Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The History of the Chevalet de Marqueterie

When I started restoring marquetry on antique furniture in 1969, I looked at Diderot and Roubo for information on what kind of tool the French were using.  What I found was called a donkey, and it had a seat, a foot pedal and jaws for holding the veneers in a packet.   At that time I was traveling each month to the midwest to buy antiques for resale.  During one trip I found a harness maker's bench, which looked exactly like the donkey illustration in Roubo.  The only difference was the jaws were perpendicular to the worker, not parallel.  I paid $150 and brought it home, took it apart, made a new seat and remounted the jaws to work for veneer.  I spent nearly 10 years riding that donkey, with a hand held fret saw, struggling to create marquetry like I saw on 18th century furniture in museums.

I have posted previously here about how and when I first saw a real chevalet.  I call that discovery "pre industrial espionage" in my lectures.  In short, when I saw the saw frame support, I immediately understood how important that part of the tool was to keep the blade perpendicular to the work.  I built that tool, which is called a chevalet, and used it for nearly 15 years before I was accepted at ecole Boulle.

When I asked Pierre Ramond about the history of the tool, his response was not precise, either because of my poor understanding of French at that time, or because the actual facts of the development of the tool are "secret."  One thing is certain: the knowledge and use of this tool is not wide spread, and seems to be limited to workers in Paris and those who learned the trade there.

I am fortunate today to have the internet and a partner, Patrice Lejeune, who is really a talented researcher, among other things.  His wife, Agnes, shares this talent, and has just received her PhD in Art History from the Sorbonne, in Paris.  Patrice was able to search through early French books online and found some important facts about this tool.

The only reference I have found to the chevalet in English publications is in the book, "The Gentle Art of Faking Furniture," by Herbert Cescinsky.  He was a noted furniture historian, and published this work in 1931, with a second edition published in 1969.  I treasure this book, and many others which I have collected on the subject of fakes, not only for its unique first hand perspective on the trade, but also since it includes photos and information about French marquetry.

On page 89, he states: "The marqueterie-cutter's saw, in its guides, with the 'chops,' which open and close by foot pressure, to hold the veneers while being cut, and his seat at the end (the 'donkey,' as it is called), have hardly varied at all in two hundred and fifty years."  If you believe this statement, then the tool was used as early as 1680, suggesting that Mr. Boulle and Mr. Gole and all the rest of the late 17th century ebenistes could have used it.

Here I need to make an important distinction.  Roubo, writing in 1769, illustrates an "Ane" in his famous "L'Art Du Menuisier," Volume IV, Plate 291 and 292.  This illustration shows a tool without the saw frame support, and the translation of the noun, "ane," is "donkey."  When the tool is shown with the additional saw support, it is called a "chevalet."  We are talking about two different tools, which do the same job, and are often called the same name, incorrectly.

The term "chevalet" is interesting by itself.  Pierre Ramond specifically asked me to find a better translation for the tool than "donkey" when he retired from teaching.  I looked up the term "chevalet" in a French dictionary, and found the answer.  "Chevalet" is a "stand, support, trestle, frame.  "Chevalet de scieur" is a sawbench, sawhorse.  "Chevalet de peintre" is an easel.  All of these terms have a common function: something to hold the work in place while it is being worked on.

Patrice made an important and significant discovery during this search for the origin of the tool.  He found a book online, "Des Principes de l'Architecture, de la Sculpture, de la Peinture, et des Autres Arts qui en Dependent.  Aved un Dictionnaire des Termes propres a chacun de ces Arts."   This book was published in Paris by Jean-Baptiste Coignard, in 1676, and reprinted in 1690.  The first edition published in 1676 has a full page illustration in Volume III, page 457, that shows clearly two important things: a two man veneer saw and the wood clamp holding the veneer log, which rises from a hole in the floor, and a pair of "anes" or "donkeys" with slight differences.  These donkeys each have a foot operated clamp, and are shown holding the packets of veneer in the jaws.  There is a tray to catch the parts, and the "bocfil" or fretsaw is resting on the floor.

