French Mustard

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).

Louis_XV_commode_signed_Dubois_c1750_01aFig. 1. Louis XV parquetry commode, signed ‘Dubois’, circa 1750.

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.

Louis_XVI_commode_c1780_02aFig. 2. Louis XVI drawbored-and-pegged carcase, circa 1780.

Louis_XVI_commode_c1790_01aFig. 3. Louis XVI drawbored-and-pegged carcase, circa 1790.

Louis_XVI_commode_c1790_04aFig. 4. Louis XVI drawbored-and-pegged carcase, circa 1790.

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).

Louis_XV_commode_c1760_02aFig. 5. Louis XVI dovetailed and nailed drawers, circa 1760.

Louis_XV_commode_c1770_02aFig. 6. Louis XVI dovetailed and nailed drawers, circa 1770.

Louis_XV_commode_c1770_03aFig. 7. Louis XVI dovetailed and nailed drawer, circa 1770.

Louis_XVI_commode_c1780_01aFig. 8. Louis XVI dovetailed and nailed drawers, circa 1780.

Louis_XVI_commode_c1780_03aFig. 9. Louis XVI dovetailed and nailed drawers, circa 1780.

Italian_commode_c1780_01aFig. 10. The French weren’t alone: Dovetailed and nailed Italian drawer, circa 1780.

Louis_XVI_commode_c1790_02aFig. 11. Louis XVI commode, circa 1790. Perhaps by An Englishman in Paris?

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.

Jack Plane

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About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
This entry was posted in Antiques, Drawers and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to French Mustard

  1. confur says:

    I concur, generally all surface, little substance. Tho they tended to counter veneer panels etc more often than the Brits. (from my observation)

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  2. Paul says:

    Rule Britannia! With a bit of co-operation we could have had many more well made and beautifully decorated pieces surviving to admire.

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  3. burbidge says:

    One day, I too will aspire to create such levels of the dovetailers’ art.

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  4. Damien says:

    William III was so impressed by the “far higher standard than anywhere else in Europe” that he asked some of the Dutch elite furnituremakers to come over to England … to learn?

    Damien

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    • Jack Plane says:

      Damien, I think your time scale is a little adrift. The Huguenots that William III patronised (and many more who also settled in England at the end of the seventeenth-century) brought new talents with them. The Dutch Huguenots’ and English’ skills combined, culminating in the benchmark English cabinetmaking of the eighteenth-century.

      JP

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      • Damien says:

        Sorry, contrary to the examples I was thinking 1700 hereabouts. Roubo for example agrees with your view of the French cabinetmakers, he says that you get what you pay for. By no way knowledgeable, but to be fair, did some examples lost their paint?

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  5. This was really interesting. I’m not usually allowed to open drawers so it’s fascinating to get a closer look at some cabinets.

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  6. Jim says:

    Was some of the wood actually recycled? Other periods in France have suffered from a shortage of timber. Did you notice any indications of poor seasoning – I don’t mean garlic.

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    • Jack Plane says:

      Some of the internal surfaces are noticeably weathered and dirty; some simply un-worked since being riven and others from being reused. One also occasionally sees inexplicable saw cuts and nail holes in furniture components which would indicate they were recycled.

      The English also recycled timber (as can be witnessed in many joyned coffers, beds, wall panelling etc.) during the fifteenth- sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries. Sawn/worked boards were hard won, so it made good economic sense to recycle unused or unfashionable joinery. However, the French continued the practice for centuries with some fairly awful wood.

      There’s no doubt the French occasionally used green timber in their casework.

      It appears French furniture was often roughly constructed ‘oversize’ with little consideration given to the accurate laying out of the joints. The maligned exterior surfaces were then faired prior to being veneered.

      JP

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  7. Jim says:

    Symbolic of the regime don’t you think?

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  8. johnT says:

    Amongst all the din of French bashing let us not forget that without their aid and assistance, we would not have won the Revolutionary War.

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    • Virgil. says:

      Ah, see? There’s the problem. The home state going to wrack and ruin while the government is meddling the affairs of foreign countries.

      I agree that it looks shoddy but was it badly made? ie did it work? It looks crook by our standards today (where some people use a micrometer in woodworking) but if that was the standard then is it really that bad?

      Mind you I would want my money back if something like the examples above were delivered to my door.

      Cheerio,
      Virg.

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  9. Pingback: Judith Leyster and other seventeenth century Low Countries women painters | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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