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The Congress of Vienna Table

Category

Furniture

Date

circa 1814

Materials

Mahogany, poplar, veneer, gilt metal and leather

Measurements

88.9 x 208.0 x 92.0 cm

Place of origin

Vienna

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Collection

Mount Stewart, County Down (Accredited Museum)

On show at

Mount Stewart, County Down, Northern Ireland, National Trust

NT 1542394

Summary

A gilt-bronze mounted mahogany pedestal desk or library table, Vienna, c.1814. The extremely weighty, intricate and highly finished gilt-bronze gallery surrounding the top of the desk is pierced with leaf scrolls enclosing varying florets in a running guilloche pattern. The centre of each side is dominated by a bearded male mask enveloped in foliage. Hinged to the table top, the central section of the front gallery drops down for use of the original green leather writing surface with a gold-tooled border. The three short drawers on both pedestals have simple ring handles surrounding the steel double-turn keyholes, and are flanked by plain pilasters surmounted by gilt-bronze Corinthian capitals, which slide upwards for removal when the table top is lifted off the supporting pedestals. The carcass is apparently of white poplar with oak drawers, and the mahogany is highly figured. The use of poplar in the carcass is foreign to English and French practices and is more typical of Italy.

Full description

This remarkable neo-classical mahogany-veneered pedestal desk or library table with exceptional gilt-bronze mounts is closely associated with the Congress of Vienna of 1814-15. According to family tradition the table was presented to Viscount Castlereagh by the other members of the Congress of Vienna together with the so-called Congress of Vienna chairs (NT 1220560). The table was first recorded in the inventory of Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh’s London house, 18 St James’s Square in 1823, in the Front Library ‘A large mahogany Table in the Centre of Room’ (‘Inventory and Valuation at the House of the most Noble the Marquis of Londonderry, St James’s Square, Feb[ruar]y 1823, Durham Record Office (DRO), D/LO/667 [1] (1)), and again in 1829 ‘A large French Mahy Knee hole Library Table richly ornamented with brass work’ (Public Record Office, Northern Ireland (PRONI), D665/39). Fixed to both ends of the table are heavy gilt-bronze carrying-handles in the form of ribbon-tied swags, the one on the left having been moved further down to accommodate an apparently near contemporaneous engraved bronze tablet, the inscription of which reads: ‘This Table the Property of / Viscount Castlereagh / Second / Marquis of Londonderry, K.G. &c. / Was the / Identical Table upon which all / the great transactions of the periods and Years of 1814-1815 were arranged / and recorded and on which the / Treaties of Vienna & Paris / were signed by the Plenipotentiaries of the / Congress of Vienna / Which gave Peace to Europe’ The claim that Treaty of Vienna and the Treaty of Paris were signed on the desk was presumably not intended to be taken at face value. When the Final Act of the Treaty of Vienna was signed on the evening of 19 June 1815, there was no ceremony involving the monarchs or plenipotentiaries. Some of the signatories gathered in Prince Metternich’s foyer at the Chancellery near the Hofburg, but many had already gone home and their autographs had to be obtained subsequently. This imposing piece of furniture remains something of an enigma. In 1952, Francis Watson, in correspondence with the 8th Marquess of Londonderry, noticed a resemblance between the ‘Congress of Vienna’ desk and ‘Lord Bath’s and the Talleyrand table at Schloss Sagan’, then both attributed to Pierre Garnier (c.1726/7-1806). Christophe Huchet de Quénetain’s book has since ruled out an attribution to Garnier and, even though identified as French in Lady Castlereagh’s posthumous 1829 inventory (see above), the Mount Stewart desk may in fact have been made in Vienna, possibly with the involvement of French-speaking craftsmen, as suggested by the word ‘Devant’ written twice in pencil below the top (although this may be the scribble of a Parisian furniture remover). Its design displays distinct similarities with other grand desks of similar dimensions made by the British firm Tatham, Bailey & Sanders (or Saunders) of Mount Street, London. The most splendid was supplied to the Prince Regent for the Blue Velvet Room at Carlton House in 1811, for which an intricate gilt-bronze gallery was delivered separately a year later. Pedestal desk were extremely rare in France during the Premier Empire. The earliest examples date from the 1760s, such as those made by Pierre Garnier in the Grecian style, which may have led to Francis