I received a couple of emails from readers following a remark I made in Drawer Front Dovetail Evolution: “… by the mid-eighteenth-century; English cabinetmaking was of a far higher standard than anywhere else in Europe.”
One reader was surprised by my comment, based, he said, on “the French’s reputation and generally, the highly decorative nature of Continental furniture”. Another reader simply repudiated my argument with a few succinct words that I’m not entirely conversant with.
There’s no argument; French tastes gave birth to much of eighteenth-century England’s style (Chippendale launched his career on rococo, borrowed from the French), but French furniture has always been all blouse and no trousers.
The veneering, marquetry and parquetry performed by the ébénistes’ was skilled ebullient work and the ormolu produced by the fondeurs-ciseleurs was unparalleled during the first half of the eighteenth-century (fig. 1).
Outwardly, French eighteenth-century furniture was indeed highly decorative and imaginative too: Chairs with multiple compound curves and three-dimensional bombe carcases with ever more outrageous foliate ormolu mounts abounded. Appearances were superficial though and virtually everything beneath the gaudy veneer was a bit half-hearted. Unlike the ébénistes’, the menuisiers (the actual cabinetmakers) didn’t strive for perfection, with cabinetmaking developments being more or less stagnant since the seventeenth-century.
France’s great loss were the thousands of skilled Huguenot craftsmen who fled the country’s religious policies towards the end of the seventeenth-century, settling in Britain, the Dutch Republic (some of the elite subsequently coming to England under the patronage of William III) and other non-Catholic areas of Europe.
I have had opportunities in the past to examine ‘nonpareil‘ eighteenth-century French furniture in public and private collections and the internal surfaces of panels often exhibit riven rather than sawn surfaces. Rails and stiles too regularly look more like recycled bridge timbers with malformed tenons barely touching the interiors of the associated mortises; and which, without being drawbored-and-pegged, would have no integrity or hope of longevity whatsoever.
In England, drawbored-and-pegged frame-and-panel carcase construction fell from use in all but bucolic furniture by the last quarter of the seventeenth-century, but it persisted in French furniture throughout the eighteenth-century (figs. 2, 3 & 4), and indeed, well into the nineteenth-century too.
Continental drawers were often so crudely made they required supplementary nailing to retain some degree of cohesion (the French being amongst the worst offenders – figs. 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 & 10).
The menuisiers – a more appropriate name might have been bouchers de bois – were on the whole, an unenlightened coterie who most certainly didn’t cut the mustard.