9846 AN EBONIZED, GILTWOOD AND GILT-BRONZE MOUNTED SECRETAIRE OF RARE OVOIS FORM Vienna. First Quarter Of The Nineteenth Century. Measurements: Height: 57″ (144.8cm) Width: 34″ (86.4cm) Depth without feet: 16″ (40.6cm) Depth with feet: 18″ (45.7cm)
Of ebonized pearwood, giltwood and gilt-bronze mounts. The interior of thuya, sycamore and ebony. The stepped top fitted with two drawers; the ovoid body supported on two finely carved cornucopiae retaining their original gilding, fitted with three drawers and a fall with a well-fitted architectural interior of arcaded columns and steps concealing hidden drawers above a rectangular base containing a drawer. The whole raised on four massive gilt feet. All mounted with re-gilded classical floral moldings and escutcheons. Formerly surmounted, by a later socle.
This ovoid-form secretaire is a rare example of Austrian cabinetwork of exceptionally creative and futuristic design made during the first half of the 19th century. Secretaires were considered among the most important type of furniture, commissioned not only for their utilitarian function, but also as conversation pieces that reflected the refinement, status, and taste of the owner. They were also the most intricately designed and challenging furniture items a cabinetmaker could produce, showcasing his skillfulness, and securing his professional reputation.
Secretaires of ovoid shape, sometimes called Lyrasekretär, were the most elaborate type. The ovoid body poses a great technical and artistic challenge, as the sides of the drawers must follow the curve of the body exactly. Each aspect, down to the backboards, was expertly paneled and molded. Both hard and soft woods were used, and were selected to create a contrast between light areas and dark borders.1 Although French neoclassical influence is discernible, these secretaires remain distinctly Viennese in design, using innovative “Ersatz decorative techniques [such as] substituting bronze ornaments with carved wooden ornament, and marquetry with penwork; typical of Viennese pieces of the period.”2
A penwork representation of a fruit basket centers the fall of the present secretaire, symbolizing abundance and charity, sentiments which are echoed in the overturned carved giltwood cornucopiae conforming to each side of the secretaire. Two stepped drawers surmount the desk, three are contained in the body and a long single drawer is situated in the base. All of these have complementary foliate gilt-bronze escutcheons.
While the body of the secretaire itself is accomplished, the interior is similarly impressive. The intricate architectural layout includes a miniature staircase, colonnades and parquet floors, reflected in mirrored panels. Both the staircase and faux brick walls surrounding it slide out to reveal concealed drawers. In fact, one of the “bricks” on each side of the stairs, when pressed, releases the secret spring mechanism of the drawers. “Furnished with an unprecedented number of sophisticated secret drawers, which satisfied the need for security as well as a certain playful urge, the writing cabinet exemplified the new desire for privacy [in 19th century Vienna].”3
Cabinetmakers’ drawings of Viennese lyre secretaires, executed either as part of the curriculum in trade schools or relating to a completed masterpiece, provide a record of the innovative designs created for this type of furniture, and aid in dating these models. A drawing of 1814 by Ladislaus Körösi, today in the Akademie der bildenden Künste, depicts a similar secretiare of ovoid form with decorative upright cornucopiae and an architectural interior (figure 1).
Another Viennese secretaire closely related to the present piece is in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago (figure 2). Not only is the Art Institute example ebonized, with stepped drawers, but its proportions are nearly identical to those of the present piece.
At their most advanced, Viennese prototypes such as the present secretaire may be considered as some of the most daringly experimental and radical creations in the history of furniture design. Their complex geometry was as new and prescient as the shockingly original late string quartets Beethoven composed in Vienna around the time the present secretaire was created. Another representative item of Viennese furniture design with a predictive quality is a secretaire of ovoid form, circa 1815, formerly in the collection of Roberto Polo (figure 3). Even by Viennese standards, this piece, made in the first years of the 19th century, startles by its appearance of modernity.
1. Witt-Dörring, Christian. “A Viennese Secretary in the Empire Style.” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Vol. 15, No. 1, An Educated Taste: Neoclassicism at the Art Institute (1989), pp. 54-67+87-88. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4108798
2. Christie’s Amsterdam. European Noble and Private Collections. 14-16 February 2006, Lot 922, p. 350.
3. Ottomeyer, Hans, Klaus A. Schröder, and Laurie Winters. Biedermeier: The Invention of Simplicity. Milwaukee, Wis: Milwaukee Art Museum, 2006. Print. 82.