This proves conclusively that the donkey existed during the time of Boulle and Louis XIV, and that the illustration in Roubo, some 70 years later is essentially the same tool.

What I am now researching is the precise time when the saw frame arm was added to this tool.  Clearly, the size and complexity of marquetry which was produced during the third quarter of the 18th century would suggest this tool was used, but I haven't yet found the "smoking gun."  It is evident that the "chevalet" with the arm existed during the 19th century, and I have many references for that.  I will post any new discoveries on this site as soon as they appear.

At the same time, you will note in the above illustration that the tool is referred to simply as "appareil special pour decouper la marqueterie."  Translated that means "apparatus (or tool) special for cutting marquetry."  This is from a catalogue of tools for sale by La Forge Royale, published during the first decades of the 20th century.  It is interesting they did not use the term "chevalet" so I wonder when that term became associated with the tool.

The donkey and chevalet were not the only tools used to make marquetry of course.  In addition to the hand held fretsaw, there was a foot operated frame saw, like I used in making the AIC video.  I was trying to be conservative in deciding to use that saw, instead of the chevalet.  One reason I suspect that Boulle would have also used that saw is the sheer weight of the packet when using brass, pewter and shell, as Boulle did.  It is very hard to hold it in a vertical position without breaking blades, as would be required if it were cut on a donkey.  Therefore, I suspect that these large and heavy packets were cut on a table, horizontal, using a foot powered frame saw with a vertical blade.

It is interesting when you view all three videos on the last post (The Art Institute of Chicago Project) to see each of us using different tools.  I am cutting with a foot powered frame saw, Patrice is using a hand held fret saw, and Yannick is using a chevalet.  I suspect that workers in the period used a wide range of methods to achieve the amazing results we see in museums today.  The great tragedy of that time is that Mr. Boulle's workshop burned to the ground at the end of his career, and all the work, tools, materials and designs were lost forever.  It is left to the historians to speculate and the researchers to discover the secrets of the past.

POSTSCRIPT:  I just received an email from Filip in Belgium adding confirmation to my decision to demonstrate the Boulle method using the foot powered frame saw instead of the chevalet.  I haven't had the money yet to purchase Pierre Ramond's latest book, "Andre-Charles Boulle, ebeniste, ciseleur et marqueteur ordinaire du Roy," published by Vial in 2010.  However, my friend Filip has a copy and sent me images from page 24 and 25 where Pierre concludes that Boulle used a foot saw.  Here is the image with the text:

Those of you who read French will note that on both illustrations Pierre concludes that Boulle probably used a tool like this.  We had made this decision based on the size and weight of the packets that were cut, and the technology available at that time.  It is always rewarding to have my independent research supported by my professor, and the person I believe knows more about French marquetry than anyone else alive.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Art Institute of Chicago Project

Last year we here at the American School of French Marquetry were contacted by staff at the Art Institute of Chicago to see if we could provide assistance in a project they were developing.  It seems that, in our modern age, most visitors to museums expect some form of electronic interaction to enhance their experience.  As usual, I am showing my age.  Lately the most common term I have been using to describe myself is "dinosaur."  "Back in my day," I say to anyone who will listen to me, "we would just go to museums and actually look at the objects, instead of a video screen."

Anyway, I want to encourage any activity these days that will keep people interested in decorative objects, and increase their understanding of the process used to create these wonderful artifacts of the past.  So Patrice and I were enthusiastic about being asked to help.

The AIC flew me back to see the original objects we were being asked to interpret, a Boulle coffer made of tortoise shell and brass, and a secretary by Roentgen.  It was my first visit to the Art Institute, and my first return to Chicago since I was there about 40 years ago.  I was impressed with the way the downtown has changed, the look of Millennial Park, and the new skyline.  What a nice place.  I also want to compliment them on their public transportation system.  I stepped off the plane, crossed the airport terminal to the metro and was dropped off directly in front of my hotel.  Then I had to simply walk across the street to the Institute.  (In San Diego, there is a trolly system, but it doesn't go the one mile to the airport.  You need to get a car to go from the airport to the trolly system...)

