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Compte rendu: Mia Jackson, 'The Cabinet-Maker's Cabinet'

posted 8 May 2015, 06:46 by Cambridge EMS   [ updated 8 May 2015, 06:51 ]
Mia Jackson’s object was a seventeenth-century French cabinet-on-stand, parts of which are attributed to André-Charles Boulle (1642-1732). Speaking in front of the cabinet in the Flowers Gallery of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Jackson explored (and revealed) in meticulous detail the various components of a work that, in her words, is a literal ‘object lesson’, teaching us about what happens to objects over their lifetime.

Originally built in Boulle’s workshop at the Louvre, the cabinet was one of a series of similar pieces created using veneer cut in ‘packets’, a technique that results in several identical but inverted versions of the same pattern. Decorated with turtle shell, cow horn, exotic wood and pewter, it speaks of the riches of the New World, but in the parrot, butterfly, and flower designs the natural beauties of both old and new world are evoked. It probably arrived in the UK in the early nineteenth-century, following the post-revolutionary rejection of such luxurious furnishings in France. It is to its first English acquirers that the cabinet owes the Egyptian figures that hold up its stand – a function served by classical gods in a companion piece held in Scotland. Yet these anachronistic elements now form an integral part of the object’s story, and would never be removed in restoration. 

The cabinet, both made to house collections and itself part of a collection, also provided Jackson with a pretext for considering Boulle’s own career as a collector. As ébéniste du roi, he was one of a privileged group of artisans who set themselves apart not only through their dispensation from guild regulations, but also in the sociocultural practices that marked them out as more than mere craftsmen. Key among these practices was collecting: Boulle’s collection of prints and drawings numbered around 15,000 by the time it was seriously damaged by fire in 1720. Jackson argued that in this context, to consider Boulle as a mere furniture maker was reductive: his most important relationships were with his Louvre colleagues, he conceived of himself as one of these illustres, and his collecting practices are central to understanding this fact.