recess in the form of a pavilion or stage set, with a mirrored back, marquetry floor and front balustrade of gilt-brass, with the monogram ‘AR’. This is set within a cube compartment that rotates within the recess, showing either the pavilion, one of two side panels (one mirrored, one veneered), or, if the back is brought forward, a bank of twelve shallow, hidden drawers. The cube is held in place by a spring catch that is released by pressing the marquetry in the middle of the base just below and in front.
In front of the revolving section is a horizontal panel inset into the base of the writing compartment behind the fall-front. This can be released by a button set within the mother-of-pearl motif just to the front of it and slid back to reveal a well situated in the space between the writing compartment and the base section (the depth is visible on the outside as the area immediately below the flap, into which the bottom edge of it locates when it is opened). The sides of the well are formed by the fronts of two long drawers running laterally and another running in front of the user. When that is removed, two further small drawers are visible at the back of the recess, only accessible if the loose, three-sided oak lining is pulled forward (the ends of each side are visible and show finger holds). If the lining is fully removed, two further side compartments are accessible.
Between the writing compartment and the upper cupboard, the cabinet is fitted with a sliding panel that can be drawn out to provide a desk at standing height. When closed, the front of the panel is disguised in the lacquered brass moulding at the top of the writing section. The panel is inset with a shaped reading desk (echoing the shape of the flap) that can be raised on a brass easel structure (currently stored within the lower drawers of the cabinet). This can be adjusted on a notched brass frame, and the desk is held against springs at either back side, which ensure that it pops up the moment it is drawn out from the cabinet. The top surface of the panel is veneered in quartered kingwood, on the section that draws out; the section that remains within the carcase is veneered with cherry, the grain set front to back. The reading desk section is also veneered in kingwood, with a cross-banded edge separated by inlay of brass from a central section with kingwood set in basket-weave pattern. The brass inlay is embellished at the corners and the top mid-point, with inlays of rococo ornament in mother-of-pearl.
The lower edge of the upper cupboard is set with concealed swivelling panels in the cross-banded lowest element, which create hand-holds, when open, to assist the moving of the piece.
The upper cupboard is fitted with banks of drawers, articulated by four composite pilasters, with a central door flanked by two banks of four drawers, all above a plinth set with three drawers. The drawers are shaped on the fronts to create an arched recess at each side. The central door opens to show a recess lined with mirror panels on sides, back and ceiling, set in giltwood frames, the floor of this recess set with ivory and ebony in alternating ‘tiles’, the ivory squares engraved with motifs of formalized shells and flower-heads, some reversals of other motifs but none repeated, all the engraving filled with blue mastic.
The nest, or inner box of drawers is topped by a narrow, panelled entablature, above which is a free-standing pediment centreing on a giltwood cartouche carved with the monogram ‘AR’ flanked by giltwood figures of seated women (one holding a sceptre, the other with arms outstretched, perhaps representing Lachesis or Decima, one of the three Fates, who measured out the span of life), seated on the inner edges of balustrade panels set with pierced, gilt-brass panels of rococo scrolls. The area behind the cresting and balustrades is open to the back of the cabinet, which veneered and set half-way up with a shallow, shaped shelf running round three sides, for the display of small objects.
The upper surfaces of the cabinet, on either side, are veneered with kingwood and inlaid with brass; the central recess between the rising elements of the pediment, is stained but not veneered. On either side are small, up-standing pegs in hardwood, possibly used originally to locate giltwood or gilt-brass figures or urns (now lost).