Working with the staff of the European Decorative Arts department, it was decided to use one corner of the Boulle coffer design and one element of the marquetry on the drawer of the secretary as a demonstration.  I returned to work with photos and dimensions of each.

We decided to divide the project, according to our strengths.  Patrice has a talent for accuracy and was assigned the Roentgen design to create.  I selected the Boulle pattern, as most of my work has been using that process.

One thing I changed was the material for the Boulle.  Although I have actual tortoise shell which was purchased legally prior to the C.I.T.I.E.S. ban on endangered species, I did not want to use it.  Instead, I used common animal horn, with colored paper backing, to simulate the look of the shell.  Also, I decided not to use a chevalet to cut the design, as it is still not conclusive that this tool was used by Boulle.  Therefore, I used the foot powered frame saw, as that was a tool I believe was available at that time.

You may note in the video that I do not worry about following the design.  I worry about symmetry and clean curves, and since all the materials are cut simultaneously, it doesn't matter how close to the design the cutting is done.  Also, at one point it says that the toothing of the brass "keeps it from moving in the packet."  That is not correct.  We explained that the toothing of the brass was to remove the oxidation and increase the gluing surface, but that got confused when they created the subtext.

Patrice used a hand held fret saw and a bird's mouth support, cutting the internal elements with a perpendicular angle and the exterior of the design with a bevel angle.  That means that, by cutting the cavity in the background veneer with a similar angle, the elements will fit nicely.  It was interesting to do the research on Roentgen's method, as the Metropolitan Museum in New York was exhibiting works by Roentgen and the book they published, "Extravagant Inventions: The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens," is well written and informative.  As it turns out, on page 230 a very similar flower is shown being cut and inlaid, using the same methods as Patrice.  We got the book only after we had completed the video project, so seeing confirmation of our work was rewarding.

It is interesting that at the same time as we were creating this video for the AIC, our friend, Yannick Chastang was creating a similar video for the Victoria and Albert museum.  It is fun to compare these videos, as there are slight differences in the process, as I am sure there were slight variations in the methods used during the period.

Here are the videos:

Patrick does Boulle

Patrice does Roentgen

Yannick does Boulle

I want to thank the kind staff at the Art Institute of Chicago.  They made this project fun and rewarding.  As a special thanks to our patron who sponsored the project, Patrice and I used one of the Roentgen flowers and framed it with a Boulle design and purpleheart and ebony trim.  We sent it off to the AIC and they presented it to our generous sponsors, with our compliments.

A Small Token of our Gratitude

Of course, if you have any questions or comments on these videos, please ask.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Ecole Boulle Porte Ouvert 2013

It has been too many years since I visited ecole Boulle, and I miss it more than you can imagine.  That is why I appreciate a good friend and fellow ebeniste from Belgium, Filip Tanghe, who found me on the internet and has travelled to San Diego to visit my workshop.  For the past few years, he has visited ecole Boulle during their annual "porte ouvert" (open house) and shared the photos with me.

I can tell from the photos that things have changed at the school since I was there over 25 years ago.  They have built new buildings, as only the French can do, mixing contemporary architecture with traditional historic facades.  The marquetry workshop has moved from the top floor of the old building to the new glass building, and seems to be much more into the 20th century (21st?) than the 18th century.  They still use the chevalets, but they also have the best Italian marquetry jig saws available.

Recently, I discovered on YouTube a series of three videos which were made for French television.  These videos show the school, its students and their work, and the professors at work, discussing the philosophy of the teaching methods.  Although it is in French, I think that it is fairly obvious to non-French speakers what is going on.  Take some time and watch them, and I think you will begin to see how great the experience is for me to be able to participate, and what an honor to be accepted.  Thank you Dr. Pierre Ramond and Brian Considine for making this possible.

