Uncovering the Past of a French 18th-Century Writing Table

There’s a lot we can learn about an artwork just by looking at it. This writing table, made in France in about 1778, bears an unusual amount of physical evidence that tells us about the piece’s creation and history.

Known as a bureau plat in French, the table is particularly special because its marks, labels, and inscriptions give us a wealth of information.

Writing Table (bureau plat), Martin Carlin, At least seven plaques gilded by Jean-Baptiste-Emmanuel Vandé, Sèvres Manufactory, about 1778, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Writing Table (bureau plat) (about 1778) by Martin Carlin, At least seven plaques gilded by Jean-Baptiste-Emmanuel Vandé, Sèvres ManufactoryThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Many people worked together to make this table. The Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory, the most well-known producer of porcelain in France from the mid-1700s onward, provided the porcelain plaques. Making these plaques involved firing them, painting designs using enamel, and gilding the plaques with embellishments of gold leaf.

Writing Table (bureau plat) (about 1778) by Martin Carlin, At least seven plaques gilded by Jean-Baptiste-Emmanuel Vandé, Sèvres ManufactoryThe J. Paul Getty Museum

A bronze caster (known as a bronzier in French) made the applied gilt-bronze elements by casting the bronze in a mold. Another craftsperson may have refined those bronzes and added details. This gilt-bronze decoration appears in a number of places, including around the porcelain, bordering the tabletop, and set into grooves in the legs. 

The ébéniste (furniture maker), Martin Carlin, put the entire piece together, including carving the wooden parts and applying the plaques and bronzes. A locksmith installed the locking mechanism for the drawer. A different person supplied the leather for the bureau top.

Writing Table (bureau plat), Martin Carlin, At least seven plaques gilded by Jean-Baptiste-Emmanuel Vandé, Sèvres Manufactory, about 1778, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Dominique Daguerre not only coordinated all this work, but also designed the piece and purchased the materials. Daguerre, an art and furnishings merchant called a marchand-mercier, sold the finished piece to a very special buyer . . .

Writing Table (bureau plat), Jurande des Menuisiers-ébénistes Stamp (about 1778) by Martin Carlin, At least seven plaques gilded by Jean-Baptiste-Emmanuel Vandé, Sèvres ManufactoryThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Let’s look underneath to discover more. Martin Carlin stamped his last name on the front rail. This wasn’t just because he wanted people to know he made this table—it was also a requirement by his guild. Carlin's name stamp is in the middle of the crossed slashes. Daguerre probably made the slashes once Carlin delivered the table to the shop. Often, marchand-merciers erased the maker's name so that the shop label with their name was the most prominent.

Carlin also had to stamp the abbreviation for his guild, “JME,” which stands for jurande des menuisiers-ébénistes (professional association of wood carvers and furniture makers).

Writing Table (bureau plat), Dominique Daguerre’s shop label (1778) by Martin Carlin, At least seven plaques gilded by Jean-Baptiste-Emmanuel Vandé, Sèvres ManufactoryThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Dominique Daguerre’s shop label is attached to the underside of the table. He advertises many different wares, including furniture, glassware, porcelain, bronze items, and “curiosities” (ancient artifacts or natural history specimens foreign to France). It’s rare for a shop label from the 1700s to survive in such good condition.

Writing Table (bureau plat), Inscriptions (about 1778) by Martin Carlin, At least seven plaques gilded by Jean-Baptiste-Emmanuel Vandé, Sèvres ManufactoryThe J. Paul Getty Museum

These inscriptions, written underneath the table, are all inventory numbers from the Palace of Pavlovsk, near St. Petersburg in Russia. The extremely faded paper label says "Павловскій Дворецъ" ("Pavlovsk Palace" in Russian).

The inscriptions confirm what we know from outside documentation: Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna, the future Czarina (Empress) of Russia, bought this bureau plat from Daguerre in 1782 to furnish Pavlovsk, her main home. The writing table must have gone through many inventories of the palace’s furnishings to have several different numbers. It stayed in the Grand Duchess’s bedroom from 1782 until 1931—almost 150 years.

