Louis-Léopold Boilly (La Bassée, near Lille 1761 – Paris 1845)
Many useful objects have been discarded on the surface of this unusual side table, including playing cards, coins, a quill pen, a penknife, a pencil, a letter with a red seal, a pair of slender scissors and some pliers, carpet tacks, a folded sheet of music (with an aria from a Belgian opera), a music book and various scraps of paper. However, any guests tempted to tidy the surface or pick up a playing card would soon be surprised, as this unusual table is designed to trick the eye. The table top is simply a very cleverly painted design. There was a long tradition of this type of representation (known in French as trompe l’oeil), and examples can be found dating from classical times onwards. The table was made in France in the late 1700s and painted by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761–1845), whose father was a furniture- maker. The inclusion of very ordinary objects alongside decorative features, such as a plaster relief depicting children playing with a goat, appears both naturalistic and playful.
A trompe l'oeil table top, signed by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761 - 1845), before 1793 (one element dated 1773), raised on NT 206627.2 an associated rosewood table base, English, circa 1820. A slip of paper signed 'boilly pinx'. The table-top of rosewood and kingwood veneers arranged in a parquetry pattern, and painted with various items including: - a volume of music bound in green and labelled 'Sonnates/et arietta de Mr/Charpentier pour le/clavecin 1774/valseur [?]'- some sheet music entitled 'Ariette de Zemir d’Azor/par Mr Gretry'- a terracotta plaque of putti playing with a goat, after or in the manner of Duquesnoy- some silver and copper coins of Louis XV (?) and Louis XVI, one of the former dated 1770 (?)- implements for writing, drawing, and sealing- a sealed letter (face-down, so no name or address visible)- a quantity of playing-cards, two of which have had their sides cut into (for use as tallies of the score?) - two clock-maker’s tools – a pair of ‘dog-nose’ pliers and a pair of ‘pendulum’ pliers, a clock-key and six carpet-tacks.
Louis-Léopold Boilly (La Bassée, near Lille 1761 – Paris 1845) was one of the most important and influential painters of everyday life of late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century France. Son to an ebeniste, he produced works from the age of 12 or 13. During the late 1770s, under the direction of Dominique Doncre (1743 - 1820), he developed the style of trompe l'oeil, depicting objects in what appear to be three dimensions. Boilly’s rendition of materials was always exact to the point of illusionism, and he certainly made quantities of trompe l’oeil paintings, including at least three other table-tops, but this one is the most elaborate in his oeuvre. There might have been some doubt as to whether the signature is genuine, since a number of the items represented – Charpentier’s harpsichord sonatas published in 1774, an aria from Zémire et Azor by the Liege-born composter André Gréty (1771/2) and some coins of Louis XV's reign - antedate his activity as an artist, but it may be that these – like the clockmaker’s tools – reflect the musical taste, and perhaps even the profession, of the person for whom he painted this table-top. It must be datable to before 1793. The old coins are hardest to account for, particularly in the light of his other table-tops (one is in a private collection [Siegfried, 1995, p. 32 ref. in her article]; another is in the collection of the Fondation Rau pour le Tiers-Monde, Zurich; see Siegfried, 1992, p.31 & fig. 7; and the same, 1995, p.187, pl. no. 161), the one in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lille (exh. cat. Boilly, 1988-89, cat. no. 42; exh. cat. Masterworks from the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1992-3, cat. no. 33; Siegfried, 1995, pp.190-91), which, painted some time between 1808 and 1814, has a coin of the Emperor Napoleon carefully isolated from the other coins. It is also interesting that, whereas the later illusionistic table-tops are painted on artist’s board (private collection), marble (Fondation Rau), or on an illusionistic piece of paper set into the mahogany top of the guéridon (Musée de Lille), the earlier Wimpole Hall one should be painted on a top of geometrical marquetry: might this even have been made by Boilly’s wood-carver father? And so could the things painted on it have had a particular significance for him? Having been exhibited at the 250th anniversary exhibition of Boilly’s birth at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lille in 2011-12, along with the table and top belonging to that museum, and the table-top belonging to the Rau collection, as well as other trompe l’oeil paintings, it is possible to situate the Wimpole Hall table in a better context. Boilly’s earliest trompe l’oeil would appear to be of a conventional letter-rack type, with a number of other elements in addition to, or instead of, additional letters, so that it is more properly called a quodlibet or ‘what you will’ (an example of this type, possibly