Russian Neoclassical

Suite of Russian Neoclassical Brass Mounted Mahogany Seating Furniture Late 18th century. Auction May 25, 2017 / Lot 764

Much of the furniture made in Russia until the 1770-80s was painted, gilded or, following neighboring countries’ fashion, made of marquetry panels. Although the English had begun using mahogany in the first quarter of the 18th century, its use in Europe only started in the 1770s when the French began importing mahogany from its colonies in the West Indies, especially Saint-Domingue (which became Haiti in 1804). This taste had spread through the rest of Europe by the last quarter of the 18th century, with much of the timber used in Russia coming from Britain, the largest importer of mahogany in the world. 

The use of mahogany and gilt-metal mounts on Russian furniture was a fashion of the late 18th century that can be traced to the work of the German cabinet-maker, David Roentgen, whose highly sophisticated designs and mechanics were influential, both with foreign as well as native cabinet makers in Russia. Catherine the Great of Russia was a patron of Roentgen's upon his arrival in 1783, but grew disenchanted with his furniture by the early 1790s, even though she found Roentgen’s opinion of Russia very flattering. Roentgen claimed Russia was “the centre of the universe, whereas other places could only be called the suburbs,” which was relayed to Catherine by her advisor, Baron Melchior von Grimm.

The architect Andrei Nikiforovich Voronikhin (1759-1814) was a protégé of the influential collector Count Alexander Sergeivich Stroganoff and became one of the most important Russian architects of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Voronikhin worked for the Imperial Family at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg and at Pavlovsk, where a major fire destroyed the center section of the palace. His interior and furniture designs were especially refined, and it is here that he created probably his best work, The Lantern Study or The Little Lantern.

An illustration of this room appears in Penelope Hunter-Stiebel’s Stroganoff The Palace and Collections of a Russian Noble Family (Abrams, 2000, p. 184) showing the apsoidal window with coffered ceiling looking out into the garden. It is furnished with a bureau and a writing table by Roentgen and a brass-inlaid mahogany armchair with pierced backrest, downswept armrests and an X-form stretcher, probably made by Heinrich Gambs, a German émigré cabinet-maker who worked in tandem with Voronikhin. The overall design of this armchair, including its sunburst backrest, use of ribbed brass mounts with corner roundels, and X-form stretcher, relate directly to a suite of chairs to be offered in Doyle’s Russian Works of Art auction on May 25, 2017 (lot 764).

For similar chairs, see Professor G. K. Lukomskij, Zarskoje Sselo, Verlag Für Kunstwissenschaft, Berlin: 1924, p. 57; Antoine Chenevière, Russian Furniture The Golden Age, Vendome Press: New York, 1988, pp. 114-115, fig. 95, one of a pair of armchairs, still bearing its Pavlovsk inventory number.