The de Guigné family of Guignécourt, San Francisco Bay, until recent years.
Hans Ottomeyer and Peter Pröschel, “Vergoldete Bronzen”, 1986, p. 382, pl. 5.16.2 illustrating a surtout de table, likewise stamped Thomire à Paris of circa 1810-14 with a pierced balustrade formed of pairs of half kneeling putti holding vine sprays intersected by pilasters surmounted by classical figures and urns, in the Musée Marmottan, Paris. And p. 388, pl. 5.16.15, illustrating a lithograph numbered 7875 after a design in the Cabinet d’Estampes in the Bibliotèque Nationale, Paris for one of Thomire’s surtouts flanked by classical figures holding swags of fruiting vines punctuated by plinths surmounted by fruit filled tazzas. And p. 388, pl. 5.16.16, illustrating a finished circular surtout after the above design of circa 1830 in Rosenborg Castle, Copenhagen.
A very important and rare Empire gilt bronze and mirrored glass three-piece sixteen-light surtout de table by Pierre-Philippe Thomire, stamped at one end Thomire à Paris, of rectangular outline with rounded ends and composed of three sections, the pierced balustrade composed of sixteen outward facing zephyrs with butterfly wings who each half kneel while holding and supporting on either side a cornucopia-shaped ribbon-tied floral swag, each swag surmounted by an anthemion encircled by a ring of laurel leaves, at the junction of each pair of zephyrs and flanking swags are eight tazza with stiff leaves cast around their bodies and supported on a splayed acanthus foot, each tazza filled with fruit to include bunches of grapes, pomegranates, oranges and apples as well as seed pods. Issuing from the centre of each is a double branched candelabrum with scrolling acanthus-wrapped cornucopia-shaped branches supporting foliate drip-pans and circular foliate nozzles, with each candle branch centred by an upright stem with a pinecone finial linked to the flanking branches by acanthus scrolls. The bordered frieze cast with laurel leaf sprays centred by a flower head and mounted below each of the candelabra with a Bacchic head flanked by a pair of thyrsuses entwined with grapes and vine leaf sprays above a pair of conjoined lion paw feet, with casters hidden beneath, the interior of the plateau fitted with mirrored glass
Paris, date circa 1810-20
Length 206 cm, width 70 cm, height 36 cm.
Given its size, finesse and more particularly the fact that it was made by Pierre-Philippe Thomire (1751-1843), whose main client was Napoleon Bonaparte and his Imperial family, we know that this magnificent surtout de table was made for a wealthy and extremely important client. Moreover, it is very unusual since it incorporates candelabra as an integral part of its decoration. This element was of course very functional but also very rare since it increased the cost of production considerably. The inclusion of candelabra within the design was first used by Thomire’s great rival Claude Galle (1759-1815) who designed and made a comparable surtout de table with twenty-four lights of circa 1810, which this gallery once had the pleasure of owning. Details of the latter were illustrated in “Description des expositions des produits de l’Industrie Française faites à Paris depuis leur origine jusqu’à celle de 1819” by L. S. Le Norman and J. V. de Moléon (published in 1824 and reproduced in Ottomeyer and Pröschel, op. cit. p. 711), when Claude Galle’s son Gérard-Jean Galle (1788-1846) exhibited one of his father’s surtouts at the Exposition des Produits de l’Industrie Française in 1919. Other similar surtouts de table with integrated candelabra are known, including an example attributed to Thomire which was sold in Paris by Me Lair-Dubreuil on 3rd April 1911 (lot 105). Another example signed by Thomire is in the Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg while one by Denière & Matelin was made in 1817 for President James Munroe and is still in the White House, Washington. A final comparable surtout once owned by the Princess of Castel-Rüdenhausen was offered at Galerie Koller, Geneva 2nd October 2002, lot 1252, which like the others was made after Galle’s original design of circa 1810.
What is particularly significant is that the present surtout de table’s overall form is very similar to Galle’s original design of circa 1810. Firstly, both have two-branch candelabra punctuated by male figures holding or supporting a ribbon-tied swag; in Galle’s design there is a central male putto flanked by two swags while here there are a pair of zephyrs and three swags between each candelabra. The second similarity is that in both cases the swags are surmounted by ring-shaped motifs; in Galle’s design the rings are created from peacock fan-tails while here they are made up of laurel leaves. While leading bronziers such as Thomire or Galle ran independent firms, when it came to very important and more complicated commissions such as a surtout de table complete with additional dishes, coupes or free-standing candelabra, they often worked in collaboration with one another. This would explain the similarity between Thomire’s surtout and that by Galle.
