Author: Chris Yeo
Date: 11th September, 2017
Golden and dazzling, in the years leading up to the French Revolution Parisian interiors achieved unparalled heights of luxury and sophistication. “Antiques Roadshow” expert Chris Yeo indulges in a spot of time travelling to take a closer look at a gilded legacy.
This week I’d like to take you on a journey. Let’s imagine we’re in Paris and the year is 1765. It is the end of another day in the life of the French capital. Dusk gives way to the night sky but the city is in no mood for sleeping. Streets bustle with activity. Lamplighters go about setting tallow flares that will guide the carriages and sedan chairs of the beau monde to the evening’s circuit of balls, soirees and tet-a-tetes and assignations. Over in the fashionable areas of St Germain and St Honoré , in the newly built grand hotels particuliers, where live the movers and shakers of the French capital –financiers, courtesans and actresses – the lofty reception rooms are being readied for the arrival of the guests. Servants rush around, fires are replenished, silvered mirrors are polished, a multitude of candles in chandeliers and sumptuous candelabra are lit. Gradually, a scene of glittering enchantment emerges as marble, gilded metal, rock crystal, Oriental lacquer responds to the flicker of candle and fire light and the grand interior starts to glow and fluoresce. Before long it will be joined by brilliant cut gemstones and iridescent threads on fine silk ball gowns. Was there ever a sight more dazzling?
Okay, it’s a flight of imagination but, you have to agree, there’s something undeniably intoxicating about Parisian high society in the years leading up to the French Revolution. We loved Dangerous Liaisons and remember how Marie Antoinette liked to dress up as a peasant dairy maid, while imploring her subjects to ‘eat cake’ (FYI: the former is true, the latter almost certainly is not). Paris in the 17th and 18th centuries was the world capital of luxury and taste. “Fashion is to France what the gold mines of Peru are to Spain,” concluded Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV’s minister in 1665. Add to this the fact that Parisian society was full of rivalry and jealousy, with each wanting to outdo his neighbour in elegance and splendour, and you have the recipe for some truly jaw dropping conspicuous consumption. The appetite for luxury affected every aspect of high society life, from the clothes and jewels that were worn to the food that was eaten. But most of all it was seen in the way houses were decorated. The Parisian interior of the mid-18th century reached heights of refinement and luxury that have rarely, if at all, been achieved since. This rich confection depended on a variety of ingredients to achieve its dazzling effect: delicately carved and gilded wooden boiseries, rock crystal in chandeliers and wall appliques, furniture delicately inlaid with rich exotic woods, Chinese and Japanese lacquer, Sevres porcelain, all were used to dazzling effect. But the chief ingredient – and the one that put the lustre on this sumptuous spectacle – was gilded bronze.
Gilt bronze – or ormolu (from the French or molou for powdered gold) –had existed since the Pharoahs and had been used in Italy during the 17th century, but France, under Louis XIV’s flamboyant reign, was the country that spread the use of gilt bronze all over Europe. It was used on all manner of objects, from the useful – furniture mounts, door fittings, lighting, clocks and fireplace furniture – to the purely luxurious – pot-pourri vases and as decorative mounts on precious Oriental porcelain. In the 30 years leading up to the revolution, ormolu mountings attained their highest artistic and technical development and the unmatched skills of Parisian bronziers created astonishing objects to gleam and bedazzle.
Gilding bronze was a way of suggesting the lustrous appearance of gold without the expense of creating a solid gold object. Two techniques were used in the 18th century: mercury gilding and acid gilding. The bronze mounts were cast from wax models, and then chiselled and chased to add detail. Rococo gilt bronze tends to be finely cast, lightly chiselled, and part-burnished. Neoclassical gilt-bronze is often entirely chiselled and chased with extraordinary skill and delicacy to create finely varied surfaces.
Gilt-bronze furniture mounts were first used in France on a limited scale during the second half of the seventeenth century. At first it was confined to the hinges and escutcheons of furniture but it soon spread to include other mounts which would be applied to a piece of furniture. The role of such mounts was primarily functional. The feet, or sabots (literally, clogs), and corner mounts protected the wood against damage from being knocked about or moved in carts from one residence to the next. The escutcheon framing the keyhole would prevent the key from scratching the veneer, and handles allowed access to the drawers. Little by little, however, its decorative function outgrew its practical application. Gilt-bronze mounts helped to emphasize the outline of a piece of furniture, which became especially important during the Rococo period with its preference for serpentine shapes. During the late Baroque and Rococo periods, the mounts added a lively, sculptural element, while during the Neo-classical periods they became more and more decorative. The great French furniture designers and cabinetmakers, or ébénistes, of the 18th and 19th centuries made maximum use of the exquisite gilt-bronze mounts produced by fondeurs-ciseleurs (“founders and finishers”) such as the renowned Jacques Caffieri (1678–1755), whose delicate and exuberant finished gilt-bronze pieces actually tended to eclipse the objects they were accessorising.
Exquisite though the end result might be, the work of the bronzier was dirty and dangerous – mercury fumes are poisonous. Also, a single piece of ormolu might well involve a large number of different artisans – modeller, caster, chaser and gilder. For this reason, most would have been bought through a marchands mercier, a specialist luxury goods dealer and forerunner of the modern day interior designer, with which Paris was well-supplied. These middle men, dealers in fashionable furniture and objects d’art, played a crucial role in keeping Paris at the epicentre of European luxury market. They understood fashion and, with a canny business eye, many acted as innovators, introducing new combinations of materials and techniques which appealed to the Parisian love of having the very latest thing. The marchand-merciers competed with each other to have the latest and best pieces and the most famous and fashionable customers. Madame de Pompadour, the undisputed leader of fashion, was the customer they all craved. Where she shopped all Paris followed.
The manufacture of gilt bronze was strictly controlled by the Guild regulations which regulated all areas of manufacturing in pre-Revolutionary Paris. According to these rules, an ebeniste (the name refers to the use of ebony for the earliest veneered furniture) was not permitted to make the bronze mounts which decorated his furniture unless he had received special dispensation from the King. The penalties for those who ignored the rules were severe. One craftsman who fell foul of the Guild found his workshop ransacked and his living jeopardised, as well as having to face expensive legal proceedings.
Gilded bronze, whether on a table leg or a chandelier brought a sense of unmistakable luxury to a room. But it wasn’t a case of bling for bling’s sake. There were firm rules of decorum which dictated the architecture, decoration and furnishing of the fashionable Parisian home. According to these rules, a house should reflect the social status of the owner: the more gold the higher the status. A lavish display of gilding would be considered perfectly appropriate for royalty and aristocracy, for lesser mortals it was the most egregious of faux pas.
With an almost insatiable demand for fine quality ormolu work, either on furniture or as ornament in its own right, the only thing holding the bronzier back were the limits of his imagination. Out of the exuberant Rococo style of the 1740s and ‘50s sprung forth a bountiful garden of vegetable, floral and plant forms. In less capable hands the results might have been questionable. Fortunately the innate French sense of elegance and proportion saved this from exaggeration; however daring the asymmetry, however languid the curves, the final result is always balanced and poised.
Gold is a timelessly glamorous addition to any interior and its versatility lends it to both modern and period decorative schemes. Two hundred and fifty years have done nothing to tarnish the allure of gilt bronze and the fine French furniture it adorned, which continue to speak to our love of fine craftsmanship and unashamed luxury as clearly now as it did then. All that glitters is indeed not gold.