In 1999, the journal Eighteenth-Century Studies published an article by art historian Mimi Hellman entitled ‘Furniture, Sociability, and the Work of Leisure in Eighteenth Century France’. In it Hellman investigates furniture as social actors that en- or discourage certain modes of behaviour from whoever interacts with them, and therefore leads to the formation of specific manners. The author calls this the ‘work of leisure’, meaning that objects are used by an elite circle to produce “an ephemeral product that was highly crafted as any artful object.” In other words, objects – furniture specifically – are used to form and display ones manneredness, by learning and showing the right kind of interaction, and refining it to make it seem effortless and easy. The interaction of a person with a piece of furniture might sound like a straightforward situation, however, one becomes aware of the difficulty of this when presented with the type of furniture that was popular in eighteenth-century France.
This table was made by the ébéniste (cabinet-maker) Martin Carlin. He was born in the German city of Freiburg around 1730 and moved to Paris to become a cabinet-maker. Carlin was most well known for the production of small, movable, elegant pieces of furniture that he exclusively sold through so-called marchands-mercier. These were merchants for luxury goods who commissioned objects and parts of the pieces from artisans, such as the Sèvres porcelain plaque that forms the top of this table.
The table is 77 cm high, its four feet end in wheels, and it is designed to have two flat surfaces sitting on top of each other like the parts of an étagère. Its height is perfect for use while sitting down, and its wheels allow for increased transportability. Gilt-bronze mounts and appliqué can be found all over the piece, be it as fence-like additions to the table surfaces or as flowers, leaves, and fabric garlands decorating the tables circumference. The dark wood of the lower surface is decorated with lighter, almost golden, wooden inlays, whereas the upper surface is made up of a Sèvres porcelain plaque decorated with a basket of flowers on white ground and a blue boarder containing circles with flowers in them.
The back of the plaque verifies that this porcelain piece was indeed produced by the Sèvres manufacture, carrying the typical mark. Within it an ‘x’ can be found, which has been suggested to be a kind of object code – each letter being attributed to one or more types of porcelain objects. In this case the ‘x’ means the object is a plate. A ‘P’ and an apostrophe complement the mark. The letters underneath the Sèvres sign are signatures of the porcelain painters – a man called Jean-Jacques Pierre painted this particular plaque. Furthermore, the number 216 is supposed to indicate the price of the plaque in livres, thus showing that this was quite an expensive piece. An eighteenth-century unskilled worker would have made around 216 livres in one year.
The function of this piece of furniture is that of a writing and sewing table – only its hidden compartments make these functions seem plausible however. As the image above shows, the table has a wealth of compartments one would not expect the table to have, which allow for the storage of sewing equipment in the lower, and writing equipment in the upper table part. The lower table surface opens up in the middle, revealing four separate sections that are each lined with blue fabric. Whereas one might have guessed the presence of these compartments due to the round slot in the table surface, which serves to aid in its opening, the drawer in the upper part of the table is very well hidden. There does not seem to be a handle facilitating its opening, and it appears to have functioned both as a drawer for storage of writing utensils, and a third surface lined with fabric on which to write on. Therefore, the table might have been mistaken merely for a simple table, or for a sewing table if the drawer was opened but the top layer closed. The activity of female writing would thus be more concealed than that of sewing.
Storing both letters received and those still in progress within this type of furniture might have served not only to hide, but also to hide without suggesting to anyone that such a place of hiding existed. This probably becomes clearer by talking briefly about ideas of the secrétaire put forth by historian Dena Goodman. She characterises these pieces of furniture as places of increased privacy, which was emphasised by the presence of locks. This privacy meant an increase in a person’s autonomy, and simultaneously a challenge to authority. The classic example would be a woman’s secrétaire suggesting her autonomy through the things locked inside the object and thus supposedly out of reach for her husband – a challenge to his authority. Therefore, it could be suggested that storing letters in this kind of table eliminated the claim to autonomy and thus the challenge to authority, since it was possibly unknown, and without a closer look, practically impossible to guess that the writing compartment existed.
Could this table be seen as subverting contemporary gender hierarchies, and empowering women by enabling them to have a small amount of privacy? If one was to argue in this way, it would probably make Hellman’s concept of the work of leisure invalid in respect to this particular piece of furniture. The work of leisure is focused on the interaction with objects in front of others – a prime example being the interaction with furniture on which one can sit and how one displays oneself on them. If this table was to be used fully only in secret, or solely in the company of those who knew about its design features, it would not have the effect – showing a wide elite circle ones manneredness – that the idea of the work of leisure desired.
__________________________________________ Mimi Hellman, ‘Furniture, Sociability, and the Work of Leisure in Eighteenth Century France’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 32.4 (1999), pp. 415 – 445.
 Hellman, ‘Furniture’, p. 416.
 Carl Christian Dautermann, Sèvres Porcelain – Makers and Marks of the Eighteenth Century, (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986), p. 243.
 Dautermann, Sèvres Porcelain, p. 149.
 Dena Goodman, ‘The Secrétaireand the Integration of the Eighteenth-Century Self’, Furnishing the Eighteenth Century – What Furniture Can Tell Us about the European and American Past, edited by Dena Goodman and Kathryn Norberg, (New York, Oxon: Routledge, 2007), pp. 183 – 203, (196).
Have you seen any objects that intrigued you lately? Perhaps you have encountered something that piqued your curiosity in a museum or gallery (or in a shop or in the street?), or as part of your art or design practice, as part of your research, or as part of your daily life. Please don’t be shy! We welcome submissions on objects of all sorts, between 500 and 1,500 words, and we do ask that you own the rights to your images or use those belonging to the V&A. If you aren’t sure if your idea is right for our column, it certainly never hurts to ask, so please get in touch with us: email@example.com
Luisa Coscarelli –
Luisa did her BA in History of Art and German Literature at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Although completing it with a focus on contemporary art, she has now joined the Renaissance strand and is now interested in the relationship between smell and design. For her dissertation, Luisa is asking questions about ‘smelly objects’, and how olfactory environments were designed in the Renaissance period.
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