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. 

      Update: “Found” another one

      Previously, I listed a number of similar Oeben mechanical tables with their locations here. When I assembled this list, I was aware of other tables. Lacking direct references, however, I refrained from including them. Early  last week, I received confirmation of another table located in Germany. This one is at the Residence Museum in Munich. When you tap on that link, the first picture you’ll see is of the table (see image below). Look quickly because it’ll change! Other than that, I could find no further mention of it. 



      Due to licensing issues, I cannot include other images of it. However, there are several incorporated into this web posting. 

      Up close with The MET Oeben

      As mentioned previously, there are at least four tables Oeben made similar to this located in North America. In September of 2016, I was fortunate to be granted access to the one in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

      Why view this table?

      Whenever more than one of something is made, comparisons are inevitable. With a date of 1763, the table at The MET, as it is known, is perhaps the last of the mechanical tables to be made. Completed by Oeben’s brother-in-law, Roger Vandercruse (Lacroix), it was destined for Mmde Pompadour’s personal use, although there’s question as to whether she ever did. She died the year following Oeben. Being the case, this is perhaps the most highly refined table in the series.

      Contrast this with the table that is the focus of this re-creation. Dated at 1750, it appears to be one of the first, and might possibly be the prototype for the form. It features a full-length lower drawer accessed from the proper-left side beneath the movable “main box”, a part not found on any other table in the series, that I’m aware. Also, the legs on the 1763 table are pierced, and lined with ormolu, a mark of high refinement.

      More important to the interests of this re-creation are the differences in the mechanisms. Unfortunately, just as with the Getty table, it was not possible to directly examine the mechanisms, and since, as I understand, The MET has never dismantled the table for conservation treatment, they possess no photos or x-rays. Visual inspection shows that both tables feature key holes in the side aprons to wind the mainspring barrels, the power source which makes the tables operate. However, tables made after the 1750 specimen, also feature an X-like mechanism connecting the rear of the main box to the interior of the carcass. Its function, I assume, is to assist in smoothly propelling the main box, applying even pressure to prevent it from becoming stuck. Another discovery, the 1763 table lacks stop rods! 

      To arrest the motion of the table in operation (and keep the table from flying apart), metal rods extend up through the side aprons, and into the table top. Metal plates reinforce the wooden grooves in which they “travel”. This is the situation on the 1750 Getty table. Evidence shows these rods existed on The MET table, but are now absent, suggesting the table has been modified.

      In conclusion…

       “A man with one watch knows what time it is; a man with two watches is never quite sure.”

      ―Lee Segall

      I thought that by examining other tables in the series, I might gain insight into Oeben’s design decisions. Instead, it seems to have had the opposite effect. Differences in their original construction, combined with subsequent modifications, serve only to confuse matters. While we certainly expect differences in appearance, one anticipates their operational modes to remain nearly identical. Further study is warranted.