Escutcheon plates

I received an unexpected parcel in the mail last week from Keith Turner, a woodworker in British Columbia Canada. Keith was inspired to make his own table after seeing the video from the Getty Museum. He’s also been following my progress, and sent replicas of the escutcheon plates that he cast. He writes:

I do have a background in the mechanical trades and teach at a local Institute of Technology, that is why I am able to cast as we have very well equipped shops. (I used to teach sand casting). These pieces were cast using the lost wax method and I put a blog together at http://lumberjocks.com/Longcase/blog/84378  if interested.

These are one of the components that decorate the carcass side aprons.

I must admit that this is one aspect of the re-creation that I have contemplated the least. I hadn’t realized, for example, that the escutcheons are not identical! Hint: look at the bottoms of the plates.

It’ll still be a while before I have to face this aspect of the project, but Keith’s gift has given me momentary insight into it. Many thanks, Keith!

Cognacq-Jay Museum

In fall 2017, the Cognacq-Jay Museum was my first official appointment in Paris. I became aware of it through searches in woodworking discussion fora back in 2011. Their diminutive table is unlike the others in several regards…

The first thing one notices is the striking difference in marquetry motifs of this table versus other Oeben tables of similar function. Typically, the aprons are covered by parquetry, and the top in marquetry. This table, however, features an assortment of flowers connected by a circuitous vine on a background of yellow veneer throughout both the top and sides. Two curators have independently commented on its similarity to a known fabric pattern. Something else that is distinctive about this marquetry, I was told by Rose-Marie Mousseaux, the museum director, is the flowers appear to have been rendered life-sized. It is as if the marquetier laid the flowers directly on the veneer to cut them. The marquetry on the legs appears to be nearly symmetric. Viewed from either side as well as front, or back, the leaf and flower patterns are near-mirror images. Perhaps they were packet cut? Inside another visual anomaly is the veneer covering the interior of the compartment lids. This is typically tulipwood arranged in a reverse-diamond match (image below right of the Getty table). While the pattern is consistent, however, the choice of veneer species is not. It appears to be mahogany (below left image – Cognacq-Jay table).

Finally, this table has no keyholes! Without locks, or winding axles, this table can only be opened by manually pushing the top back.

First most obvious thought is that we are not seeing the table in its original state. Approximately 260 years have elapsed since it was built, and the differences could simply be due to changes and modifications from repairs. It could also be that this table is the work of someone other than Oeben. In his style…, so to speak. Although this is unlikely, the piece is not signed, and unfortunately, there is little existing provenance on it. Finally, perhaps this was a prototype constructed to test the concepts of a movable top and main box to refine the mechanisms [or a demonstration piece!]. This is a supposition. However, with a piece this complex a good maker would want to demonstrate the concept before showing it to prominent clients. It is reasonable that the racks and gears responsible for operation of the top and main box would be tried “small scale” first.

I appreciate the opportunity to view this piece first-hand, and want to thank Madam Mousseaux and her staff for hosting me on the museum’s off-day.

A note on my Oeben table examinations

Since before my first encounter with one of the two Oeben mechanical tables at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 2012, I have been fascinated (obsessed some might say!) with this atypical furniture form. To learn more about them and their “works”, I arranged a series of examinations. In 2016, I got up close with the two other tables in North America: one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the other at the National Gallery of Art. In October 2017, I visited three publicly displayed tables in Europe: the Cognacq-Jay Museum (Paris), the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam), and the Victoria and Albert Museum (London). During these encounters, I made a series of notes which I will share in upcoming posts.

To this end, I want to reiterate that I am not a conservator, nor have I had any curatorial training. When I examine these pieces, I do it from the perspective of a woodworker trying (as best I can) to put himself in the shoes of the period craftsman. What I present are my interpretations. So, I am happy to discuss alternate viewpoints.

I’d like to thank the conservators, curators, and administrators who took time to arrange and accompany me on these visits.

Surprise! Musee Nissim de Camondo

Façade of Musée Nissim de Camondo

While in Paris recently, Ronaldo Messina lead me to the Musée Nissim de Camondo, one of the treasures in the municipal system. The place is filled with specimens of XVIII century furniture, and is an example of a “modern” residence circa the close of the XIX century.

Included in the collection are pieces by Leleu, one of Oeben’s skilled journeymen who became a notable maker in his own right. A highlight of the visit was seeing the Oeben cylinder desk re-created by Bert DeClerk. We experienced the greatest surprise, however, on the third floor in Moïse de Camondo’s apartment. There, we spotted what appears to be another Oeben mechanical table which I don’t see listed in the Jean-François Oeben book mentioned previously!

Another potential Oeben mechanical table...

Since we toured the museum on a Sunday when the curators were off, and were the last patrons to leave, we could find no further information about it. A few e-mails later, a conservator kindly responded to my request, and provided a bit more information. Turns out, the piece is unstamped, so they are unwilling to attribute it to Oeben. From what we could tell, it has all of the characteristics. Perhaps on a subsequent visit, we will be able to examine the piece in detail. Until then, I will be happy in the knowledge that we managed to “discover” another mechanical table I was unaware of until this trip!

The definitive Oeben…


Back when this weblog first started, Ronaldo Messina, a reader in Paris, sent me a copy of the book, “Jean-François Oeben” by Rosemarie Stratmann-Döhler. It’s a fantastic resource covering the life and work of Oeben (Thanks Ronaldo!). Dr. Stratmann-Döhler is a German historian, and this book is actually a modified version of her dissertation, some 30 years elapsed. Opening chapters set the stage by detailing Oeben’s contemporaries, and focusing on the details of his life, death, clients, and business. The balance of the book presents the furniture in a series of logical groups: large/small furniture, writing furniture, mechanical tables, etc. There are even sections on the marquetry and ormolu decorations with which he embellished pieces. In the conclusion, Dr. Stratmann-Döhler puts Oeben into the context of his time. 

As good as this book is, the problem for me is that it’s written in French, a language which I neither speak, nor read…

    In anticipation of an upcoming trip to visit four Oeben tables in Paris, Amsterdam, and London, I decided it was time to overcome this impediment, and get serious about my research (as if traveling to Europe to examine four more specimens at great personal expense isn’t serious enough!). Over a period of several weeks, I pasted paragraphs of the text into an on-line translation utility, then assembled the resulting output into a document. It’s a slow, tedious, and at times incoherent process, that resulted in a somewhat intelligible account. Even with these shortcomings, however, I’m happy to have this solution. 

    So, other than for an historical account of Oeben, and his operation why should we care? One appendix catalogues all of the furniture attributed to him, signed and not, and gives their locations as of 2002, the publication date. This goes a long way to answering the question I posed about the remaining tables.

    Incidentally, Dr. Stratmann-Döhler published another germane article, “Design and mechanisms on the furniture of Jean-François Oeben” in the journal Furniture History vol. 9, 1973. It provides an overview of the mechanisms employed across the different types of Oeben furniture.