Thursday, January 6, 2011

What a load of old Boulle...

Carrying on the French theme of artisans of the court of Louis XIV-XV, I thought I would write a small post on the exquisite marquetry work of André-Charles Boulle, and his école.

Today the name Boulle is synonymous with his distinctive style of inlaid furniture. His career started in 1666 as a master cabinetmaker. In1672 the king granted him the royal privilege of an apartment in the Palais du Louvre. Later that year, he became 'Cabinetmaker and sculptor to Louis XIV, king of France'. This new title allowed him to produce furniture as well as works in gilt bronze such as chandeliers, wall lights, and mounts. Although strict guild rules usually prevented craftsmen from practicing two professions simultaneously, Boulle's favoured position exempted him from these impositions.

He devoted himself to creating expensive and time-consuming furniture and objects d'art with brass and pewter inlays for the king and court. He specialized in the inlaying of ebony with precious woods and mother-of-pearl. Large areas were covered with tortoiseshell, inlaid with filigrees of gilded brass. He added splendid bas-relief compositions, as well as sculptured rosettes, masks, and acanthus scrolls, all in gilded bronze.

Although he did not invent this style of marquetry, he devised a new process by cutting out patterns from these materials. He thus obtained two panels: the “part” and the “counterpart”. The first was in copper on a background of tortoiseshell, the second in tortoiseshell on a background of copper. This usually meant that there were two complimentary pieces of furniture made with each corresponding part and counterpart.

Above and Below:

A Boulle régence styled clock and pedestal in the Lord Cowell collection.

Boulle-made original pieces were considered highly fashionable and were prized in France in the late 17th century and throughout the 18th century. Given their popularity, in the last half of the 19th century, modern machine techniques were utilized to enable the creation of large quantities of furniture in the Boulle style.

Superb examples of his art exist at Versailles, Fontainebleau, and the Louvre and in England at Windsor Castle and in the Wallace Collection, London. The title cabinetmaker to the king passed to his four sons, Jean Philippe, Pierre Benoît, André Charles, and Charles Joseph.

Many of his designs are illustrated in a book of engravings published around 1720. Boulle's pieces, having in general the character of Louis XIV and régence design, were built for the immense formal rooms of the period. In 1684-1692, the Grand Dauphin commissioned in Boulle marquetry the panelling and parquet of his study in Versailles, lost in the 18th century.

Above: Candelabra stands

Above: A Boulle Ink Well

Below: One of the many Boulle-styled clocks after a rococo fashion

Above and Below: Typical consoles in his style.

More Boulle pedestals...

and a Regency drum table...

He was by no means the first craftsman to practice the delicate art of marquetry, nor was he the inventor of the inlay of brass or pewter and tortoiseshell which is associated with his name; but no artist, before or since, has created works of such astonishing skill.


  1. Thank goodness Boulle's designs were illustrated in the 1720 book of engravings. Louis XIV and régence taste would have passed, and Boulle's pieces might have been lost or hidden away in private hands. We can see from the engravings a] what a good eye he had and b] what a superb craftsman he was.

    Just as an aside, I know all of Louis XIV's superb silver art ONLY from the engravings and paintings. Alas all the silver was melted down for one of Louis' wars.

  2. That ink well is so evocative of French broderie gardens, thanks for the beautiful and informative post!

  3. It should not go without mention that Boulle furnishings and their ilk also look fabulous in a minimalist contemporary interior. __ The Devoted Classicist

  4. I enjoyed this post...always learning something new when I come along to Willowbrook Park. I think the image of ink well in particular will be with me for some time to come. Stunning!


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