Boulle’s eye

Portrait of the 3rd Duke of Dorset by Sir Joshua Reynolds. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

The taste of John Frederick Sackville, 3rd Duke of Dorset, was nothing if not flamboyant. He had an Italian ballerina mistress and a Chinese page; he collected old master paintings and patronised Sir Joshua Reynolds, both on a lavish scale; he was a patron of the Paris opera while he was there as ambassador in the 1770s; and he built hothouses for pineapples and other exotic plants at Knole.

Plaster sculpture of La Baccelli, a dancer and the 3rd Duke of Dorset’s mistress. ©National Trust/Jane Mucklow

The Boulle furniture at Knole is yet more evidence of the 3rd Duke’s taste. He seems to have acquired it during his ambassadorial tenure in Paris, during which he reputedly spent around £11,000 a year.

Boulle clock by Etienne Baillon. ©National Trust/Jane Mucklow

‘Boulle’ is a kind of marquetry using tortoiseshell, gilt brass, copper and tin perfected by André Charles Boulle (1642-1732).

Boulle table in the style of Etienne Levaseur. ©National Trust/Jane Mucklow

The extraordinary Boulle clock in the Ballroom at Knole is by the late 17th century clockmaker Etienne Baillon. There is also a table in the style of cabinetmaker Etienne Levasseur (1721-1798), and an early 18th century desk.

Early 18th century Boulle desk. ©National Trust/Jane Mucklow

It is interesting that the 3rd Duke acquired both new and ‘antique’ pieces of Boulle furniture. By placing them in the Jacobean Ballroom (originally a dining room) at Knole he created an almost surreally anachronistic but supremely rich ensemble.

The Ballroom at Knole. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

The Knole Conservation Blog has recently highlighted these items. They have suffered over the years due to the fluctuating humidity in the house, which is one of the problems that the current major conservation project is designed to tackle.

6 Responses to “Boulle’s eye”

  1. Andrew Sheldon Says:

    The 3rd Duke of Dorset “… built hothouses for pineapples …”. My first thought when I saw the picture of the sculpture of his mistress La Baccelli was how pineapple-like her head looks with her hair tied up. Perhaps he liked pineapples of all shapes, sizes, and materials! I wonder if he had any carved stone ones: they were sometimes used on the tops of gate piers.

  2. Susan Walter Says:

    I love Boulle work. That clock is tremendous – I don’t remember ever having seen it, but I assume I must have – I wonder why it didn’t impress itself on my memory? I do remember that Boulle is a conservator’s nightmare, with tortoiseshell and brass being such different materials and responding differently to different temperatures and humidity. The tortoiseshell gets very brittle and the animal glue holding it all down fails then you get little twiddly bits of brass or tortoiseshell that have pinged out of place. They then get caught on dusting cloths or people’s clothes.

    Is the brass inlay gilded? I know the cast decorative elements were usually gilded, but it hadn’t occurred to me that the inlay was – it makes sense that they were, of course, as the brass would have been impossible to clean without damaging the tortoiseshell. Somewhere I’ve seen a white metal inlay too – steel? Might not be an NT house, but an EH house near Saffron Walden?

  3. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Andrew, I think the pineapple is in the eye of the beholder :) There may of course have been a correlation in the Duke’s mind between La Baccelli and pineapples, both being sweet and exotic in different ways, but that is pure speculation on my part!

    Susan, yes you provide a very good description of the conservation problems with Boulle. On the Knole blog it says they use soft brushes in order to prevent snagging on loose sections of brass.

    A variety of metals seem to have been used in Boulle marquetry, including brass, gilt brass, gilt bronze, pewter and steel. I will ask the colleagues at Knole how they clean the brass, if at all.

  4. wherefivevalleysmeet Says:

    In response to Andrew – re: the use of pineapples – they were placed on the top of gate piers and also on stairway newels because they were a symbol of hospitality and warm welcome.

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks Diane, and Five Valleys, for those helpful follow-ups.

    I have also heard from Emily at Knole regarding cleaning the brass on the Boulle:

    ‘We use a pony hair brush to remove dust, but other than that we do leave it alone without any other cleaning. The metal is in reasonably good condition and as it doesn’t get lots of visitors sticky hands all it, so it doesn’t look dirty. I’m not sure how we would clean it to be honest. Very minimal Autosol with cotton buds maybe, we would need to ask a conservator.’

    So that seems to be a sensible policy of ‘minimum intervention’.

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