A set of 20 gilded bronze sconces with a figure of a caryatid with arms in the form of branches for four candles from the Great Assembly Hall, executed in Paris in 1781 after a design by Jean-Louis Prieur.
Jean Louis Prieur (1732-1795), an outstanding sculptor and a Parisian chiseller, collaborated with Victor Louis on creating designs for the reconstruction of the interiors of the Royal Castle in the years 1765-6. He was also the second artist, next to the older and more experienced Philippe Caffieri, who made gilded bronzes for the Castle interiors. Not only did he then supply drawings of objects for interiors designed by Louis (the Portrait Room, the Bedchamber, the Boudoir, the Throne Room and the Dignitaries’ Hall), but he also sent the King a series of beautiful designs of vases, candlesticks and frames without specifying their destination.
In the collection of the Print Room of the Warsaw University Library, there is a substantial set of drawings by Prieur, including a design of a sconce with a figure of a caryatid (Zb. Kr. P. 183 no. 246) (1) and a design of an andiron (Zb. Kr. P. 183 no. 129) (2). Both drawings have ink inscriptions with subsequent numbers (No. 6 on the sconce design and No. 7 on the andiron design), and the name of the interior for which they were intended: Grande Salle. However, during the documented period of Jean-Louis Prieur’s artistic activity within the framework of the design by Victor Louis, i.e. in the years 1765-6, no such interior as ‘Grande Salle’ was being designed (3). Nonetheless, this term is used to name the Great Assembly Hall built in the years 1777-81 after designs by Domenico Merlini and Jan Chrystian Kasetzer. Therefore, it appears that No.s 6 and 7 on Prieur’s designs refer to a list of the furnishings of that particular Hall, which did not survive.
Drawings (pen, brush, ink, watercolour) differ from earlier drawings by Prieur in terms of:
1/ format – the sheet of paper is small, 27.1×14 cm (design of a sconce) and 25×15.5 cm (design of andirons); in the case of the sconces – pieced out – an upper strip was pasted, so the pieces of paper are therefore drafts, and are in a way careless which distinguishes them from the artist’s elaborate, meticulous drawings from the years 1765-6.
2/ way of folding: they have traces of being folded ‘in quattro’, which supposes they had been sent by post as they were folded in a format typical for letters at that time. Earlier designs by Prieur had to be sent to Warsaw in briefcases and boxes which preserved them from being damaged.
3/ way of drawing (although Prieur’s hand is unquestionable): it is possible here to notice heterogeneous watercolour shades in significant parts of the background, so that the objects gain unique depth and plasticity; we can also see here the deep black colours which were absent in earlier drawings, such as an irregular splotch on the left behind a vase on a board with an andiron; the artist also used tobacco tint in the sepia tone for both designs, which had not been the case in his earlier designs for the King.
Taking the above stylistic differences into consideration, as well as the use of the name of a hall which did not exist when the Louisian design was being prepared and executed, in our opinion, both drawings should be associated with the building of the Great Assembly Hall in the years 1777-81 after designs by Domenico Merlini and Jan Chrystian Kamsetzer. This dating has already been proposed (although only as a short note because of the character of the publication) in an inventory of furniture and other movables of the Warsaw Castle from 1795 edited by N. Ładyka (5). The preserved archival sources which we are about to analyse seem to confirm that hypothesis.
The oldest archival source which records the sconces for the Great Assembly Hall is a document hand-written by the King dated 7th March 1779, preserved in the Central Archives of Historical Records (AGAD) in Warsaw, in Archiwum Kameralne [the Chamber Archives] III/402, p.247 entitled ‘Pour la Grande Salle’. It is a list of the most important tasks connected with the furnishings and décor of the Great Assembly Hall. Item No. 2 includes a statement: “Bras de bronze dont il faut déterminer la grandeur et demander les Desseins de France avant de les commander". This royal document was received by Gen. Etienne Rieule, who copied it and annotated with information regarding how far the work on particular tasks had advanced, with a date of 19th March 1779 (AGAD, Zbiór Popielów [the Popiela Family Collection] 231, p.73). Unlike the other fifteen sections, the one concerning sconces does not include a comment on how far the work had proceeded. In consequence, it may be supposed that the design had not been commissioned before that date. However, it is possible that a rough idea of how the sconce should look had already existed.
In a document dated 6th October 1780, the King suggests gilding unspecified ten pairs of sconces or writing to Paris to make them send ten bronze sconces, specifying only their size and the number of arms: “Qu’on fera doré 10 paires de bras pour etre placés dans les 4 niches a glaces (crossed out) ou bien qu’on écrira a Paris pour faire venir 10 paires de bras de bronze, en ne précisant que la grandeur et le nombres de bougies".
Another source, Rapport général des Batisses en 1780, Château-Salle de Bal (Zbiór Popielów 231, p.213) reports that “Les dix paires de Bras et les deux grilles de cheminées sont commandés a Paris". This means that the designs which had been accepted by the King did not reach Warsaw before 1780, and that ten pairs of sconces and two andirons had been ordered in Paris from an unknown artist.