Surtouts de table were first introduced in France during the early nineteenth century, when the French, who always enjoyed a long tradition of gastronomy and entertainment, began changing their eating habits. This in turn brought about a modernisation of the dining table. The service à la Française, which was the height of fashion during the eighteenth century, had involved a lavish display of food, served on large platters which remained in the centre of the table throughout the meal. However, when the service à la Russe came into fashion circa 1810, traditionally assumed via the Russian Ambassador Prince Alexander Borisovich Kurakin, food was presented one course at a time. Since individual dishes were served hot direct from the kitchen this meant that the central part of the table was left bereft of decoration. As a consequence, table ornaments became increasingly more lavish with the surtout de table providing the perfect solution where baskets of bon-bons, fruit and flowers, dishes of sweetmeats and candelabras could be placed along the mirrored glass.
In keeping with the spirit of hospitality and lavish entertainment, the theme of this plateau is one of plenty, firstly in the tazzas brimming with a variety of fruits. To them are added the figures of Zephyr, who personified the west wind of springtime. In antiquity, the winds played an important role in navigation. According to Ovid, Zephyr fell hopelessly in love with the nymph Chloris, whom he eventually married; she was then made ruler over the kingdom of flowers and as a result became Flora goddess of flowers. Zephyr was traditionally represented in art as a youth with butterfly wings who here holds cornucopia-shaped swags studded with flower heads that allude to Flora. In addition to the fruits and flowers are candle branches that are shaped like cornucopias or horns of plenty, each of which are centred by a pinecone finial – another symbol of plenty. The main frieze around the plateau is cast with laurel leaves, symbolising victory, each encircling a flower head. Below each of the eight sets of double candle branches is the head of Bacchus, mythological god of wine who is surrounded by vine clusters and a pair of thyrsuses; these motifs allude to the wine that would be served and enjoyed during the meal.
Like all bronzes made by Thomire, the surtout’s design, casting and chasing is of the very highest quality. Thus for instance one sees that while the figures of Zephyr all face outward, their backs, which would not be so obvious to those seated around a grand dining table, were as beautifully finished as the front. Likewise, the fruit filled tazzas as well as the candelabra are as attractive when viewed from any angle. Juliette Niclausse’s biography, “Thomire, fondeur-ciseleur 1751-1843: sa vie, son oeuvre”, 1947, pp. 129-130, lists ten complete and twelve incomplete surtouts de table and individual pieces by Thomire. The largest set, comprising 59 pieces was owned by the Mobilier National, while the Ministère de l’Intérieur and the Ministère de la Guerre both owned other Thomire surtouts. Another made for Napoleon’s brother Prince Lucien Bonaparte is in the Musée de Marmottan, Paris, while a further example owned by the comtes de Pourtalès is now in the Gulbenkian Museum. Prince Demidoff also once owned a Thomire surtout, part of which was purchased in 1880 by the silversmiths, Odiot.
Regarded as one of history’s finest fondeur-ciseleurs, Pierre-Philippe Thomire not only enjoyed the patronage of the Emperor Napoleon and his family but also Louis XVI, Louis XVIII as well as foreign monarchy and aristocracy. Thomire, who was born into a family of ciseleurs, began working with the renowned bronzier Pierre Gouthière (1732-1813) as well as Jean-Louis Prieur (b. 1725 d. after 1785) ciseleur-doreur du roi, before opening up his own workshop in 1776. Famed for his production of finely chased gilt bronze objets de luxe, of which a large quantity were commissioned by the royal household, Thomire frequently collaborated with the marchands-merciers, such as Simon-Philippe Poirier and his successor Dominique Daguerre. In addition, Thomire supplied finely chased mounts to leading ébénistes of his day such as Guillaume Benneman (maître 1785, d. 1811) and Adam Weisweiler (1744-1820). Thomire also helped establish his name when working at the Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory, firstly as an assistant to its artistic director Jean-Claude Duplessis in making the factory’s mounts and then following the latter’s death in 1783, he took over Duplessis’s job and in this capacity supplied all the gilt bronze mounts for the factory’s porcelain. His post-Revolutionary success somewhat eclipsed his fame during Louis XVI’s reign and in 1806 he became the first bronzier to be awarded a gold medal at the Exposition des Produits de l’Industrie. He won another gold medal in 1809, in which year he was also appointed ciseleur de l’Empereur.