Marquetry
The marquetry is of the highest quality, mitred at changes of plane to give the finest possible joints. The sculptural curves of the case demanded great skill in the laying of the marquetry and the extensive use of diagonally set banding may have been chosen to facilitate the laying of marquetry on such curves. Much of the marquetry shows careful book-matching of veneers or cutting of them to show them quartered on panels. Some parts of the marquetry use tangentially cut veneers (which generally show a more elaborate figure of the wood) and some are of quarter-sawn veneers, showing a more regular figure. The use of rigid, geometrical patterns to the ground marquetry is also made more difficult by its application to curved surfaces. The shaping of panels and elements such as the writing slope is mirrored in the marquetry that decorates them. The doors of the two cupboards, the front of the flap covering the writing compartment, the front of the lower drawers and the main panels on the sides, are set with marquetry of fanciful plants, in mother-of-pearl. They include tall plants with both open flowers and bursting spiral seed pods.
Most of the ground marquetry is in kingwood, set with geometric trellising, with shaped, rococo frames of inlay of brass and rosewood outlining each panel with C- and S-scrolls, wrapped round and highlighted with pierced rocaille motifs, flowers and foliage in mother-of-pearl, the detail of veining etc. engraved and filled with red or black mastic. Outside these framings the ground is diagonally banded with kingwood. The main panels (the arched kneehole, the two panels on the writing compartment, the two doors, the panels of the sides and the cresting, are highlighted with inlay in mother-of-pearl showing exotic flowering plants and acanthus-like foliage, all with engraved detail filled with red mastic. These appear to be invented flowers based on botanic illustrations of tropical plants, but they are not exact enough to identify.
The main panels of the doors may originally have been set with mirror panels. A small fragment of mirror glass were found within hidden recesses in the cabinet, to the side of the nest of drawers in the upper section (but see Construction, below)
The inside of the writing flap is veneered with two, shaped panels of bois satiné, set as small, chequered pieces, alternating in the direction of grain and set diagonally. These panels are outlined with narrow, scrolled frames of cross-banded red hardwood (padouk ?) and outer diagonal banding of kingwood, quartered and matched overall. The edges of the writing flap are cross-banded in kingwood. The base of the writing compartment, behind the flap, is similarly banded and panelled, the design running over the sliding panel of the well, which is signalled only by an inlaid rococo motif in mother-of-pearl just in front of it, the centre of which forms the button that releases the panel.
The two banks of drawers within the writing compartment are veneered with rosewood or kingwood, darkly stained, set diagonally. A high-relief three-sided mount of gilt-brass extends across all three tiers of drawers on each side, creating handles for them.
On the revolving section, the sides of the cube are set with flush-mounted mirror panels in gilt-brass frames. The front ‘pavilion’ is similarly lined on sides, back and ceiling. When the cube is fully turned, the back is entirely filled with 12 shallow drawers, the fronts serpentine, veneered with kingwood in small sections, set diagonally, creating an overall trellised appearance to the bank of drawers. Down the centre, asymmetric gilt-brass mounts in the form of twigs and leaves form a continuous, serpentine, growing form.
The standing desk panel is veneered in kingwood that is diagonally book-matched on the framing sections, except for the back section, which is never drawn out from the cabinet and is veneered in cherry, with the grain running front-to-back. The shaped desk panel is outlined with a flush-set brass fillet and a framing cross-banding in kingwood; within a frame of inlaid brass C- and S-scrolls, highlighted at the corners and the centre back with rococo motifs in mother-of-pearl with engraved and mastic-filled ornament, the centre of the desk is set with chequered squares of bois satiné, set diagonally.
The interior of the doors are decorated with marquetry following the pattern on the outside, but this appears to be a replacement of the 19th century. The inner panels are held with continuous framing mounts of gilt-brass, made in sections and screwed to the frame and the inner panel. On the extension to the right-hand door that supports the central pilaster, a simpler marquetry design repeats the same materials.
On the nest, the drawers are framed with diagonal banding of rosewood. Within framing inlays of red hardwood (padouk?) with small mother-of-pearl motifs, the central ground of each drawer is veneered with snakewood, which also appears in narrow panels on the frieze, the pilasters of the nest and their bases. The entablature is otherwise veneered with kingwood and rosewood (dark-stained). The central door of the nest is veneered with trellis marquetry in kingwood, with brass stringing and kingwood cross-banding. The inner face of the door is veneered with rosewood (stained dark), diagonally set as banding, and with a central panel of trellised marquetry, these separated with a scrolling frame in red hardwood (padouk?), with rococo motifs in a yellow wood (possibly berberis), imitating the mother-of-pearl motifs found on the exterior.
The top of the cabinet, to either side of the rise for the broken pediment, is veneered with kingwood set in book-matched panels with the grain running diagonally to the curved to the pediment, with panels outlined with C- and S-scrolls in brass and rosewood, but with no mother-of-pearl.

