Furniture in Focus: The Sun King and the Cabinet Maker

andre charles boulle's work

We can’t all have a whole technique of cabinetry named after us. Even fewer of us a world-renowned Parisian school of art and design – believe me, it’s not for lack of trying.

Perhaps Andre Charles Boulle was destined for such greatness. Even from an early age, he was considered a prodigy known throughout aristocratic French circles as le joailler du meuble, “the furniture jeweller”. Boulle’s pieces were unbelievably sought after, at a time when French tastes were leading the world. When people started ripping his work off (which, as we all know, is the inevitable result of having a good idea), his design aesthetic, newly available to the middle classes and not just the super-rich, created waves across the whole world.

Even to this day, Boulle’s influence can be seen in interior design, with the sinuous organic patterns, arabesques and scroll work that were his hallmark gracing everything from duvet covers to wallpaper. Great though his talent was, the notoriety of Boulle’s most generous patron, the Sun King Louis the 14th, and his fractious and excruciatingly public private life, particularly when it came to financial matters, have contributed just as markedly to his enduring fame as his indubitable skill.

Boulle lived in a time when just a few short years before, the smelly stuff can truly have been said to hit the fan across the continent of Europe. The Thirty Years’ War had raged for a completely unknowable amount of time, its exact duration shrouded in the mists of history… I kid, it lasted thirty years – no one really feels any pressure to come up with clever names for wars. Jokes aside, the Thirty Years’ War was truly horrific, claiming some eight million lives and acting as the bloody thirsty culmination of a hundred years of religious conflict that had consumed the continent. It ended only in 1648 with the treaty of Westphalia, an agreement that ushered in a period of relative peace and put the French firmly at the top of the food chain.

Emerge, the infant Sun King

As part of the settlement, the treaty established for the first time the legal rights of Catholics, Calvinists and Lutherans to practice their faith all across Europe – a major first step in starting a tradition of religious freedom and, unfortunately, pretty short-lived. Presiding over all in the statesman-like way that only a four-year-old can was the infant Sun King, the fourteenth entry in the popular “Louis” series of French monarchs, though this instalment was to have a longevity that his predecessors could only dream of, ruling for an incredible 72 years.

When he grew up a bit, Louis was a great patron of the arts – he was so open-handed that his palaces groaned under the weight of the artworks that he commissioned for them – more often than not, images of himself.

In fact, his huge collection of sculptures of him dressed as various Greek and Roman gods, mostly the sun god Apollo, is what gained the king his affectionate pet name of the “Sun King”. Scattered among the playwrights, architects and statesmen were some craftsmen of extraordinary talent – one of whom was the young Boulle. The Sun King took to the precocious cabinet-maker, and at the tender age of thirty gave him lodgings and workshop space in the galleries of the Louvre. Not only did this free Boulle up from such petty concerns as housing himself, but more importantly it put him outside the guild system that carefully controlled the careers of its members and could be very restrictive, particularly compared to the easy graces of the Sun King. The extraordinary favour shown by Louis attracted more of the French aristocracy, eager to demonstrate their own impeccable taste to the king by copying everything he did. Soon Boulle was running massive workshops, teeming with the most skilled of craftspeople and producing an enormous amount of work to fulfil prestigious commissions.

It wasn’t all rosy though. Boule struggled throughout his life with his protestant upbringing and suspiciously Northern European (and therefore protestant) sounding name. When he married, he fudged the documents so that his dad’s name “Jan Boul” became the considerably more French sounding “Jean Boulle”. You see, during the Sun King’s long reign, many of the progressive steps towards ending the violence between Catholics and Protestants were reversed, with violence against protestants being common in the 1680s. It came to a head in 1685 with the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which effectively made it illegal to be a protestant. Around 400,000 French Protestants fled in terror of the Sun King’s soldiers – who offered the choice of either forced conversion or a free bullet – many to the UK, giving cultural life in Britain the shot in the arm it desperately needed and contributing to many industries, including cabinetry. Those who stayed shored up their alibis, made a show of attending confession and proclaimed loudly and often that they never had much truck with this protestant malarky. Boulle himself had married a catholic and fiddled with the names in the registry some eight years before the worst of the violence, but the writing had long been on the wall.

More to life than cabinet making?

It seems that despite his obvious talent for it, cabinet-making wasn’t what Boulle really wanted to do. As a young man, Boulle had been planning on a career as a painter, but had been “dissuaded” by his father, supposedly forcibly. It has often been suggested that this sense that Boulle had missed out on his true calling explained his later mania for collecting artwork, which bordered on compulsive and nearly ruined Boulle on more than one occasion. He seems to have passed on his lack of nous when it came to money to his sons, all of whom either neared the precipice of bankruptcy or, in some cases, toppled headlong over it at some point in their lives.

Many petitions were made by frustrated customers to have Boulle arrested throughout his life, with only the protection afforded to him by the king saving him from losing everything. A terrible fire in 1720 wiped out years of carefully seasoned exotic timber, models and partially finished furniture pieces nearly finishing Boulle off for good. Tragically, it also destroyed much of his collection of art and artefacts, including 48 original drawings by the Italian master and ninja turtle namesake Raphael.

Boulle showed a special affinity for the techniques of marquetry, where thin slices of timber and other materials are cut into thin slithers called veneers and applied to a substrate – often, in the case of Boulle’s work, a very good quality softwood or oak. This backboard provided a base for the thin sections that were then glued to its face, producing decorated panels of swirling plant forms and complicated, rococo patterns. These panels could then be used to produce larger pieces of furniture, in Boulle’s case further accentuated by a matrix of gilt bronze frames and corner supports, often in the form of mythical creatures.

Both Boulle’s father and grandfather had also been cabinet-makers, called ebenistes in French because of the extensive use of ebony and other luxury timbers, but Boulle’s great innovation (and the one for which he is so rightly remembered) was the use of bronze or tortoise shell contrasted with timber. All the material had to be cut by hand into thin sheets with a special two-man veneer saw, but the effort was worth it, producing a beautiful two tone effect that, when properly polished, was entirely flush, as though the ebeniste were painting in wood and metal. Later, in the 19th century, an English auctioneer hit upon the clever marketing ploy of referring to all imitations of Boulle’s style as “Buhl work”, proving that you don’t have to be a great speller to have good ideas.

Despite the turbulent times, Boulle was so successful that the best examples of his work still fetch record prices at auctions nearly 400 years later.

Part of why Boulle’s work still resonates with us today is the incredible skill with which he blended different materials into something seamless.

Whilst you will no doubt have a fairly tough time rustling up either tortoise shell or ebony, there are a number of readily available timbers that can be used to create some incredible effects, whilst modern materials and techniques such as pigmented resins and synthetic dyes and stains have opened up new horizons to explore.

So why not give it a try? You probably won’t get that Parisian design school named in your honour, but you never know…

Blog | 1 week AGO