Published: December 10, 2002
By Bob Jackman
BOSTON, MASS. It was once sold to support a revolution, saw one of its owners tossed into debtor’s prison, traversed the high seas and was ultimately installed in a quiet Boston home.
The suite, now on display in a new and permanent exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, was created by menuisier Jean-Baptiste-Claude Sene on commission from Marc-Antoine Thierry de Ville d’Avray, the general administrator of the crown furniture. The set was created to royal standards and featured fabric with a pattern designed exclusively for the use of Louis XVI. Comprised of an alcove bed, a bergere, two fauteuils, a chaise en prie-dieu (kneeling chair), four chaises (side chairs) and an ecran (firescreen), the suite is considered to be the only complete large suite of high style late Eighteenth Century French furniture in America. Documentation at the Garde-Meubles reveals the entire suite was destined for Thierry’s bedchamber in his royal apartment.
In the antiques literature, this set has usually been called the Swan collection, but that causes confusion since there are about 40 pieces of Swan furniture in the MFA collection. The term “Thierry suite” has been adopted.
MFA European Decorative Arts Curator Tracey Albainy noted, “High style French furniture was at its most sophisticated level in the Eighteenth Century. During that time, France produced the most elegant furniture in the world. The Thierry set was produced to royal standards with fabrics made specifically for Louis XVI. This set is the top. It is the finest complete set of late Eighteenth Century French furniture in America, possibly in the Western Hemisphere.”
Thierry’s enjoyment of the set was short-lived. The set was installed in his apartment in late 1787. The French Revolution broke out in July 1789. Thierry initially escaped to the countryside, but he was found and arrested for living “in Asian sumptuousness.” Thierry spent a couple years in prison where ultimately the prisoners were told they would be allowed to escape. Their cells were unlocked, and the prisoners ran to the main gate, which they were surprised to find closed. A waiting mob chased the prisoners against the gate and butchered them.
Bostonian merchant James Swan arrived in France in 1787 where he hoped to trade in American produce such as wheat, tobacco and naval supplies. The destruction of social order following the French Revolution placed a premium upon these goods, and Swan’s business prospered. In 1792 the French government declared all property of the crown, church and fleeing aristocrats to be public property. That property was subsequently sold in negotiated sales or at auction. Swan bought numerous rdf_Descriptions. Many of these he sold, but the best he shipped back to America, including the Thierry bedchamber suite, where they were installed in the Dorchester (Boston) home where his wife and daughters lived.
In 1808 Swan and a business partner had a falling out, and the partner alleged that Swan owed him a large amount of money. Swan refused to pay and was sentenced to debtors prison in France. Swan lived stylishly in prison until 1830 when he was freed by another revolution.
The Thierry suite was unusual in that it arrived in an American home as an intact set. Unfortunately, upon the death of Mrs Swan, the set was divided among four heirs. From that time forward, the set received differing levels of use, care and reupholstering. Fortunately, in most instances the original upholstery was retained beneath new layers, and this set has provided information not previously available to antiquarians.
Royal Bedroom Suite
To see the set in its proper historical context, one needs to realize that France had two entirely separate groups of guilds that produced furniture. The most elegant and formal of French furniture was produced in the menuisier tradition and it made extensive use of fabrics. Curator Albainy noted, “The menuisier produced the finest French furniture. In this period, the two finest menuisier in France were Jean-Baptiste-Claude Sene and Gorges Jacob. This set was created by Sene.”
The central role of fabric with this furniture is essential for understanding the works. As gilding restorer Cynthia Moyer commented, “This type of furniture was created as vessels to support the display of this magnificent silk. The primary motifs, fringes and tassels were opulent, rare and extremely expensive. Wood was a secondary element. In this instance it was gilded, but in some other sets it was painted.”
A separate guild of French craftsmen produced a high country style of furniture with characteristics often found on English furniture. The ebeniste (cabinetmakers) crafted works that featured fine fire gilded bronzes mounted on frames veneered with highly figured wood. As Moyer noted, “This furniture was created to support the ornate castings.” French royals furnished their countryside retreats with this less formal furniture. While the Thierry suite is not in this tradition, the MFA exhibition displays two examples in this style from Marie Antoinette’s retreat at Hameau outside of Versailles.