Watson’s initial suggestion of a French origin for the Mount Stewart desk. Without any marks, stamps, or bills, it is impossible to ascribe the Congress of Vienna desk to a particular maker or firm. This is indeed true of many pieces then produced at the imperial capital. A detailed description of the many different manufacturing branches in Austria, compiled by Stephan von Keeß, published and republished several times in the late 1810s and early 1820s, provides us with an overview of the key cabinet-makers and upholsterers since the creation of the Austrian Empire in 1804 (see Stephan von Keeß (ed.), Darstellungen des Fabriks- und Gewerbewesens in seinem gegenwärtigen Zustande, Vienna 1824). The size, the ability to work in gilt-bronze and the fame of Joseph Danhauser’s firm, which Keeß describes in detail, make it a likely candidate for the authorship of Castlereagh’s desk. The piece is distinguished by the scale and remarkable quality of the gilt-bronze gallery and ornaments, highly influenced by late Louis XVI and Joseph II taste and revealing sculptural modelling, chasing and gilding of the highest order. Wolfram Koeppe recently demonstrated the inextricable links between Viennese gold- and silversmiths and bronze founders in the 1780s. Indeed, the desk’s gilt-bronze mounts are directly comparable both to those of a pair of petrified wood vases (Versailles, inv. no. T517c) presented to Louis XVI by his brother-in-law Emperor Joseph II on behalf of his late mother Empress Maria Theresa, and to the design of the Sachsen-Teschen silver service (1779-81). Both were made by Ignaz Sebastian Würth (1746-1834) and comprise beautifully sculptured and chased bands of Vitruvian scrolls and flowers in a deep bas-relief, similar to the gallery of Castlereagh’s desk. The desk’s removable capitals are numbered on the inside, using a system of little triangles, so that they can be precisely located for the reassembly of the desk. The thin frieze below the gilt-bronze gallery bears quatrefoil rosettes above each capital; the two central rosettes at the back of the table have circular handles affixed to them, which, when pulled out, reveal extending narrow steel drawers containing steel and brass bracket supports. That there was originally a mahogany leaf or flap hanging down at the back of the desk, which could be supported on the telescopic brackets and tilted by means of the adjustable rods and brass supports within them, is proven by a photograph of desk published in Country Life (5 October 1935, p. 360, fig. 11). The photograph also reveals that this flap was hinged to the top of the gilt-bronze gallery so that it could be folded the other way to create a mahogany top for the desk, which could then be worked on standing up. The top also enabled the desk to be locked, so that writing material and documents could be securely left in place on the writing surface (the hinges have now been removed and the metal smoothed to hide the alteration). The three bureau-plat supplied by François-Honoré-Georges Jacob-Desmalter each bore a mechanism similar to that of Castlereagh’s desk, with a lockable sliding top and pull-out steel arrangement allowing the upper surface to slide out in order to view large documents. According to Jacob, this mechanism was an invention of the Emperor himself. (Entry adapted from Christopher Rowell and Wolf Burchard, ‘The British Embassy at Palais Starhemberg: Furniture from the Congress of Vienna at Mount Stewart’, Furniture History, LII, 2017)

Provenance

According to family tradition presented to Viscount Castlereagh (2nd Marquess of Londonderry) at the end of the Congress of Vienna by the other delegates; alternatively commissioned by Castlereagh or his brother Lord Stewart (3rd Marquess of Londonderry) from a Viennese workshop when in Vienna. On loan to Mount Stewart from the Estate of the 10th Marquess of Londonderry.

Marks and inscriptions

Brass Plaque: 'This Table the Property of / Viscount Castlereagh / Second / Marquis of Londonderry, K.G. &c. / Was the Identical Table upon which all / the great transactions of the periods and / Years of 1814-1815 were arranged / and recorded and on which the / Treaties of Vienna & Paris / Were signed by the Plenipotentiaries of the / Congress of Vienna / Which gave Peace to Europe'

References

Rowell and Burchard 2017a, C. Rowell and W. Burchard, 'The Congress of Vienna and its Legacy in the Londonderry Collection at Mount Stewart' in National Trust Historic Houses & Collections Annual 2017 in association with Apollo Magazine, pp. 21-9. Rowell and Burchard 2017b, Christopher Rowell and Wolf Burchard, ‘The British Embassy at Palais Starhemberg: Furniture from the Congress of Vienna at Mount Stewart’, Furniture History, LII, 2017

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