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Gilded Interiors: French Masterpieces of Gilt Bronze – Exhibition at Wallace Collection

Updated on August 17, 2017
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Frances has many years' experience writing travel articles and reviewing art galleries, museums, and the books they publish.

Mounted Sevres Pot-Pourri Vase and Cover

Mounted Pot-Pourri Vase and Cover. Image by Frances Spiegel with permission from The Wallace Collection. All rights reserved.
Mounted Pot-Pourri Vase and Cover. Image by Frances Spiegel with permission from The Wallace Collection. All rights reserved.

Eighteenth-Century Gilt-Bronze - French Masterpieces

The Wallace Collection's latest exhibition is Gilded Interiors: French Masterpieces of Gilt Bronze.

Curated by by Dr Helen Jacobsen, Senior Curator and Curator of French Eighteenth-century Decorative Arts, the exhibition features some of the most beautiful gilded bronze objects from the eighteenth-century.

Featuring works by renowned artists such as Pierre Gouthière, Pierre-Adrien Paris, François Rémond, Jean-Baptiste Lepaute, Claude Pition and others, the display gives us a fresh insight into an important art form that is often overlooked.

Drawing by Pierre-Adrien Paris

Drawing by Pierre-Adrien Paris. Black chalk on paper. Corner support of the duc d'Aumont's white marble chimneypiece 1775. Image by Frances Spiegel with permission from The Wallace Collection. All rights reserved.
Drawing by Pierre-Adrien Paris. Black chalk on paper. Corner support of the duc d'Aumont's white marble chimneypiece 1775. Image by Frances Spiegel with permission from The Wallace Collection. All rights reserved.

A World-Class Collection of Gilt-Bronzes

The Wallace Collection has one of the world's finest and most comprehensive holdings of eighteenth-century French decorative arts.

Luxurious gilded items from The Wallace Collection are shown alongside major loans from other world-class collections. The exhibition also features a large selection of drawings by renowned architect and interior designer Pierre-Adrien Pâris loaned by the Bibliothèque Municipale in Besançon. Pâris's drawings show how the Ancient world inspired French art and architecture in the eighteenth century.

Speaking recently Director Xavier Bray said: “The exhibition highlights a selection of outstanding works by the greatest masters of the eighteenth century, presenting them out of their usual context and positioning them as they deserve, as artworks in their own right. Viewing them alongside contemporary architectural drawings helps to enrich our understanding of their design sources and allows us to marvel at the creativity and the beauty achieved by these often forgotten artists.”

Gilding - a Highly Toxic Process!

Gilding, the application of thin sheets of gold to embellish an item, has been used from ancient times to the modern day.

Curator Helen Jacobsen tells us we call it gilt bronze but that's actually a misnomer because it's actually brass. Brass is easier to work but the word for bronze and brass in French is the same so that's why we call it gilt bronze.

It's cast and then chased with hundreds of different chasing tools and that's where the skill really lies. Then it's gilded using the mercury gilding technique which involves applying a paste of ground gold and mercury to the object. Then you put the object into a flame the mercury goes whoosh and you are left with gold fused onto the object. You have to do this several times to get the richness that we have here.

Burning off the mercury is very dangerous, it's very toxic. A lot of these gilders didn't live very long because they actually died young after breathing in these noxious fumes.

Highly decorative and functional items, such as perfume/incense burners, clocks, candlesticks, candelabras and firedogs were made using this process. Gilding was also used to create luxurious artworks as well as porcelain and furniture.

These exquisite and hugely expensive items were commissioned by wealthy collectors and patrons such as Marie-Antoinette, the duc d’Aumont and the comte d’Artois. Members of the British Royal Family, including the Prince of Wales (later George IV) also acquired pieces.

Helen Jacobsen Spoke Exclusively to Frances Spiegel for Hub Pages

Frances Spiegel: When you were researching for this exhibition, and the accompanying catalogue, did you discover anything that really surprised you?

Helen Jacobsen: Yes... the most surprising thing that I discovered was this piece of porphyry on this table top.

When we took the top off we turned it over and found an inscription from a Roman tomb. We've traced it to the Ciantes' tomb in the church of Santa Sabina, Rome, where it formed the top right-hand quadrant of a tombstone set into the floor of the church. It was recorded in situ in 1760 so some time after that date it was either sold or stolen from the church. After finding its way to a French dealer, it was at some point placed on this table.

It just shows you how in the eighteenth century they were so desperate to have Roman remains, antiques, that they actually went and took out tombstones and re-used them.

Frances Spiegel: If you could have any one of these pieces which one would it be?

Helen Jacobsen: Well, there are two. The table is one, and the other, which I just love, is this blue porcelain Sèvres vase (pictured above). It has been transformed by beautiful gilt-bronze mounts into a pot-pourri. The lid comes off and you could put in rose petals and lovely smelling pot-pourri and then the frieze, which is pierced, allows the wonderful smell to waft out into your room. But what's so brilliant is the design of the deep, deep blue and the gold because I think the one sets off the other just ravishingly. You have the deep hue of the blue which is accentuated by the gold which is then reflected in the porcelain – magic! It's a beautifully formed neoclassical piece of art.

Table With Phorphyry Top

Table with Porphyry Top. Image by Frances Spiegel with permission from The Wallace Collection. All rights reserved.
Table with Porphyry Top. Image by Frances Spiegel with permission from The Wallace Collection. All rights reserved.

My Personal Favourite

In an exhibition of such exquisite beauty it is almost impossible to select a personal favourite. This will be purely subjective and every visitor will have one or more favourite piece. For me it's this beautiful perfume burner. Gilt-bronze tripod legs support a red jasper bowl while a gilt-bronze serpent winds its way through the tripod legs. In her recently published catalogue, Gilded Interiors Parisian Luxury & The Antique, Helen Jacobsen attributes the design of this piece to François-Joseph Bélanger.

The mounts are a fine example of the work of Pierre Gouthière (1732-1813), who ran one of the finest chasing and gilding workshops in the Louis XVI period. Gouthière perfected an innovative method of gilding whereby parts of a gilt bronze could be given a matt finish to contrast with the burnished parts. Perfume burners like this were inspired by items featured in wall-paintings at Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Marie-Antionette acquired the piece the piece in 1782 and at the start of the French Revolution she tried to safeguard her most valuable possessions by entrusting them the French dealer Dominique Daguerre. Sadly, her efforts were in vain as she was executed in 1793.

Perfume or Incense Burner. Image by Frances Spiegel with permission from The Wallace Collection. All rights reserved.
Perfume or Incense Burner. Image by Frances Spiegel with permission from The Wallace Collection. All rights reserved.

Gilded Interiors: French Masterpieces of Gilt Bronze – Free Exhibition at the Wallace Collection

Gilded Interiors: French Masterpieces of Gilt Bronze will be open from 4th May to 30th July 2017. The exhibition is accompanied by a fully-illustrated publication by Helen Jacobsen, Gilded Interiors Parisian Luxury & The Antique.

The following books and website provide additional fascinating information about items shown in the exhibition and the Wallace Collection in general.

  • Helen Jacobsen, Gilded Interiors Parisian Luxury & The Antique, Philip Wilson Publishers 2017
  • The Wallace Collection

Visit The Wallace Collection

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© 2017 Frances Spiegel

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