Fall-front desk

(secrétaire à abattant)

Artist or maker:
Carlin, Martin (b.c 1739, d.1785)
porcelain plaques by Sèvres porcelain manufactory (estab. 1756)
c 1775
Place of production:
Paris, France
oak carcass veneered with sycamore,tulipwood, boxwood, purpleheart and ebony; with ten soft-paste porcelain plaques and gilt-bronze mounts
Type of object:
fall-front desks
Accession number:


This desk is a particularly fine example of the 18th-century fashion for furniture mounted with porcelain plaques. Martin Carlin (ca. 1739-1785) excelled in the production of furniture mounted with either porcelain plaques or Japanese lacquer panels and decorated with elegant gilt bronzes.

From around 1750, porcelain plaques began to be used as an alternative to marquetry or painted panels. They allowed a finer detail and a greater range of colour, the brilliance of which is undimmed today in contrast to furniture with wood veneers.

Carlin was born in Fribourg-en-Brisgau in South West Germany. Like many other German and Flemish ébénistes (cabinetmakers), Carlin settled in Paris. Evidence suggests he worked in the workshop of the famous ébéniste Jean-François Oeben (1721-1763), marrying Oeben’s sister Marie-Catherine in 1759, and was close to the equally famous Roger Vandercruse Lacroix (1728-1799). The debts left on Carlin's death show that he worked exclusively for Parisian marchands-merciers.

It was probably Vandercruse who recommended Carlin to the marchand-mercier Simon-Philippe Poirier to whom the young Carlin began supplying furniture. Marchards-merciers were entrepreneurs who commissioned and designed furniture and decorative objects, circumventing the French guild system which banned craftsmen from working with any material that they had not been apprenticed in.

Pieces like this desk, which were complicated and harmonised composites of elements in different media created by multiple workshops and manufactories, were made possible by the marchands-merciers. Poirier worked in partnership with Dominique Daguerre at their shop 'à la Couronne d’or' on the rue Saint-Honoré, Paris. Marchand-merciers bought porcelain plaques directly from the Sèvres manufactory and distributed them to the cabinetmakers who worked for them, including Jean-François Leleu (1729 - 1807), Adam Weisweiler (1744-1820) and Bernard Molitor (ca. 1755-1833), as well as Carlin.

This desk indicates that marchands-merciers designed and commissioned separate parts from differen cabinetmakers who therefore could produced similar elements. Bronze mounts on this desk appear on a number of other pieces of furniture stamped by or attributed to Carlin. However, the curvilinear frieze on the break-front of the table section features on furniture not made by Carlin, including a writing table and fall-front desk in the Huntington Collection, San Marino, California (acc. nos 16.12 & 27.22, see S. M. Bennett and C. Sargentson ed. "French Art of the Eighteenth Century at the Huntington", New Haven 2008, pp.113-115,122-124) as well as a toilet table in the Wallace Collection, London (F321, see P. Hughes, "The Wallace Collection Catalogue of Furniture II", London, 1996, pp.1133-1138). They are all stamped by Molitor.

Poirier or Daguerre probably had this particular piece designed. It became a specialism of their shop and Carlin produced a number of repetitions on request. Four other desks of similar construction and proportions, mounted with Sèvres porcelain plaques, are known: one extremely similar to the Waddesdon desk but with green-bordered plaques, now in the Kress Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (58.75.44, see C. C. Dauterman, "Decorative Art from the Samuel H. Kress Collection", London, 1964, pp.144-149); one also with green-bordered plaques, but with differing bronze mounts and missing the plaques from the table section, in the collection of the Patrimonio Nacional of Spain in the Palacio Real de Madrid (see P. Junquera, ‘Muebles Franceses con Porcelanas en el Palacio de Oriente’, "Reales Sitios", 3:8 (1966), p. 34, ill.); one with rectangular plaques, columns and corner masks, now in the Robert Lehman Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art (1975.1.2026, see W. Koeppe ed., "The Robert Lehman Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Volume XV: Decorative Arts" (2012), pp.213-215); and one with mauve-bordered oval plaques, formerly in the Alphonse de Rothschild collection, sold Sotheby’s New York, 31 October 1986 (see A. Pradère, "French Furniture Makers: The Art of the Ébéniste from Louis XIV to the Revolution", p. 343, ill.).