An interior view of the Palace of Pavlovsk today.

Catherine the Great, Czarina of Russia from 1762-1796, commissioned Pavlovsk as a gift for her son Paul Petrovitch and his wife, Maria Feodorovna (pictured in the center of the snuffbox below). The palace was completed in 1786 and served as the primary home for Paul and Maria until Paul ascended to the throne.

Maria heavily influenced the interior design, where several prominent architects created rooms in the latest styles. It continued to be Maria’s favorite residence during Paul’s reign and she almost exclusively lived there after Paul’s death.

Like many other palaces built outside of Saint Petersburg, a landscaped park surrounds Pavlovsk. The 1,500 acres of the park includes walking paths, woods, ponds, flower gardens, and sculptures.

Snuffbox with portraits of Empress Maria Feodorovna, her Son Grand Duke Michael Pavlovich, and her daughter-in-law Elena Pavlovna, Anthelme François Lagrenée, ca. 1823, From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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Writing Table (bureau plat), Plaque Recess (about 1778) by Martin Carlin, At least seven plaques gilded by Jean-Baptiste-Emmanuel Vandé, Sèvres ManufactoryThe J. Paul Getty Museum

We can find more information on this bureau plat, but we’ll need a conservator to carefully unmount the plaques so we can see the backs of the plaques and the wooden recesses beneath. Markings in ink on the wood correspond to numbers on the plaques. This way, the correct plaque was installed in the right recess.

Writing Table (bureau plat), Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory Mark (about 1778) by Martin Carlin, At least seven plaques gilded by Jean-Baptiste-Emmanuel Vandé, Sèvres ManufactoryThe J. Paul Getty Museum

On the back of the plaques, we can see two interlocked Ls, the mark of the Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory. The “AA” on this plaque belongs to the dating system at Sèvres. Different letter combinations represent different years, with AA indicating the year 1778. Sometimes, painters or gilders will sign plaques with their initials. On this plaque, the “VD” next to the “AA” stands for the gilder Jean-Baptiste-Emmanuel Vandé.

Writing Table (bureau plat), Plaque (about 1778) by Martin Carlin, At least seven plaques gilded by Jean-Baptiste-Emmanuel Vandé, Sèvres ManufactoryThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Something unusual appears on the back of a few of the plaques. These white paper labels, printed with the Sèvres crossed Ls symbol, have handwritten prices on them. This rectangular plaque has a price of 30 livres, the currency in France at the time.

The apron-shaped plaques on the ends, though, cost 96 livres, more than triple the other plaques. It makes sense they cost more—very few plaques of this unconventional shape exist, so they may have been a special order.

Writing Table (bureau plat), Plaque, Martin Carlin, At least seven plaques gilded by Jean-Baptiste-Emmanuel Vandé, Sèvres Manufactory, about 1778, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Writing Table (bureau plat), Plaque Price, Martin Carlin, At least seven plaques gilded by Jean-Baptiste-Emmanuel Vandé, Sèvres Manufactory, about 1778, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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All the clues on this table allow us to understand more about other artworks as well. Having a signed work available for comparison makes a strong foundation when attributing unsigned work to Carlin or Vandé. Knowing the date of the plaques shows us what porcelain decoration was in fashion at the time.

The rare shop label gives us a glimpse into advertising and business practices of late- eighteenth-century Parisian society. The construction marks shed light on the craftspeople’s process when making bureau plats like this one. The inventory numbers allows us to know where this table has been and shows the strong influence and popularity of French design in Russia during this period as well.

Next time you look at a work of art, perhaps you’ll be inspired to take a closer look and discover something new.

Writing Table (bureau plat), Martin Carlin, At least seven plaques gilded by Jean-Baptiste-Emmanuel Vandé, Sèvres Manufactory, about 1778, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Credits: Story

© 2020 J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles

A version of this material was recorded in 2020 as the live broadcast A Carlin Conversation on Getty's Facebook.

To cite these texts, please use: "Uncovering the Past of a French 18th-Century Writing Table" published online in 2020 via Google Arts & Culture, Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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