Mounts
Most of the external, horizontal edges of sections are covered with lacquered brass mouldings. Elements of the entablature are similarly treated and the flutes on the pilasters of the upper section are lined with lacquered brass, with the veneers running over the edges of these linings, serving to hold them in place. These elements have been polished and then lacquered to give the appearance of gilt brass.
Sculptural mounts protect and accentuate the vertical edges of the cabinet, especially on the lower sections, and give further definition to the main panels of marquetry (including the kneehole section and the panels on the writing flap). They are of brass, mercury gilded. This gilding has been renewed, probably in the 19th century but the method of gilding was the same as would have been used when the cabinet was originally made. One small fragment of a mount was found within the cabinet during conservation and shows the original gilded surface; it is visible on the inner, lower edge of the front corner mount of the writing section.
Many of the mounts must have been sand cast but some of the more three-dimensional mounts, especially in the cresting, are likely to have cast by the lost-wax process. The chasing of the mounts is fine, especially on the single-wing handles on the small drawers within the cupboard section. Although the mounts are balanced symmetrically, most of the outer mounts are individually modelled and repetition only occurs in, for example, the inner drawer handles. Some of the mounts show fine firing cracks. Motifs on the mounts include C- and S-scrolls, foliage, natural and fantastic flowers and fruit (including roses and poppies), rocaille ornament of pierced form, and single wings. It seems possible that botanical publications were used for illustrations, either directly or as inspiration. The mid-eighteenth century was a great period for botanical interest among rulers and in Dresden the court gardeners, for instance, were given relatively high rank, with the right to wear a small sword. No sources for mounts have yet been discovered in prints of the period, but the main lock plate on the bottom section possibly shows a sprig of the coffee plant. The motif of a single wing is seen on a number of mounts. This motif was known in German states but may have been chosen here to make reference to the Order of the White Eagle, founded in November 1705 by Augustus the Strong (father of Augustus III) as the premier order of chivalry in Poland. The mounts are carefully related to the mother-of-pearl inlay in the marquetry; on the kneehole recess the mother-of-pearl plant seems to grow out of the gilt-brass mount at its base.
The framing mounts on the upper doors attach only to the frames of the doors on the outside, but on the inside are screwed into both the frame and the panel of each door. High relief mounts, running over banks of drawers, are modelled to provide handles within the design. The lock-plate mounts on all three sections are particularly complex, each with a hinged leaf that disguises the lock entry (missing on the upper doors). The sides of the upper sections each carry a large mount incorporating a lifting handle into the design, in the form of a branch with foliage and scrolls on the left-hand side and of a scrolling leaf form with additional foliage on the right-hand side (this side showing extra holes that may suggest the handle has been replaced)
The thin, pierced panels set at the front of the small pavilion in the centre of the writing compartment and into the balustrades at the top of the nest of drawers in the upper section, are of different quality to the other mounts. The two panels are identical in casting, although the panels have been bent in different curves to create a symmetrical form to the balustrades.
The larger handles are attached with quatrefoil nuts, countersunk into the back surface of the drawer fronts. A similar attachment is used for the smaller handles. Some larger mounts are attached with screw-threaded bolts that pass through sections of the carcase and are similarly attached with nuts. Smaller mounts are attached with screws or pins.

Locks
The locks of the large drawers, the writing slope and the upper cupboard are rim-set, of brass, with steel bolts. The locks are double-throw but are not spring locks. Keys survive for the upper cupboard, writing compartment and lower drawers but these keys probably date from the early nineteenth century. The lock to the upper cupboard locks both sideways and vertically but it should not be locked as the action causes pressure on the veneers. There is no lock for the small, central cupboard in the upper section, which opens with the flanking pilaster to the left opening with the door.