A watercolour drawing of a similar desk, of the type Poirier or Daguerre may have sent to prospective clients who lived far from the shop, survives from the illustrated inventory of Duke Albert of Sachsen-Teschen, drawn up c.1780 and now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (acc. no 59.611.4, reproduced in Koeppe ed., (2012), p.215).

Fall-front desks of this type are recorded in the inventories of the possessions left behind by the comte de Provence, who would become King Louis XVIII of France, at the Palais du Luxembourg, Paris in 1793 and the comtesse d’Artois in 1795 when they emigrated during the French Revolution. The Waddesdon desk most closely resembles the piece described in the comtesse d’Artois’ inventory, however its close similarity to the desk now in the Kress Collection means it is impossible to determine which is the one described.

The plaques on the desk are excellent examples of Sèvres flower painting, yet all are unsigned so it is difficult to attribute them to a particular painter. The plaque on the left hand drawer is marked with the Sevres date letter Z for 1777; it is the only one that is dated. However, the border of this plaque is a lighter shade of blue than the others so may be a later replacement.

The best resources for dating the desk are the sales records in the Sèvres archives. Four of the plaques have labels pasted to their backs with prices marked. Cross-referencing these prices with the recorded sales of plaques to Poirier and Daguerre suggests the plaques were made in 1775. Therefore, the left- hand drawer plaque may well be of a different date. Poirier retired in 1777 and left his firm to Daguerre. The Waddesdon desk was likely commissioned before Poirier’s retirement, but it is impossible to know how long the plaques remained in the marchand-mercier’s shop before the desk was made and the elements united.

Emily Roy, March 2013

Physical description

Dimensions (mm):
1207 x 820 x 432
Maker's mark
[stamped four times]

interlaced Ls
Factory mark
[in blue on the reverse of one plaque]

Date letter
[in blue within interlaced Ls]
[in ink on label of one plaque]

[in ink on label of one plaque]

[in ink on label of one plaque]

[in ink on label of one plaque]
interlaced Ls
Printed label
[on reverse of four plaques]


Possibly given by King George III (b.1738, d. 1820) to an ancestor of 'Lord Chichester' (probably George Augustus Hamilton Chichester, 5th Marquess of Donegall, b. 1822, d. 1904, source: "Miss Alice's Notes"); acquired by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild (b.1839, d.1898) before1898; inherited by Alice de Rothschild (b.1847, d.1922); inherited by James de Rothschild (b.1878, d.1957); bequeathed to Waddesdon, The Rothschild Collection (The National Trust) in 1957.
Waddesdon (National Trust)
Bequest of James de Rothschild, 1957



Carl Christian Dauterman, The Porcelain Furniture in the Kress Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 18, May 1960, 274-284; James Parker; p. 282
Geoffrey de Bellaigue, Anthony Blunt; Furniture Clocks and Gilt Bronzes: The James A de Rothschild Collection at Waddesdon Manor; 2 vols; Fribourg; Office du Livre; 1974; cat. no. 68.
Gisela Zick, Die russische Wahrsagerin. Ein Tisch für Königin Karoline von Neapel, Kunst & Antiquitäten, IV & V, September 1984-October 1984, 36 - 52; p. 39, ill. p.41, ill. p.9
Jeanne Faton, Waddesdon Manor: joyau des collections anglaises, L'Estampille. L' Objet d'Art, September 2002; p. 92
Les collections exceptionnelles des Rothschild: Waddesdon Manor (Hors-série de l'Estampille/l'Objet d'Art, No. 14); Dijon; Éditions Faton; 2004; pp. 10 - 21
Ulrich Leben; Object Design in the Age of Enlightenment. The History of the Royal Free Drawing School in Paris; Los Angeles; Getty Publications; 2005; ill. p. 100

Entry from (Bellaigue, 1974):


Indexed terms