9924 A MASTERPIECE BY JACOB HELWIG – A MAGNIFICENT ROSEWOOD, BOXWOOD INLAID AND GILT-BRONZE MOUNTED SECRETAIRE OF LYRA FORM THE EXOTISME TASTE Signed And Dated, Jacob Helwig ébéniste De Worms à Paris 1845.   Measurements:  Height: 76″ (193 cm) Width: 42″ (107 cm) Depth: 21″ (53.3 cm)


Of Brazilian rosewood, boxwood inlay maple and amaranth inlaid interior with gilt-bronze mounts. The superstructure of rectangular pagoda form with undulating roof mounted with double-gourd form gilt-bronze finials. Applied to the concealed spring-loaded door are a series of boxwood demi-poles with faceted gilt-bronze bladed tips and spikes to the bottom. The superstructure rests on a chamfered platform above a long single frieze drawer with foliate inlay and restored turned handles to its extreme ends. Below is a proud fretted arcaded apron from which a series of gilt-bronze “bells” are suspended. The paneled and inlaid fall flanked by two restored turned wooden shafted gilt-bronze tipped “spears.” The fall opening to reveal a fitted interior with recessed niche and demi-tempietto within an old but replaced mirrored surround. Flanking are mirror glass-filled pagoda pattern doors concealing drawers and pigeon holes. Above are three cavetto-shaped drawers with peacock-inlaid projections. To the base are secret drawers concealed within a brickwork inlaid façade. The lower waisted section with a drawer carved and inlaid with acanthus leaves. All resting on a rectangular base fitted with a single drawer terminating in compressed double-pad feet. The sides similarly inlaid and mounted. Small repairs to chipped edges of veneer.

Signed and dated in three places, Jacob Helwig ébéniste de Worms à Paris 1845.
Locks stamped KOLB.

The Taylor Family, Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania.This extraordinary monumental secretaire is a rare signed and dated example of a masterpiece in furniture made during the first flowering of the exotisme movement of the nineteenth century, which would really become a fully developed fashion after the 1851 Great Exhibition. For this grand event Owen Jones, one of the leading proponents of this taste, designed the interiors of the Crystal Palace in various historic non-Western styles, including Islamic and Chinese, as suitable background for the many exhibits from all over the world that furthered the same ideas.

Although the basic architecture of this piece is that of the Germanic lyra form secretaire, its creator has, with much invention and dexterity, interwoven within its complex design overt oriental-inspired themes. The secretaire is surmounted by an upperstage topped with a pagoda-form roof decorated with gilt bronze gourd-shaped finials. Further references to the pagoda are to be found in the exquisitely fitted interior behind the writing fall. A pair of mirror-filled pavilion-like “pagodas,” which function as doors, conceal drawers and pigeon holes.

Gilt bronze bells, suspended from a fretted protruding arcade design above the writing fall, are a prominent feature of the secretaire, and this oriental inspired motif is to be encountered again within the fine boxwood marquetry. Bells that chime in the wind were, and still are, placed in rows under the eaves of Buddhist devotional pagodas and are thought to be auspicious in warding off evil.

The marquetry decoration is also based on subjects derived from Chinese motifs, such as the dragon, most often associated with the Emperor. Dragons can be seen inlaid on the exterior of the writing fall and another pair of dragons circles the keyhole in the long drawer above it. Numerous lizards, known as Protector of the Palace in Chinese symbolism,1 are also present, both on the front of the fall and on the domed roof of the tempietto, which is recessed in the central niche of the interior.

The exterior of the central writing fall is further inlaid with two pairs of bells, suspended from horizontal poles and centered by a triangular “hat,” recalling the attire and implements of Chinese water carriers. Four peacocks are inlaid into the uppermost sections of the interior, their tails fanned. In Chinese symbology they signify beauty and dignity, and, like the bell, are also thought to drive away evil.

A further most unusual aspect is that this secretaire is prominently decorated with weaponry. The upper structure is set with a row of applied two-handed boxwood spears, each tipped with a gilt bronze blade and decorated with stylized “banners” in carved boxwood; to the base each spear terminates in a gilt bronze spike. The military theme of the secretaire is further pursued in the apparently unique use of long wood-shafted gilt-bronze tipped pole arms, possibly pikes or javelins, which flank the full length of the writing fall.