Construction
The cabinet is constructed in three sections, the lower two permanently fixed together. The slope-fronted writing section is set over what is essentially a commode. The upper, cupboard section can be lifted off the base and is located on it with large metal studs that fit into a sloping recess on each side of the base section, these shallower at the back, so that the cupboard can be slid forwards and downwards to locate exactly on the base. The cabinet is raised on four large castors, hidden by the apparent feet. These are of cast iron, with brass wheels. The two at the front are further embellished with cast foliage ornament on the back face. They are attached with large screws through a triangular iron plate to the underside of the corner elements.
The carcase of the cabinet is largely of oak (for load-bearing pieces such as uprights, with panels of pine, the drawers of a pale wood (alder?). The interior of the carcase is entirely stained a dark, purplish red, except for the bases of the large drawers where the natural colour of the wood is evident. The back of the carcase is not stained. The carcase shows very fine joinery, apparent in the tight jointing of the back panels of both tiers, where the joints have moved very little. The carcase is of frame-and-panel construction, with additional shaping to the panels added by glueing on extra layers of wood that were shaped by carving.
The uprights of the commode section are of oak, carved to the serpentine outline, the outer faces veneered with kingwood and the inner faces cross-banded in the same wood. The side panels are each composed of four pine boards with the grain running vertically, running in grooves cut in the inner surfaces of the uprights. These panels are built up on the outer surfaces to create a curving surface. The dustboards (of pine) are of frame and panel construction, with recessed panels, the grain running laterally, the edges of the panels set with quarter-round beadings on both upper and lower surfaces. They were fitted into rebates cut into the inner faces of the front and back uprights, before the fitting of the backboard, and are reinforced on top at either side with drawer guides that are also tenoned into the uprights. The top of the commode section is of flush frame and panel construction, with a single medial rail, the grain of the two flanking panels running laterally. The backboard of the commode section is composed of a flush frame and panel, of pine, the top and bottom rails tenoned into the side rails, the panel with grain set vertically.
All the drawers are constructed with fronts that extend to cover the dustboards. The large drawers of the lower section are of dovetailed construction, the dovetails set unequally to create patterns down the corners. The shaped fronts are cut from the solid, with additional sections glued on inside to allow for shaping of the front and the setting of handles and locks. The curved sides are also cut from the solid. The top edges of the sides are moulded, to give them an appearance of greater fineness. The bases, of flush frame and panel construction, each with an additional medial rail, are set within a groove cut in sides, back and front. This fine construction requires the whole drawer to be assembled at one time, in contrast to simpler, but still good quality work, where the drawer base might be slid from the back into grooves cut in the sides and the front and fixed under the back edge. The full framing means that the base is free to move with atmospheric changes.
The construction of the writing section is less easy to see but it is assumed that it is built in the same manner between a top and base of frame and panel construction. Into the base frame are tenoned the four shaped uprights, with panels running in grooves between the front and back uprights on each side. A second base panel is set slightly higher, to provide the space for the hidden drawers, accessible via the sliding panel just behind the flap. There are three that are immediately visible, running in front of the user and in the available width of the cabinet to right and left. The one on the left is released by pushing on a section of wood at the front left of the compartment but there seems to be no similar release for the right-hand drawer. These two drawers now show considerable warping and cannot be left in place, so are placed within drawers in the cupboard section. If the drawer in front of the user is removed, there are two further small drawers are hidden under the overhang of the drawer section and sitting within a frame with sides and back, but no front, which can be drawn out to provide access to these drawers and (when fully withdrawn) to additional hidden compartments to left and right. Movement in the carcase has made manipulation of this frame impossible at the moment. The drawers set within this section show regular dovetailed joints.
The writing flap appears to be in two layers, plied to give stability and to allow the lower layer to be cut with a tongue in long grain to run in the rebates of the side fillets.
The small drawers to either side of the writing compartment are constructed as separate nests, with framing of stained alder (?), of dovetailed construction, inserted from the back of the carcase. The drawers are of stained alder (?), of dovetailed construction with the dovetails set asymetrically to form a pattern, as on the larger drawers. The top edges are moulded and the bases, with grain running laterally, are set into rebates in all four sides. Some of the drawers are additionally built out on the sides of the front edges to create the curving outlines. The top edges of the sides, front and back are moulded. The bases, with grain running laterally, are set into grooves in the sides of front, back and sides. In each nest, the lowest tier of the drawers houses two drawers, the outer one extremely narrow. These narrow drawers are jointed in the middle with a wooden hinge and when drawn out can be turned to right or left.