The architecture of the exhibition room housing this remarkable set does recall a period French bedroom with high ceilings and a square format. The set, however, is not presented in a bedchamber arrangement or isolated from other objects. There is an extensive presentation of other remarkably fine period works. The room offers one of the most exciting presentations of late Eighteenth Century French arts on view in America.
Exhibition designer James Armbrister commented, “When we got everything in place, the experience became emotional. It took my breath away. It is a great room that sparkles and is beautiful.”
An intense restoration project was necessary to present the suite in its original splendor. As experts examined fabric fragments, wooden frames and historical documents, they gained numerous insights into high style Louis XVI period furniture, some directly contradicting earlier speculation by experts. This project may have produced more revolutionary reinterpretations of the field than any previous study.
The original vision of reuniting the Thierry suite in uniformly gilded surfaces and bearing the original upholstery pattern was developed by former MFA French Decorative Arts Curator Anne Poullet. Poullet and then-MFA conservator Jeffrey Munger oversaw the first half of the project. They sought the advice of Brian Considine, director of the Getty Museum, which has an exceptional French furniture collection. He dispatched gilding consultant Cynthia Moyer to Boston where she examined the set in April 1998.
Moyer’s examinations and tests indicated that four of the ten pieces in the suite had their original gilding on the surface, and others had some original gilding beneath later layers. The best-preserved examples were probably those that had been least used — the alcove bed, firescreen and two side chairs. Unfortunately even these had a thick acrylic resin coating applied by earlier conservators. Considine and Moyer recommended that the set be shipped to the Getty where Moyer could properly conserve it.
Moyer exclusively conserved this set from April 1998 to September 1999. Along the way she made a number of discoveries. Chief among those was that each piece of the set had been originally gilded in three different techniques: oil gilding, burnished water gilding and matte water gilding. While the use of multiple gilding methods became widespread in the mid-Nineteenth Century, it was once believed that the three techniques had not been used simultaneously on individual pieces of Eighteenth Century furniture.
In 1996 Moyer found evidence of three gilding techniques on a single set in the Getty. In reporting her study, she described that set as unique. Several years later when she again found three techniques on the Thierry set, it became clear that the practice was a bit more widely used.
Moyer explained the reason for using the three techniques on a single work. “It was both practical and aesthetically pleasing. Leaf carving that forms the central band of the frame has an ornately carved surface that could be more easily gilded in the oil technique than either water technique. Also the three types of gilding produce three different lusters that is also pleasing.”
Yet more surprising was Moyer’s discovery that the set had been originally painted white rather than having been gilded. Fortunately the history of the set was recorded in extensive records maintained by the French government. In 1664 the office of Garde-Meubles was officially established to keep records of royal furnishings. In those records the Thierry suite is known as Number 181 of 1787. Every contractor and subcontractor is noted with a description of the work done and its cost.
When Moyer reported finding white paint, conservator Jeffrey Munger searched the records for evidence. Indeed he found the set had been originally painted, but that Thierry visited Sene’s workshop and requested a change to gilded surfaces. Sene billed Thierry both for the stripping of the white paint and for the subsequent gilding. When the furniture was delivered to Thierry’s apartment, it was gilded. Documentary evidence confirmed Moyer’s experiential discovery.
The three-color silk fabric on the Thierry suite is among the most sophisticated textiles produced in the Western world. It was originally produced by the Lyon firm of Louis Reboul, Fontebrune et Cie. Its four main patterns were river gods, blacksmiths, seahorses and spaniels. Interspersed among them along a repeat of the fabric pattern are secondary Classically inspired decorative motifs.
Curator Albainy stated, “This fabric was produced using a complete weave structure lampas. This type of lampas was more intricate and expensive than a brocade lampas where the lampas was woven and then a design was embroidered onto the cloth. There are still companies that produce complete weave structure lampas, but they produce greatly simplified designs. The pattern on the Thierry suite was remarkably complex. It was first used to decorate Louis XVI’s gaming room at Fontainebleau, and it was later used in some other royal residences. A single repeat of the pattern is eleven feet long, and it required 27,000 loom cards.”
The Thierry suite remained at the Getty while the silk fabric was being woven by Tassinari & Chatel in Lyons, France. During that time, curator Poullet and conservator Munger left the MFA. Their replacements were Tracey Albainy and Gordon Hanlon. The new team made yet more discoveries.