At present, little is known of Jacob Helwig, the maker of this tour de force of 19th century quality and design in furniture. However, he clearly attached great importance to this work, as he signed and dated it three times Jacob Helwig Ebeniste De Worms À Paris 1845 (figure 1). Interestingly, these cursive inscriptions are concealed within parts of the piece which are not normally accessible. It has been established from the Worms town register that Helwig was indeed born there March 18th, 1820, married twice, in 1846 and 1848, and after 1875 died or moved away. His occupation is listed as ‘Schreiner’ (cabinetmaker). The superbly crafted custom made locks are stamped Kolb.

The audacious design and prodigious quality of this piece might imply that it was created for an important industrial arts exhibition for which Paris, once again in its role as innovator and leader of taste, was well known. However, neither item nor maker has been found within the lists of exhibitors in fairs with a date relevant to 1845. Furthermore, not only the cost, but also the huge time investment, make it unlikely that the secretaire was made as a purely speculative production. This narrows the possibilities to perhaps two scenarios: that it was made to order for a specific, probably French patron, or that it may have been a collaboration between Helwig and one of the leading Parisian marchand-merciers who supplied the French market for luxury objects.

Of these purveyors, a possible candidate could be La Maison Alphonse Giroux, also known as “Giroux & Cie.,” founded in 1799 by François-Simon-Alphonse Giroux. Having studied painting under Jacques-Louis David, Giroux became the restorer of Notre Dame de Paris. He was also an ébéniste and his shop, established on the rue du Coq Saint Honoré in Paris, dealt in objets de curiosité, stationary, dolls, prints, drawings and paintings. The firm also specialized in “ornate objets d’art and technically sophisticated furniture,”2 and their clientele included several members of the French Royal Family including Louis XVIII, Charles X, and Napoleon III. In 1838 the business was taken over by François’ sons, Alphonse-Gustave and André, who  developed the firm to “become one of the first and most prestigious department stores in Paris, while continuing to take important commissions for custom work.”3

Because we know of specific items that carry the Giroux mark, it is established fact that this firm was at the forefront of supplying items in the exotisme taste. A work table of similar date to the secretaire, and also of pronounced Eastern influence, is an example of this (figure 2). Like the secretaire, it is veneered in Brazilian rosewood with boxwood inlay. The top section is formed as a cushion from which at each corner a gilt bronze tassel is suspended. The four vertical supports are carved as bamboo while the whole is raised on four gilt bronze Aladdin’s slipper feet. It is intriguing to note that in its album ‘Meubles et Fantasies’ the firm produced a watercolor drawing of a military tent, held up by long spears and decorated with armor. Both the protruding spearheads and the arched tasseled upper section of the tent recall details from the secretaire (figure 3).

The interesting fact that Helwig had concealed his signature within the bowels of the secretaire would tend to support the theory that he knew from the outset that his masterpiece would not be marketed under his name but that of its retailer. Had it been a private commission or an exhibition item he would surely have been inclined to display his signature prominently.

Although no other works by Helwig have yet been published, another secretaire of very similar form, which surfaced in the Berlin art trade (figure 4), is a strong candidate for a Helwig attribution. As can be seen, the exterior outline is strikingly similar to the present piece, while in format it is almost identical. Each secretaire’s interior has a recessed tempietto to its center with, banks of drawers flanking it (albeit concealed by cupboards in the signed piece), and all resting on an inlaid brickwork “basement.” Another almost identical and most unusual feature shared by both secretaires to the exterior is the fretted motif with suspended gilt-bronze bells. The Berlin secretaire also displays the same confident and almost idiosyncratic handling of the inlaid ornament. Its ground veneer is finely figured walnut and inlaid with exquisite boxwood marquetry. The vertical inlaid styles, which take the form of intricate gothic tracery, coexist with motifs from the classical repertoire, such as opposing griffins and acanthine rinceaux. This eclectic approach is also found on the present signed Helwig secretaire where a Grecian tempietto centers the interior, flanked by pagodas and an array of classical inlaid foliate decoration provides a supporting role to the chinoiserie subject matter.

As the existence of the present signed example was unknown at the time of the publication of the walnut secretaire, an Austrian attribution had been applied to the latter. This was probably was due to the prominent inclusion to the interior of the inlaid coats of arms of Hungary and Austria. This intriguing detail gives rise to the possibility that Helwig was receiving commissions, perhaps Imperial, from the faraway centers of Vienna and Budapest.

1. Williams, C A. S. Chinese Symbolism and Art Motifs: A Comprehensive Handbook on Symbolism in Chinese Art Through the Ages. Rutland, Vt: Tuttle, 2006. 195.
2. http://urbanchateau.com/library/articles/giroux
3. Ibid.

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