Between the two visible nests of drawers is a revolving box that can show one of four faces. This rests on a central spindle and is inserted from the top of this section. A button under the lower frame releases the section to turn on its spindle; when the button is released, the section is locked in place. The construction of the revolving section is difficult to determine, as little is visible.
The top of the writing section, of pine, is of flush frame and panel construction, without a medial rail. A central square has been cut out of this to give access to the revolving stage section and this is filled with a board, screwed in place. Thick battens (approx. 2 cm) have been applied along the side edges of the top. The battens are cut on their inner edge with a groove, in which slide the framing panel that supports the reading desk for standing use. The tops are each cut with a sloping groove deepening to the front, which receives and locates the metal pins fitted on the underside of the top section of the cabinet. The backboard of the writing compartment is also constructed as a flush panel, with a single medial rail, the panels to either side cut with grain running diagonally upwards towards the centre.
The carcase of the upper section is pine, probably with oak uprights. It is built on a substantial framed base of pine with a single medial rail, the panels to either side with grain running laterally, the edges with quarter-round mouldings. The base, top and side frames are of flush frame and panel construction, with an additional medial rail in each case. The outer faces of the side panels are faced with additional sections to allow for the carving of the curved surfaces. An additional, open frame under the base frame, provides the space for the handholds at either side, which are hidden by small sections of wood that pivot to allow a grip under the carcase.
The cresting and top section of the upper cupboard are built as a separate section. The sides of the main cupboard are attached to the corner framing elements with tongue-and-groove joints, the sides with grain running horizontally. Above the high, internal shelf, the sides of the cresting section are jointed to the top of the sides of the main carcase with running dovetails. The top of the cupboard is double-skinned, with a framework built between the flat top of the cupboard (as seen from below) and the outer top, which follows the double scroll of the cresting. This seems to be two thick boards, set vertically, running from front to back at the highest point of the rising scrolls, with a board joining and stabilising them at a low level. Other elements of timber are attached to the uprights to form the curves, over which a thin skin of timber (alder?) is applied (the grain running front-to-back, the board presumably shaped with steam to follow the curves) as a ground for the veneer and brass marquetry which is visible to either side of the rising section; in the hidden section between the two rising sections of the cornice, this is simply stained a mid-brown.
The doors of the upper section are constructed with an outer frame of mortise-and-tenon construction, enclosing panels held within these, the outer ones simply held against mounts, without visible fixings, the inner ones held in place with mounts that screw partly into the frame and partly into the panel. The outer panels are of mortise-and-tenon construction, in oak. The inner panels are simply boards of mahogany, running vertically, on which the marquetry is laid (probably replacements of the 19th century). It appears that the panels of the doors may originally have been filled with mirror glass, the current outer panels possibly forming the interior of the doors. The mounts on the upper edges of the outer doors overlays the marquetry in a manner that might suggest the panels had originated elsewhere (perhaps on the inside of the doors). Such cabinets were often made with mirror glass in the doors, with interior panels fitted with turn buttons. However, the curved shaping of the panel surfaces would have been unusual on such a cabinet, so the point is unclear. What is seemingly clear is that the inner panels probably date from the 19th century, and that the marquetry is a skilful copy of that on the outer panels.
The nest of drawers and cupboard within the upper cupboard is constructed as a separate box, in pine, fitted into the carcase before the backboard was fitted. The base, top and sides are of flush frame-and panel-construction, joined with dovetails. The nest has an inner and outer top, separated by an open space behind the entablature. The lower top is of frame and panel construction and presumably runs in grooves cut in the sides of the nest. The upper top is frames, but the panel areas are open, to allow access to a hidden compartment when the loose panels of the gallery area (see below) are lifted. The visible area of the nest has two horizontal boards running above and below the cupboard, across the whole box and set into grooves cut in the sides. Two vertical boards, presumably tenoned up and down, divide the space between these boards into three, for the cupboard and flanking drawers. Dustboards for the drawers are set into v-shaped grooves cut into the sides and into these boards.
The seated figures and the coat of arms are in gilded limewood. The arms are fixed but the two figures are attached with loose dowels to the scrolling ‘broken pediment’ sections to either side of the arms. If these are lifted out, the balustrade sections can be lifted out, together with attached panels behind that cover hidden compartments at the top of the nest. The panels are of alder (?), stained reddish purple on the visible, top surfaces. The bases are of cleated construction. The central panel, of cleated construction, in alder stained purple, can also be lifted out to give access to the compartment beneath. The mirror of the ceiling of this section is immediately under the panel. The pierced, gilt-brass balustrades are fitted between moulded brass top and base rails, set between plinths of rosewood and other woods.