In response to growing demand Thomire became an associate and then in 1804 purchased the extensive business owned by Martin-Eloi Lignereux, the famous marchand-mercier, formerly associated with Daguerre. Soon his newly named company Thomire-Duterme et Cie was employing a work force of about 800; it had a workshop at rue Boucherat and a showroom at rue Taitbout, from where Thomire retailed a large range of decorative objects inspired by antiquity including extravagant surtouts and centrepieces, candelabra, clock cases and monumental Greek and Roman style urns and vases. Like many Parisian trades, the firm encountered financial difficulties due Napoleon’s continuing wars. Soon after 1815 the partnership with Duterme was dissolved and under its new style, Thomire et Cie thrived once more under the restored Bourbons. 1823 saw Thomire winning a gold medal for sculpture in Paris as well as his retirement from the firm though he continued to produce sculptures and regularly exhibited at the Paris Salon until 1834. His business was continued by his two sons-in-law and then his grandsons up until 1852 though Thomire’s legacy has continued for much longer.
As is often said, the history of a work of art and knowledge of its past owners not only adds interest but can also enhance its value. This piece is no exception for until recently it graced the home of the de Guigné family at Guignécourt, a magnificent mansion overlooking San Francisco Bay. Set within about fifty acres, Guignécourt was built just over a century ago for Christian II de Guigné (1889-1927) after a design by Bliss and Faville who were also the architects of the St. Francis Hotel and Pacific Union Club. Christian II de Guigné was the son of the banker Count Charles Joseph Christian de Guigné (b.1846) who had emigrated from France to California in the late 1870s. In 1880 he married Mary Katherine ‘Minnie’ Parrott (1856-1902), daughter of the wealthy American financier and industrialist John Parrott (1811-84). He and Minnie lived at a mansion in San Mateo while still maintaining the de Guigné family French Château Senejac, famed for its Medoc vineyards. It was their son Christian II de Guigné, who with his wife Marie Louisa née Elkins (1892-1961) commissioned the building of Guignécourt, complete with its ball room, numerous bedrooms and a servant’s wing. Following the death of Christian II, the estate was inherited by his son Christian III (1912-1979); in 1936 the latter married Eleanor née Christianson (1911-1983) who came from a wealthy Peninsula family and like her husband enjoyed lavish entertaining. Considered at one time one of the world’s most powerful women as well as one of its ten best ladies, Eleanor subsequently bequeathed her collection of haute couture to the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco.
During the 1960s Christian III and Eleanor commissioned the celebrated interior designer Anthony Hill to redecorate Guignécourt. Hill, a classicist who counted Truman Capote and Andy Warhol amongst his social circle, began the main redecoration during the early 1960s, taking great pains to preserve the classic elegance of past interiors. The pavilion became a focal point for family use and decorative drama. This whimsical space located off of the pool area combines eighteenth century Chinese wallpaper, Italian furniture and Chinese objets d’art to create a Chinoiserie manifesto reminiscent of European palaces. Much of the interior, filled with the very finest furniture and furnishings made predominantly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in France, England and elsewhere in Europe, is due to Hill. When in the early 1980s, Michael Taylor, a designer credited with creating the ‘California Look’, took over the redecorating process, he recognised Anthony Hill’s timeless elegance and refused to his original vision. Of Christian III and Eleanor’s sons, Charles went to France to run his great grandfather’s former estate at Château Senejac (which having remained in the family since the 1850s was eventually sold in 1999). Christian III and Eleanor’s other son Christian IV took over Guignécourt; he married Vaughn Hills, daughter of the coffee heir Reuben Wilmarth Hills III in 1984. They subsequently divorced in 2002, after which Christian IV de Guigné remained at Guignécourt, where for some years he continued to enjoy the family’s much loved home and its superb display of art and antiques, of which this surtout de table was prized within the de Guigné collection.