09: Boulle Desk and Bureau
Mount Edgcumbe House contains two fine examples of French ‘Boulle’ furniture. The writing desk in the library dates from the reign of Louis XIV, the Sun King, and the bureau in the drawing room from the reign of Louis XV.
Both are versions of a French ‘Mazarin’ – originally a desk named in honour of Cardinal Mazarin, Louis XIV’s premier minister. Both would originally have had eight legs but the bureau now only has four. A ‘mazarin’ was essentially a kneehole desk meant to be used sideways with only one knee under the work surface. They were designed for the nobility who often wore a sword, hence sitting sideways.
Boulle furniture takes its name from Andre Charles Boulle, a cabinet maker at the court of Louis XIV. His father and grandfather were both cabinet makers at the French court and Andre probably served his apprenticeship in the Louvre workshops under his father. His exceptional talent was spotted by one of Louis XIV’s ministers who recommended him to the king. He carried out many royal commissions including bureaux, armoires, desks, clock cases and light fittings, many in the Palace of Versailles. Nicknamed ‘The Furniture Jeweller’, he also worked for the French nobility. Boulle never kept a proper inventory of his work or proper accounts but was a wealthy man. He used his wealth to buy art but was relatively poor when he died. Before then he had handed over his business to his four sons who continued to manufacture Boulle furniture, although three of them died in debt.
Boulle work is a type of rich marquetry or inlay process. It involves inlaying tortoiseshell, pewter and brass into tropical hardwoods, usually ebony. Andre Boulle did not invent the process but he did perfect it. The red colour of the desk at Mount Edgcumbe was achieved by laying brass and tortoiseshell over red paper.
The two pieces of furniture at Mount Edgcumbe were probably purchased by one of the Earls during the late 18th or early 19th century following the French Revolution, when many such pieces found their way to England. Both the desk and the bureau were restored in 1992.
“Boulle furniture takes its name from Andre Charles Boulle, a cabinet maker at the court of Louis XIV.”