Vertiginous

Nicholas Penny

  • Grands Décors français 1650-1800 by Bruno Pons
    Faton, 439 pp, £130.00, June 1995, ISBN 2 87844 023 4
  • The Rococo Interior by Katie Scott
    Yale, 342 pp, £39.95, November 1995, ISBN 0 300 04582 4
  • Chardin by Marianne Roland Michel, translated by Eithne McCarthy
    Thames and Hudson, 293 pp, £60.00, March 1996, ISBN 0 500 09259 1

The rococo style transformed the character of the domestic interior. First in France, where the style originated in the late 17th century, and then in the rest of Europe, rooms were created which were lighter and more elegant and charming than those of any previous period. They were also audacious, often astonishingly so, in their treatment of space and their denial of solidity or stability. It is easy to forget this because these rooms are more easily reconciled with modern ideas of luxury and comfort than those decorated in any other historical style. De Troy’s famous painting, The Reading from Molière illustrated on the dust-jacket of Katie Scott’s study of the rococo interior, seems to epitomise an ideal of polite but informal and mixed society which is still current. However, those who feel at ease with rococo furniture today do so because it is old and familiar. Originally it seemed novel and fantastic.

French rococo interiors, together with those created in the tidier, more architectural style associated with Louis XVI, have not only been much imitated, they have also been transplanted. The walls were often made up of carved wooden panelling, or boiseries, which could easily be moved to the new homes of the Verdurins and the Vanderbilts (or to the Musée Carnavalet and the Metropolitan Museum). In the first part of Grands Décors français 1650-1800 the late Bruno Pons traces the history of the reuse of French panelling and of the fashion, in both private homes and museums, for the ‘period room’. He surveys with sharp but uncensorious intelligence the interventions of both collectors and conservationists and the part played by nostalgia and archaeology in the consequent reconstructions.

The case-studies which follow expose what is false in rooms that museum visitors are usually encouraged to accept as wholly authentic. Sometimes these rooms include only a few genuine fragments incorporated into a pastiche which is, as Pons observes, no closer to 18th-century France than rococo chinoiserie was to China, but which now has its own ‘period charm’. Elsewhere, the absence of a cornice or the presence of a carpet, the solecism of a writing table in a reception room or of gilded furniture in a room with plain panelling, is drawn to our attention. Much use is made of unpublished 18th-century inventories and 19th-century photographs to trace the long lives of the noble characters (of carved oak) so many of whom now live in air-conditioned retirement abroad. We normally expect the longevity of works of art to be celebrated; here there is a salutary emphasis on the loss of friends and family and on the secret surgery which was the price of survival. Furniture is of course more easily moved than panelling, but it comes as a shock all the same to discover that so little of the finest French furniture remains in the setting for which it was made.

In the creation of the rococo interior numerous arts and crafts were involved in more subtle and intricate harmonies than had ever before been attempted. Inevitably, the finer effects were ephemeral: silk hangings and tapestries fade, oil paintings and mirrors darken, and only the polished marble of the chimneypiece remains more or less unchanged. Re-upholster the furniture and the gilding will look worn; renew the gilding and all that it borders will seem tawdry. Indeed, it is hard to find a rococo interior of the highest quality in which all the surfaces appear to have aged in unison, as they do in some of the rooms in the palatial hunting lodge of the Dukes of Savoy at Stupinigi, a short drive from Turin. These rooms (little visited even in summer) enjoy the additional advantage of being visible only by daylight. Electric light kills all subtleties of gilding, while assaulting the wandering eye and disrupting the balance of the room.

Harmony and balance may suggest tranquillity, yet the spatial character of the rococo interior is often vertiginously exciting, the ornament enticing as well as diverting. In one of the smaller rooms at Stupinigi is the soffitto a ghiacci e finte porcellane, a ceiling covered with an intricate network of scrolling stucco ornament – some of it in relief, some – of it painted to resemble relief – with mirrors set in the petal or shell-shaped interstices. The pattern of the stucco seems almost kinetic and even the colours – pale greens and yellows and pinks – seem to fade as forms dissolve, or to flush as they expand. Repetitions mingle with reflections: strewn over the ceiling are painted flowers, which also appear in the overdoors and dados and on the silk hangings.

This is an example, dating from the 1760s, of an extreme development of the rococo style outside France. There is no such flirtation with illusion or confusion in the oval Salon de la Princesse in the Hôtel de Soubise designed by Germain Boffrand thirty years earlier – one of the most famous rococo rooms to survive in Paris (today part of the Archives Nationales) – and yet a denial of stability is also essential to the appeal of this room. The ceiling appears to float above the walls, from which it is separated by paintings set in frames of undulating outline. The walls consist of arches which frame windows or mirrors (the latter reflecting the former), and between each arch the wall is enlivened by panels bordered with gilded scrolls and tendrils that break into the frames of the paintings above.

The same playful spirit, the same determination to tease the mind as well as delight the eye, shaped the character of rococo furniture. The polished marble top of the typical rococo console table echoes the curves of the mirror frame on the wall from which it projects. The legs take up the rhythm of the frame and the panel mouldings. Such tables seldom served any practical function. A commode did, of course, have a use as well as an undeniable bulk. The rococo commode, however, endows mass with apparent mobility: for example, the commode made for the bedchamber of Louis XV at Versailles, and now in the Wallace Collection, has a double bow and bombé front and sides, making the shapes of its drawers and cupboards quite impractical. Moreover, the pattern of the veneer of kingwood and mahogany (the work of Gaudreau) ignores the divisions of the drawers, nor is it immediately clear which of the twisting gilt bronze mounts (signed by Caffieri) that seem to swim over its surface are merely ornaments and which are handles. This commode also formed part of an ensemble: as Francis Watson explains in the preface to his 1956 catalogue of the furniture in the Wallace Collection, it fitted below a mirror and its ormolu ornaments matched the gilded carving of the panelling by Jacques Verberckt.

Watson’s preface also includes a miraculously succinct history of French furniture in which he describes how the rococo chair was adapted to an ‘easier, less formal existence’ and to the fashion for wide skirts.

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