Place of Origin

Dresden (Probably., made)

Date

1750-1755 (made)

Artist/maker

Kimmel, Michael, born 1715 - died 1794 (maker)

Materials and Techniques

Veneered in kingwood, with marquetry including mother-of-pearl, ivory and brass, on a carcase of pine and stained alder or birch; mounts of gilt brass and gilded wood

Marks and inscriptions

7
Some mounts; Stamped

H
Crudely inscribed on some mounts

Dimensions

Height: 2500 mm, Width: 1450 mm, Depth: 830 mm

Object history note

Possibly made for Schloss Hubertusburg, a hunting lodge at Wermsdorf, between Dresden and Leipzig . Schloss Hubertusburg was built in two stages between 1721 and 1752. The foundation stone of the building was laid on the feast day of St Hubert (patron saint of hunting), on 3 November 1721 for Frederick Augustus I, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland (Augustus the Strong). This building was given to his son, Frederick Augustus II (more generally known as Augustus III, King of Poland, to which title he was elected in 1749) in 1724. Hubertusburg was the largest hunting lodge in Europe and has been referred to as the 'Versailles of Saxony', which reflects the grandeur and elaboration of the interiors. Work under the architect Johann Christoph Naumann (dates uncertain, best known for his urban planning in Warsaw, Poland, with Mattäus Daniel Pöppelmann) continued from 1721 to 1732. From 1733-1752 the architect in charge was Johann Christian Knöffel (1686-1752). The style of the cabinet suggests that it may have been made just at the point that the furnishing of the building was completed.

In 1761 the entire contents of Schloss Hubertusburg were destroyed by Prussian troops during the Seven Years War. No inventories exist, so it is impossible to prove that this piece came from that source.

Alternatively, the cabinet may have been made for the royal palace in Warsaw or for the new castle of Grodno, now in Belarus. Augustus III and his father served as the elected Kings of Poland from 1697-1763, Augustus III reigning from 1733. Polish kings occupied the royal castle during their reigns but did not own it, although they would furnish it to their own taste, the furnishings being removed at the end of the reign. The Saxon kings of the Wettin dynasty brought the rococo style to Poland and in Warsaw the castle was enlarged with a wing on the river side, richly decorated on the exterior and decorated in rococo style on the interior. The architect was Gaetano Chiaveri (1689-1770), who was also active in designing Rococo buildings in Dresden, including the Catholic court chapel. When Augustus III died in 1763, the furnishings were removed to Dresden.

At Grodno, Augustus III built a new castle, next to the older one. It was designed by Carl Friedrich Pöppelmann, son of the architect of the Zwinger Palais in Dresden and was built between 1734 and 1751. It was re-modelled later in the 18th century.

By tradition the cabinet was acquired by Baron Mayer Amschel de Rothschild on 27 March 1835. Baron Mayer studied at the Universities of Leipzig (1835) and Heidelberg (1836). If that date of acquisition is correct, it suggests that the cabinet had not moved far from Dresden in the preceding half century.

