Review: Boiseries at Camden Place, January 12-13, 2023
By Lauren Drapala (January 2023)
A little over a week ago on January 12-13, 2023, I had the privilege of attending Boiseries: Decoration And Migration From The 18th Century To The Present at Camden Place, Chislehurst, UK. The conference was convened by fellow SAH-HIG member Laura Jenkins, a current PhD candidate at the Courtauld Institute of Art, and Dr. Lindsay Macnaughton of University of Buckingham. Presenters and attendees represented a variety of institutions from across the United Kingdom, France and the United States, each considering the migrations of eighteenth-century boiseries from their original places of inception through their later installation(s) in wealthy estates, museum collections, and for some, storage holds.
Camden Place was a particularly appropriate site to consider the legacy and movement of French paneling. As Curator of Historic Buildings for Historic Royal Palaces, Lee Proser, outlined in his keynote address and tours of the site, the building contains many installations of architectural salvage, incorporating a series of additions, reconfigurations and reinstallations of architectural elements from other sites throughout its interiors. Most pertinent to the conference theme were the building alterations by property owner Nathaniel William Strode in 1860, which included the transformation of the Georgian mansion into the semblance of a French chateau with the addition of a protruding wing that housed heavily carved 18th century oak paneling from the Château de Brécy, which was demolished in 1862. Curatorial assistant Felix Zorzo of the Wallace Collection provided some context for the movement of this room by discussing another notable interior from the Château de Brécy, Lord Hertford’s room. Within years of Strode’s alterations, Camden Place famously became the imperial residence of Empress Eugenie and the Prince Imperial in 1870 during their exile from France. Emperor Napoleon III joined them a year later, though his tenure was short-lived and he died at the estate in 1873 as a result of complications associated with gallstones. The house hosted another imperial funeral when the Prince Imperial was killed in a skirmish with Zulu warriors as a member of the British Army. Senior Lecturer Thomas Jones of the University of Buckingham discussed the importance of Camden Place as the headquarters of Bonapartism during the period of the imperial family’s residence, while Rebecca Walker considered the collections of the French imperial family during the same period. Following the deaths of her husband and son, Empress Eugenie left the estate in 1881, and soon after the site’s current owner and operators, the Chislehurst Golf Club, purchased the property from Strode in 1889.
The primary focus of this conference was to consider and build upon the landmark studies of paneling as architectural salvage by art historian Bruno Pons (French period rooms, 1650-1800 : rebuilt in England, France, and the Americas, 1995 and Waddesdon Manor Architecture and Panelling – James A. De Rothschild Bequest at Waddesdon Manor, 2001) and the late John Harris (Moving Rooms, 2007). Both former and current curators at Waddesdon Manor considered Pons’ work more directly; Curator of Decorative Arts Mia Jackson carefully considered Pons’ attributions and analysis of Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild’s collecting of boiseries at Waddesdon Manor, which were purchased and assembled between 1880 and 1890 from at least ten identifiable eighteenth-century houses. Curator Emeritus at Waddedon Manor and current lecturer at Parsons, The New School in New York and Paris, Ulrich Leben contextualized this practice through an in depth study of Georges Hoentschel, a nineteenth century French dealer in historic interiors. Hoentschel’s collection was famously purchased by capitalist J.Pierpont Morgan and donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the early twentieth century as the founding collection of its European Decorative Arts department. Hoenstchel and this collection, which largely survives in storage at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was the subject of the exhibition Salvaging the Past: Georges Hoentschel and French Decorative Arts from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2013) at the Bard Graduate Center. Wood carver and PhD Candidate François Gilles focused on a broader discussion of Hoentschel’s contemporaries through his overview of the market for boiseries in France throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Utilizing the surviving archives of multiple dealers, which include Montvallat, Fauché and Carlhian, Gilles considered the full spectrum of the architectural salvage market, considering the role of paneling merchants as saviors, desecrators and opportunists as they dealt in ancien régime decorations. Dr. Pat Wheaton considered this legacy on the other side of the English Channel, providing an overview of British decorators that included Lenygon & Morant, White Allom, Roberson and Keeble, and the ways in which nineteenth and early twentieth century decorators engaged with the antique trade to create personalized visions of the past for their clients. When considered cohesively, these papers traced the market of boiseries throughout the long nineteenth century, considering the changing tastes of interior decoration in the French context, the influx of boiseries on the market resulting from the massive demolition of 18th century hôtels during the Haussmann’s renovation of Paris between 1853 and 1870, and the growing competition among elite clientele for possession of these spaces as a means of establishing invented aristocratic lineages.