by Jean Valette-Penot, in the Musée des beaux-arts et d’archéologie, Rennes, is illustrated by Susan L. Siegfried, The Art of Louis-Léopold Boilly, New Haven & London, 1995, fig.170). This is the painting formerly in Sacha Guitry’s collection, and since 1981 in the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown (exh. cat. Boilly, 2011, no.163). The letters are all addressed to a Monsieur or Madame Dandré in Arras, the town of Boilly’s first wife. The other elements include items also found in the Wimpole table-top – scissors, and a pen-knife – as well as others that are not: a pair of compasses, a print, a leather bag, a bottle containing some sort of liquid, and a flower (a wild anemone?). All these things doubtless had some particular significance for the otherwise unknown Dandrés. Like the Wimpole table-top, the quodlibet has an illusionistic scrap of paper with Boilly’s name on it, but no address. The cataloguer, Richard Rand, accepts John Hallam’s argument for dating it, in his 1979 University of Washing Ph.D., The Genre Works of Louis-Léopold Boilly, to 1780/5, on the grounds of its similarity to works of the kind by the Arras artist, Dominique Doncre, painted in those years. In terms of the items in it and its greater sophistication, the Wimpole table-top would appear to be next in the sequence. The other two that were exhibited at Lille, the one belonging to Lille itself (exh. cat. no.169), and the one in the Rau collection (exh. cat. no.168) both appear to be later. Both are painted on marble set in wood: on a rectangular piece set at angles to the wood, making it look like a large sheet of paper, in the case of the Lille guéridon-top; and on a circular piece set in a circle made up of small pieces of ebony, in the case of the Rau guéridon-top. Both include numerous coins, quillpens, and one or two little circular portraits in oil. The Rau top (exh. cat. no.168) is addressed to the Swiss banker, Pourtales, in the rue de Cléry, and has a piece of simulated paper giving Boilly’s detailed address in the rue Faubourg Saint-Denis. Although the letters ASS – the first three letters of assignats – seem to shine through this (which would suggest an origin in the Revolution or after – when assignats had become worthless), that may not be what they signify. Other things – a Swiss coin with a halberdier and the date 1788; another coin, with a bear (the symbol of Prussia, which owned Neuchâtel up to the Revolution) under a crown - point to a just pre-Revolutionary date (but alternatively, to post-Revolutionary nostalgia). The crucial element is Boilly’s address, No. 14 rue de Cléry: when did he occupy it (he had eight different addresses during his time in Paris)? Though some numbering of houses began in Paris before the Revolution, this was by no means universal, so the number could again indicate a post-Revolutionary date. The playing-cards – again with the ace of diamonds singled out – quill-pen, pen-knife, and nails (cf. the tacks in the Wimpole table-top) – associate this top to some extent with that at Wimpole. The Lille table-top (exh. cat. no.169) is not only supposed to have belonged to Napoleon in the château de Saint-Cloud, but also contains a coin struck with his image. That is borne out by Boilly’s address: rue Merslée, 12. The same address features on the illusionistic crucifix until recently in the chapel of Magdalen College, Oxford (exh. cat. no.162), which Boilly exhibited in the Salon of 1812. It too contains a quill-pen and other coins, but none of the other elements of the Wimpole table-top (see Alastair Laing, Boilly, exh. cat. 2011-2012, no. 164) (Entry adapted from Boilly (1761 - 1845), Palais des Beaux Arts de Lille, 4th November 2011 - 6th February 2012 [exhibition catalogue] and Treasured Possessions: from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment (ed. Victoria Avery, Melissa Calaresu and Mary Laven), The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 24 March to 6 September 2015 [exhibition catalogue].)
Believed to have been purchased by George Bambridge (1892 - 1943) and Elsie Bambridge (1896 - 1976). Listed in the Inventory taken at Wimpole in 1939; and in the Inventory taken in 1965 in Drawing Room No. I (p. 4). The hall and contents were bequeathed to the National Trust in 1976 by Elsie Bambridge.
Marks and inscriptions
Top centre: boilly pinx
Makers and roles
Louis-Léopold Boilly (La Bassée, near Lille 1761 – Paris 1845), painter
Treasured Possessions from The Renaissance to the Enlightenment, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 2015, no.165 Louis-Léopold Boilly, Palais des Beaux Arts de Lille, France , 2011 - 2012
Siegfried 1992 Susan L. Siegfried, ‘Boilly and the Frame-up of Trompe l’oeil’, Oxford Art Journal, vol. 15 no.2, 1992, p.29 & fig. 4 Siegfried 1995 Susan L. Siegfried, The Art of Louis-Léopold Boilly Modern Life in Napoleonic France, New Haven & London, 1995 Treasured Possessions: from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment (ed. Victoria Avery, Melissa Calaresu and Mary Laven), The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 24 March to 6 September 2015, Cat. 165, Fig. 184, pp.172