The cabinet was in the collections of Baron Mayer de Rothschild at Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire until offered for sale by Sotheby's, 18 - 20 May 1977, cat. vol. I, lot 905. The cabinet was one of several pieces acquired by the Government before the sale and allocated to the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The cabinet has undergone restoration on at least two occasions. The surface of the marquetry shows evidence of scraping and some loss of engraved decoration. The present French-polished surface probably dates from the 19th century but remains in extremely good condition. The mounts have been re-gilded at least once, probably in the 19th century, but mercury gilding was used for this restoration. The cabinet has suffered insect attack (woodworm) in the past and evidence of this is apparent on the pine backboards. In 2013 the cabinet was cleaned and conserved, the dirty wax layers on the mounts being removed with dry-ice under pressure. The surface of the marquetry was surface cleaned only, and loose pieces stabilised. The lacquered brass mounts on horizontal edges and within the flutings of the pilasters, were cleaned and re-lacquered so that they were closer in appearance to the gilded brass, as would originally have been intended. A detailed report on the work carried out is on file.

Historical context note

This form of furniture, which is nowadays called a bureau bookcase, but which in the 18th century was called a 'desk and bookcase', developed in Britain and was one of the few British furniture forms that were taken up in Europe, almost entirely in the German-speaking states. Several centres produced versions of its, generally with far more elaborate ornament than was common in Britain. In Dresden in the middle of the 18th century this was one of the furniture forms accepted by the guilds as a masterpiece. A number of highly decorated writing cabinets of this form were made in Dresden, including this example and some with japanned decoration (see W.62-1979 in the V&A collections). It was typical of such cabinets that the lower part, in the form of a chest of drawers, was recessed in the centre, suggesting the form of the kneehole desk.

Such pieces were clearly useful as well as decorative, but their chief value may have been symbolic, indicating that the owner was a reader, an educated man. It was not uncommon for men to to shown in portraits of the period with such a piece in the background. the served as 'cabinets of the arts' for a ruler or aristocrat, demonstrating in itself a command of luxury materials and of the skills to work them, illustrating trade links throughout the world (which provided the materials used in it), knowledge of the natural history and metallurgy that went into the creation of the piece and of the arts, particularly of sculpture, music (with a hidden, pull-out music stand lying between the cupboard and desk section) and literature.

The iconography of the mounts, which includes poppies in the cresting, may indicate that it was designed for use in a bedroom, where such highly personal pieces were frequently found. The iconography of other mounts and of the inlay still requires work but may reflect a fanciful interpretation of new botanical discoveries from overseas.

The design of the mounts reflects the exuberance of carvering in Dresden from the 1730s, such as Joseph Deibel (1716-1793), who trained as a cabinet-maker and carver, arriving in Dresden from Munich in 1737. Another carver with similar facility in the new rococo style was Johann Joseph Hackl (d. 1785). Little is, as yet, known about mount makers in Dresden. Peter Hoese, the court cabinet-maker, is known to have made mounts and fittings made by the court locksmith Johann Dietrich Gertz in 1727.

Though this piece was clearly made for Augustus III (1696-1733), Elector of Saxony, and King of Poland from 1733-1763, because of the monogram in giltwood in the upper part of the interior, we do not know for which of his palaces this was made.

Descriptive line

Writing cabinet veneered in kingwood, with marquetry of mother-of-pearl, ivory and brass on a carcase of pine and stained alder or birch; the cabinet is mounted in gilt brass and with giltwood, the carving incorporating the cypher of Augustus III

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Gilbert, Christopher and Murdoch, Tessa eds., John Channon and brass-inlaid furniture 1730-1760. New Haven and London, Yale University Press, in association with Leeds City Art Galleries and the Victoria and Albert Museum, 1993. ISBN 0-300-05812-8, fig. 21.