Collectors of boiseries, which included both private individuals and museum institutions, utilized antique wood paneling as a means to position themselves as inheritors of past greatness. The discussion of residential installations included Waddesdon Manor, as previously discussed in Mia Jackson’s work, as well as Gregory Gregory’s eclectic Harlaxton Manor, as considered by PhD Candidate Carter Jackson. As Jackson detailed, the incorporation of architectural elements into a new, invented residential context often had multiple layers of meaning, attempting to establish the position of its owner while also solidifying complex ideas about national identity through its assemblage. Director of Musée Condé Mathieu Deldicque traced a similar path as he described some of the earliest known English boiserie located in France currently extant at the Château de Chantilly. The D’Orleans family, much like Napoleon III and Eugenie in later decades, went into exile in England at the Orleans House at Twickenham after the Revolution of 1848. Upon Henri d’Orléans, duc d’Aumale’s return to France, two of the rooms from Twickenham were moved and reinstalled in the private apartments at the Château and survive today as marker’s of the family’s movement and shared ties to France and England. Estate Historian at Winterthur Museum and Gardens Carrie Greif identified the French lineage of Henry Francis du Pont in the United States as constitutive to his celebration of American patrimony and decorative arts in his residence turned museum institution in Delaware in the US. Roughly 97% of the museum’s rooms include architectural woodwork from a variety of historic homes throughout the United States, and Greif described du Pont’s role as installation artist, creating new compositions out of salvaged architecture and decorative arts to be lived in, studied and immersive.
Greif’s paper brought up the discussion of “period room” as a dirty word in museum practice, both challenging and provoking discussion throughout the symposium. The idea of fixing objects and architecture to a particular moment in time is increasingly problematic as museums make strides to present more inclusive spaces with diverse narratives and occupants. Senior Curator at the Musée du Louvre Frédéric Dassas recounted a recent reinstallation of the State Bedroom of the Hôtel de Chevreuse et de Luynes in Paris, originally constructed in 1765, moved and reincorporated into the Grand Salon for Pierre Lebaudy in the early twentieth century, salvaged and reinstalled in La Salle Lebaudy at the Louvre following the hôtel’s demolition in the 1960s and finally restored to its 18th century appearance in the Louvre’s most recent interpretation. This well-researched and technical project was aimed at the reevaluation of the Chevreuse boiserie as an object of study, which had failed to be accessioned into the museum’s collection prior to this restoration. Paneling, both en masse and individually, can be incredibly valuable as objects of study, as NYU Paris Lecturer Gabriel Wick conveyed in his analysis of the ‘Roman’ Petit salon of the Hôtel d’Aumont/Crillon, currently part of the Middlebury College Museum of Art (another remarkably well-preserved boiserie from this well known hôtel include the Boudoir from the Hôtel de Crillon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Middlebury currently displays one panel from the original suite while the rest of the suite survives in storage, illustrating a panel painting technique inspired by roman antiquity. Far from replicating ancient forms, the 18th century paneling was developed as an 18th century French innovation, improving on antiquity to produce modern living space using the forms of the past.
Considering the role of the period rooms as forces in the secondhand market, a number of contributors considered the relationship between eighteenth century artifice and broader conceptions of luxury. Barbara Lasic, Senior Lecturer at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, discussed the opening of the Cognacq-Jay Museum in Paris in 1929, which included eight rooms framed by specially acquired sets of eighteenth-century boiseries. The paneling in these spaces did not include the same level of attribution as the rest of the collection and was largely used as props to substantiate and legitimize the collections on view. Lasic traced the founding of the museum alongside the operation of the department store La Samaritaine de Luxe, both working to generate fashionable interest in the museum’s collections, which also contributing to the sale and consumption of luxury goods inspired by the ancien régime. Melany Telleen similarly traced the shared paths of luxury and history in the 20th century creation of the Mona Bismarck House in Paris, crafted to suite the much-publicized lifestyle of an American socialite through strategic incorporation of 18th century boiseries in a 19th century mansion turned American cultural centre upon Bismarck’s death. Lastly, the conference ended with Maureen Cassidy-Geiger’s broader consideration of eighteenth century wall-coverings beyond wood carving, overviewing spaces composed of lacquer, straw, glass beads, feathers and porcelain in England, France, Germany and Italy. These spaces, quite beyond any market and considered virtuosic and exceptionally rare inventions of 18th century court culture, were tributes to the immense craft, time and skill necessitated for their production.
One of the major takeaways I gathered from this conference was the need to continually reevaluate the role of the historic interior as a complex mixture of component parts worthy of careful and critical analysis. We are living in a time when many of the twentieth century installations of period rooms in museums are on the chopping block- they take up too much space in increasingly crowded museum collections; they represent legacies of extreme wealth and elitism that can often be alienating for contemporary museum visitors; they are often filled with “inaccuracies,” or dated interpretations of how one specific group of people might have lived, privileging their experiences above others. But, as Boiseries carefully considered, these spaces are installation art in their own right, representing the visions of the people that assembled them and reorganized them over their long lives. These spaces arise from the complex interplay of violent reorganization, dramatic shifts in political and economic power, and the insatiable hunger for individuals to claim their own place in a legacy of perceived greatness. They are exceptionally vulnerable, despite their promotion of stasis and timelessness, and their meanings are capable of changing and growing over time.