Hanlon personally accompanied the suite to the Jacques Brazet Tapissier upholstery workshop. French master upholstery conservator Remy Brazet began working worked on the set. Shortly thereafter curator Albainy prepared to fly to Paris and consult with Brazet. Before leaving, she shipped ahead a box with 60 textile fragments previous staff members had removed from the suite.
Recalling that visit Albainy laughed, “When I walked in the door, Remy was jumping up and down he was so excited. He could hardly speak. He shut all the doors of the room and swore me to secrecy before explaining his excrdf_Descriptionent. In the box of fragments, he had found one full chair seat that had a human figure in the seat cushion. Until this seat was found, it had been believed that human figures were never used on the seats of chairs. Here was evidence that the traditional belief was in error. In our project a number of seating furniture pieces have humans on the seats. Some experts will think that is an error, but Remy’s discovery shows that humans were indeed used on seats.”
In the following year Brazet, Albainy, and Hanlon made a number of other significant discoveries about the upholstery of late Eighteenth Century French furniture. For example, traditionalists have assumed that period upholstered furniture had tight, severe, right angled corners. The box of fragments showed that the corners were gentler. It has also been assumed that French furniture had narrow borders such as those found of English Neo-classical furniture. Instead the Thierry suite features exceptionally wide borders that support particularly deep sewn horsehair seats.
Curator Albainy cited historical documents that reaffirmed Moyer’s contention that the furniture was created to showcase extravagant fabrics. She noted that the construction and gilding of the suite cost a total of less than 3,000 livres while the fabric cost 8,600 livres. The fringe and trim cost almost that much again.
As exceptional as the Thierry suite is, the other works on exhibit in the room hold their own. For example, Jean-Antoine Houdon’s (French, 1741-1828) bust of Thomas Jefferson is unquestionably the best-known image of the man. Curator Albainy described a pair of Sevres vases as “the finest and most important examples of Sevres porcelain in North America.” A pair of fire gilded bronze chenet by Pierre-Phillippe Thomire are extraordinary examples of this brazziere’s work. There are a pair of large Romanticized paintings by Francois Boucher, arguably France’s most influential Eighteenth Century painter.
One indication of the remarkable presentation of the exhibition is a set of eight gilded wall panels. The panels have been on display on a low ceiling room of the MFA’s French gallery for a number of years. Poorly lit, they attracted little interest. Reinstalled in this high-ceiling gallery, the panels make a grand, elegant statement.
The panels originally decorated the salon of the Hotel de Montmorency in Paris. The great French architect Claude-Nicholas Ledoux designed and built the townhouse between 1770 and 1772. The set consists of four pairs, each of which probably flanked a doorway of the salon. The hotel was demolished about 1848 and Boston collector Peter Parker soon acquired them in Paris.
Complete sets of Ledoux panels survive in some of his buildings that are still standing. Of his buildings that have been demolished, only two complete sets of panels survive — that at the MFA and one other.
Credit for the exceptional presentation of the panels and other works on display goes to exhibition designer James Armbrister. “At the point that I entered the project,” Armbrister commented, “Tracey and Gordon already had selected specific objects and drawn a diagram with the placement of each object.
“My first step was to create a digitized elevation placement of the works. A major innovation was a new platform style and label system. The new platforms are lower than we have used with other furniture displays. It meets the objective of establishing a visible barrier that visitors must observe, but it enables each piece to be seen at the intended eye level. Easily read labels are placed on a rail at the front of the platform only four inches off the ground. This eliminates the use of wall text that interrupts the natural appearance of the room.”
Armbrister then explained, “For me, lighting is the icing on the cake for an exhibition. Proper lighting can bring to life the vibrancy of a piece. A properly placed spotlight can make an object sing. Here we have been able to highlight the furniture, to provide a little light on the label rails and to slightly wash the walls with light. It is the lighting that has produced such a transformation in the Ledoux panels.”
The restoration, research, and installation of this exhibition is one of the most costly permanent displays ever mounted by the MFA. Credit should be given to Ellen Jaffe, the benefactor who underwrote the cost of the project.
As a permanent installation, the exhibit has no additional fees beyond the cost of museum admission. The exhibition is located at the rear of the European section on the second floor of the original building. Museum hours are Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday 10 am to 4:45 pm; Wednesday 10 am to 9:45 pm; Saturday and Sunday, 10 am to 5:45 pm. For further information visit the website www.mfa.org or call 617-267-9300.
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