Thornton, Peter. ‘A Very Special Year: The Victoria and Albert Museum’s Furniture Acquisitions in 1977’. Connoisseur, vol 198, no 196, June 1978.
Mentmore, volume I. Catalogue of French and Continental Furniture, Tapestries and Clocks, sold on behalf of the Executors of the 6th Earl of Rosebery and his family. Sotheby Parke Bernet & Co., 18-20 May 1977 at Mentmore, Buckinghamshire. Lot 905.
Mentmore. Edinburgh: R. and R. Clark, privately printed, 1884, vol. I, p. 41, no. 11
Wilk, Christopher ed., Western Furniture 1350 to the Present Day. London: Philip Wilson in association with the Victoria and Albert Museum, 1996, pp. 98-99.
Elizabeth Miller and Hilary Young, eds., The Arts of Living. Europe 1600-1815. V&A Publishing, 2015. ISBN: 978 1 85177 807 2, illustrated p. 173.

Labels and date

Writing cabinet
1750–55

The asymmetrical twist of the scrolled pediment offsets the cabinet’s massive architectural form. The undulating façade is covered with naturalistic decoration in shimmering mother-of-pearl and gilded metal. Decoration includes scrolling acanthus leaves, flowers and rocaille (ornament of rock, wave and shell forms). The rich materials and the sophisticated cabinet-making reflect the fact that it was made for a royal patron. The cabinet is an outstanding example of German Rococo design.

Germany (Dresden)
Probably by Michael Kimmel
Pine and stained alder or birch, veneered with kingwood; marquetry in mother-of-pearl, ivory and brass; gilded copper alloy and gilded wood mounts
Made for Augustus III, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, perhaps for Schloss Hubertusburg
Purchased by H.M. Government from the estate of the 6th Earl of Rosebery and allocated to the Victoria and Albert Museum
[09/12/2015]
[Label text by Peter Thornton]
Bureau
German; about 1750
Veneered with kingwood inlaid with mother-of-pearl, ivory and brass and decorated with ormolu mounts

Made for Augustus III, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, and attributed to the cabinet-maker Christian Friderich Lehmann

Bought by the Baron Mayer de Rothschild in 1835. It has formed part of the furnishings of Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire, since the 1850s.

Museum No. W.63-1977 [1980]

Production Note

In the mid-18th century this English-derived form of 'desk and bookcase' was one of the types of furniture acceptable to the guild as a masterpiece. As early as 1731, the Dresden cabinet-maker's guild first allowed Johann Paul Schotte (a Dresden-born apprentice who worked as chair maker to the court from 1739) the permission 'to make and English bureau-cabinet as his masterpiece'. This was by particular permission of the Elector and on payment of 'a moderate sum of money'.

A number of such pieces exist, often with upper doors set with mirror glass and veneered in tropical timbers, indicating courtly provenance, as in general in Dresden at the time, furniture was made of native woods. When the doors were mirrored, the glass came from the Friedrichthal looking-glass manufactory, owned by the state of Saxony, and finished at the 'Electoral Looking-Glass, Cutting and Polishing Works'. The addition of expensive looking-glass panels was particularly valued as it supported other mirrors in the rooms to multiply the light of candles.

The decoration of the cabinet is, in contrast, closer to French furniture of the period, combining deeply coloured tropical hardwood marquetry with finely cast, chased and gilded mounts. This development of the English form, with an intensification of ornament, was a development from the 1740s. The court at Dresden was well aware of the latest fashions in France because Maria Josepha (1731-1767), the daughter of Augustus III, was married in 1747 to Louis, Dauphin (heir to the throne) of France, son of Louis XV. All sorts of furnishings and art objects were acquired for the court in Paris, notably from the cabinet-maker Jean-Pierre Latz (about 1691-1754), who had a number of clients in German states, including Frederick II of Prussia (1712-1786) and Count Heinrich von Brühl (1700-1763), who was first minister and ultimate controller of the court of Augustus III.

Materials

Pine; Kingwood; Mother-of-pearl; Brass; Ivory; Gilt brass; Alder; Rosewood; Padouk; Snakewood; Bois satiné; Iron; Ebony

Techniques

Marquetry

Subjects depicted

Wings; Poppies; Coffee

Categories

Furniture; Marquetry

Collection

Furniture and Woodwork Collection

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