Here is the link:
ecole Boulle video

By the way, during the last weekend in January, when the doors are open to the public, is really the only time of the year that you can visit the school.  It's a great time to be a visitor in Paris, since all the normal tourists are not there.  It is the time of year then Paris is populated by Parisians, and the best time to really see the city in its "natural" state.  Plan now to go next year; I know I am.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Quervelle Project

This is the original console table by Quervelle, made in Philadelphia, now in the dining room.


I believe that the most important historical event in American history was when President Monroe established the outline of what subsequently became known as the "Monroe Doctrine" during his State of the Union speech in 1823.  The unification of the diverse colonies of the East Coast as the self declared "United States" was still in its infancy, but anxious to demonstrate to the European parents that it was "grown up" and ready to stand on its own feet.  Monroe went even further, and declared that this new country would not allow any interference by anybody, anywhere in the Western Hemisphere.

Imagine!   At the tender age of 47, America claimed that it would protect both North America and South America from any invader.  Nothing else in our history has been so bold and so instrumental in defining our international image and policy.

Where did this power come from?  One factor that helped create this concept was that America at that time was experiencing an economic boom, with abundant resources easily available.  Another was the relative strength and success of our merchant fleet, with faster ships and trading routes which rivaled the historic European nations.

To me, as a student of American history, and a collector and researcher of Decorative Arts, the Monroe Doctrine represents a great age of high style and fashion, starting after the economic depression ended around 1817 and continuing until the next depression of 1837.  These 20 years saw an influx of British, Irish, Scottish, German and French workers, highly skilled in their trades, who migrated to the rich centers of wealth in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and other emerging East Coast cities.

In particular, the French ebenistes who worked in New York, like Lannuier, and in Philadelphia, like Quervelle, brought with them a style and quality of work not seen previously in the States.  As France was our ally in the 1812 War with England, close ties between the French and American upper class developed and the rich decorative elements of the French Empire were transmitted to North America.

These elements were derived from ancient historical sources, in Egypt, Greece and Rome, and had been transmitted through time and geography by the Italians, French, Germans and British, starting late in the 18th century.  They became fully developed under Napoleon, and, in my mind, became the first international politically imposed style in history.

The decorative elements of this period perfectly reflected the image that Americans wished to project: cornucopia, lion's feet, eagle's wings, classical columns, acanthus leaves, Grecian key motif, etc.  In other words, the new America was representing itself as combining the power of Rome, the intelligence of Greece and the mystery of Egypt, all in one place.

This is why I find the furniture made during that period so rich and full of symbolism.  In particular, I became obsessed with a French cabinetmaker who worked for many years in Philadelphia by the name of Anthony Quervelle.  There was a series of articles in the magazine Antiques in 1964 by the researcher, Robert Smith, which identified elements of design that became identified with Quervelle and his school of influence.  You can find these now posted on the web.

I began to search for antiques which could be attributed to him, and found several, including some with his labels.  I owned and sold a nice pair of labeled card tables at one point.  I also purchased and still have in my dining room a large sideboard by him.  To me he became the ultimate French craftsman working in the States during the second quarter of the 19th century.

All of this background leads up to one of the more interesting and successful projects in my career.  A few years ago I was contacted by a very successful furniture maker in England.  He had made and delivered a spectacular dining table to a rich client in Southern California, and that table had developed white spots in the finish.  Could I arrange a visit to see if I can solve the problem?

I gathered my materials for on site finish repair and scheduled a visit.  The home was one of the finest I have had the pleasure to visit, and you need to remember that I have worked in wealthy homes for collectors for over 40 years.  The dining room was large, with elegant symmetry.  Marble fireplace at one end, tall framed windows on the wall with silk drapes, and the mahogany Federal table surrounded by two dozen Chippendale chairs.  The table and chairs were very well made modern copies, but I noticed that, under the window, there was a period console table by none other than Quervelle.

