Tuesday, February 5, 2013
The Quervelle Project
This is the original console table by Quervelle, made in Philadelphia, now in the dining room.
THE STORY OF HOW I CAME TO COPY THIS TABLE
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.
CARPE DIEM DECISION
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, sitting in the dining room next to the original.
I FORGOT TO TAKE GOOD PHOTOS!
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.