Boulle Box: Notes on the Object (and a similar Piece)

Explore Categories

This object is something that I was given to assess for treatment towards the end of the spring term. I will be restoring it over the summer. I have put a little bit about the history and design of the object below: This Boulle object is almost identical to another object seen in Antique Boxes Tea Caddies, & Society; it has been confirmed that both of these objects originate from the same period and location and utilise the same techniques. Due to these factors I have been able to allude to published excerpts with a high degree of retained verisimilitude in creating a context for this object's commission and completion by a master craftsman.

Description of the Object

The object is a box (height 145 mm, width 327 mm, depth 258 mm) with the following materials: solid poplar, ebonised veneer and covered with a "contre-partie" Boulle-work of red turtleshell in a background of brass; which carries a central design. The 'body' of the object can be described as 'typical' of 18th century work; it utilises bold swirls, curls and floral designs. A similar description serves for its twin object: "The pattern is in bold swirls forming floral designs and cusps, typical for 18th century work." [1]

In addition to its carved feet, this Boulle object clearly depicts a Satyr-like 'faun' and a dancing woman clutching a tambourine. The use of a central 'panel' design is adopted by the next generation of furniture makers:

"...One of the main exponents of this genre of design was Jean Bérain, whose 'Arabesques' foreshadowed the Rococo period in France. Like on this box, Jean Bérain placed his figures in the centre of elaborately fantastical compositions."

Because of this, the object can be considered as part of a very well-defined evolution of objects.

The Context of the Central Panel

The use of a 'Dancing Girl' and a 'Woodland Man' is an interesting allusion; it allows us to explore the historical and social context of the object.

'This style of decoration, which was inspired from ancient Rome through the Italian Renaissance, became popular in France during the second half of the 17th century, by the advanced technique that André Charles Boulle (1642-1732) used for the refined objects which he delivered among others to the royal family of Louis XIV."

The classical period styles the authors reference were likely influenced by the 'grand tours' of 1700-1796. A gentlemen went abroad and admired the marbles, had an adventure with the local wine (and women), then returned home keen to show off his well-travelled scholarship of Objects d'Art.

This object references this desire, but in quite a 'tame' way. From a research point of view, one can say this is a 'classical allusion' and a 'bowlderized image', not a serious attempt to recreate a specific piece of Art. Several key things about this scene would alarm an art historian.

Firstly, the tambourine is an anachronism.

Secondly, both these figures are wearing clothes. If this was a copy of a Roman scene, the woman would be nude. If it was Greece, the reverse would be true. If this was a French piece from post-1796, one or both of the woman's breasts would be exposed. Analysis of this composite piece (and the knowledge of when/where Boulle technique developed) allows for an accurate date to be calculated: circa. 1770.

I will be updating this blog as I conserve and restore this box. I will also be commenting on ethical issues such as replacing turtleshell with a synthetic imitation. It also gives me the opportunity to conserve silk, which is something I have never done before. You can find a link to my website here.


[1] Antigone Clarke & Joseph O'Kelly's, 2003 Schiffer Publishing Lto. Antique Boxes, Tea Caddies, & Society, Chapter 10 "Boulle or Buhl", page 109.