Unfortunately, the finish on the table could not be repaired, as the synthetic glue that was used to apply the veneer had leaked through small defects in the crotch mahogany veneer and reacted with the polish in a way that created repetitive white spots the length of the table.  I notified the maker that it would be necessary to remake the top, and there was nothing I could do on site to repair it.

I remarked to the client that I loved the Quervelle console, as it was easily the finest example of his work I had seen outside of a museum.  He agreed with my assessment, and then said that he was looking for another to put under the other window to complete the symmetry of the room.  Sensing an opportunity, I suggested that it would be possible to just copy the one he had, and that I was ready to take the job.

I prepared a proposal and contract and made an appointment to return to discuss the terms.  When I did, he received my well thought out proposal, and without reading it, agreed to give me the job.  I asked why he did not even read my proposal, and he replied, "This house was built on a handshake.  If we cannot trust each other, then a piece of paper is worthless."

At that moment, his wife entered the room and asked about the project.  As she had some reservations about making an exact copy of the antique table, I offered that the Dallas museum had in its collection a wonderful Quervelle table, which was similar in many details, but quite different in others.  I suggested that, instead of making a copy of the one they already had, I could make a copy of the Dallas piece, and that would add some interest to the room, while completing the symmetry as desired.

There was some back and forth discussion, which I tried to stay out of, and the end result was that he wanted the same and she wanted different.  I left without any firm decision and went to work.

This is the Dallas table in my workshop almost ready for delivery.

This is my copy of the Quervelle console table in the Dallas Museum collection now in the ballroom.


I decided on my own to make both.  I reasoned that having both would give the client a chance to see which they preferred, and that I would be happy with the other, as it would look great in my home.

This project involved many people with special talents.  First I had to find old 16/4 Honduras mahogany for the carved front legs, which I purchased in San Francisco at a high price.  I already had the mahogany veneer in stock, so that was not a problem.  I ordered the white marble tops from an old marble workshop in Los Angeles, with exactly the right thickness and edge profile.

I took two pieces of Victorian blown window glass to have silvered.  The man who does this work has since died, since he was in his 90's at the time of this project, and had been doing this work since the 1930's.

I contacted two different carvers for the front legs, as the work on one was of a different character then the other, and I wanted to have both tables delivered at the same time.  I sent each of them the 16/4 mahogany blanks for the project and waited.

I turned the pilasters and feet for each of the tables, exactly matching the originals.  As Patrice framed together the carcasses, I worked at the same time using hot protein glue to hammer veneer the surfaces.
To assemble the frames, of course, we used Old Brown Glue.   Patrice matched the color of the dark veneer and put an aged crackled black finish on the two carved legs of the Dallas table, as well as the feet.  Several coats of shellac finished the job.

I had a local guilder apply a bronze gilt to the legs and feet of the original table.  I had a sign painter, who does gold leaf signs, work out the gilt stencils for each table, which I then engraved by hand to bring out the detail.  This was the first project where I have used gilt stencils.  They're neat.

After about 6 months, both tables were finished and ready for delivery.  I put them in the truck and made the appointment.  When I arrived he was not at home, so I said to her, "You have a choice."  She looked at both tables and said that she would need to call her husband at work for his opinion.  I could not help but overhear the conversation, as she was standing next to me.

"The tables are here," she said.  Then, "He made both."  Then, "They both look great."  Then, "He says that we should just get both of them.  We can put one in the dining room and the other in the ball room."  She paid me for both, and the dining room has the copy of the original and the ball room has the Dallas example.  I went home with an empty truck and a full wallet.

This is my copy of the Quervelle console table in the shop almost ready for delivery.

This is my copy of the Quervelle console table, sitting in the dining room next to the original.


In my haste to deliver the tables, I neglected to have good studio photos taken.  That is why I haven't posted on my website or in my blog photos of these tables before.  Then, recently, I contacted the client and asked if they would allow me to visit and take better pictures.  They were very kind and said that I could do whatever I wanted at any time that was convenient.

I just returned and now have some photos to show.  I know they are not the best, but, at least it is possible to see exactly how my homage to Quervelle turned out.  It was a great experience.