Further information concerning this order is to be found in a letter preserved in Zbiór Popielów 231, p.236. It was written by Paul Sellonf, a banker and Stanisław August’s agent in Paris, who supervised the King’s orders and paid for them. On 10th June 1781, Sellonf responds to an unpreserved letter from Warsaw from 26th May written on behalf of the King, perhaps by M. Bacciarelli. As may be supposed, the letter includes questions about the state of execution of the ordered sconces and andirons. The construction of the Great Assembly Hall was about to be finished. All the chandeliers were hung in July of that year, so the matter of the other elements of the décor was therefore urgent. Sellonf writes: “Je vois avec plaisir pour l'honneur de votre lettre du 26 du mois dernier que vous soyez satisfait de mon choix dans le Dessin des feux et bras de cheminée, j'espere que vous le serez encore d'avantage, quand vous verrez ces Articles executés, les feux sont achevés et de toute beauté, c'est le jugement qu'en ont porté des connoisseurs, qui les ont vu, on s'occupe a force de terminer les bras, et je pense que le tout sera pret pour le terme convenu et que vous aurez de la satisfaction".
It appears from the letter that the choice of a design for the sconce and andiron was made in Paris, and the chosen designs, sent to Warsaw, were fully accepted by the King. It is therefore possible that only the general guidelines had been accepted in Warsaw, and that Sellonf, together with Prieur and not alone as he writes in his letter, chose from already prepared designs which were then sent by post to the King (as is indicated by the traces of them being folded) to be accepted before the end of 1780. Sellong, in his letter, hopes that the purchasers will be even more satisfied with having chosen those designs when seeing the ready works, because the finished andirons had received very favourable reviews from Parisian connoisseurs. Work to finish the sconces was rushed so that everything would be ready by the set deadline.
We do not know whether and/or how the Warsaw purchasers, the King and his architects, in particular Kamsetzer, influenced the final appearance of the objects, nor whether their form had been suggested in any way. Detailed correspondence has not survived. What we know is that the size and place of the sconces were defined, presumably the Great Assembly Hall was described, and perhaps some drawings of it were also sent. However, it should be noted that a version of the monumental caryatids occurs among the ideas considered and later abandoned for architectural decoration for the Hall, for example in a drawing by Merlini from 1777 of female figures in antique-stylized robes which support the ceiling of the Hall, or even an earlier one by J. B. Plersch from 1765 with herms on the second level. The choice of the theme of sconces may reflect this previously abandoned concept in the monumental scale, however grateful enough for the monarch to desire its execution in the form of a chamber object distinguished by glimmering gilt and closeness to the audience. It is worth recalling here that the idea of figurative sconces was devised by Stanisław August in 1767 when sconces to the Gallery of Apollo at the Ujazdów Castle were considered. He wrote then that the sconce could have the body of a Siren or a Triton, with arms changing into twigs surmounted with bobeches.
We do not know whether the design which Prieur sent to Warsaw had been prepared at the King’s bequest, or an earlier finished one, or even a drawn reflection of an already existing model. Among the designs similar in form we may find one for a sconce attributed to Prieur, dated c. 1775 (Musée des Arts Décoratifs, inv. 8522) (6) with a rotund putto holding horns of plenty, with a similar stem to the sconce from the Royal Castle: tapering downward, with a rectangular cavity decorated with a motif of interwoven twigs and encircled with a smooth narrow strip, surmounted with a distinctive fleuron; or another design in the collection of this museum, referred to as ‘in Prieur’s style’. (Musée des Arts Décoratifs, inv. 8529) – a console table with legs in the form of busts of caryatids with the corresponding stem adorned with a motif of interwoven twigs.
Undoubtedly, not only the designs but also their execution were intended, as Sellonf wished, to impress Warsaw greatly. They were admired and even imitated. As early as 1783-4, a remarkable design, which anticipated the Empire-style designs, of a console table with winged caryatids for the Knights’ Hall was created by Jan Christian Kamsetzer. The physiognomy, robes, the arrangement of hands and even the figures’ hairstyles have clearly been modelled on the sconce for the Great Assembly Hall. (7).
The sconces were hung in the Great Assembly Hall and are recorded in the inventories of the Royal Castle from the years 1795, 1837, 1875 and 1903. In the inventory prepared after the King had left for Grodno in 1795, we find this record: “Grande Salle d’Assemblée: vingt bras de bronze doré en or moulu, a 4 branches, chacun porté par une figure de cariatide, a 30 la piece" (8). The inventory of the Royal Castle in Warsaw from 1837 (9), under no. 154 from the Column Hall states: “Twenty bronze wall candelabra in the form of human figures with four arms". The inventory from 1875 (10) and again in the inventory from 1903 (11): “Wall candelabra, bronze, gilded in the form of a figure holding in hands two candlesticks ornamented with oak twigs for four candles; twenty items, ? 50 each, i.e. ? 1000". This state is confirmed by the last preserved inventory from 1906.
In 1915, the sconces were packed up with all the Castle’s furnishings, four items per pack, into five boxes, numbers 63-67, and transported to Petersburg, from where they returned after the 1920 Polish-Soviet War under the Treaty of Riga. Subsequent reports of the boxes being opened while unpacking the sconces are dated 9th March 1922. The sconces from the boxes were entered into the inventory and marked with these numbers: box 63/II, no. inv. 01740 – 01743; box 64/II, no. 01744-01747; box 65/II, no 01748-01751; box 66/II, no. 01752- 01755; box 67/II, no. 01756-01759. The report concerning the box no. 67 included a note: “The box has not been damaged but it has been opened".
In the ‘Summary of the Inventory of the Royal Castle from 15 September 1922 with the inventory written down on 18th November 1799 after the death of Stanisław August’ we may find the opinion of that era’s curators regarding the authenticity of sconces brought from Petersburg: “Title XVII, Bronzes at the Royal Castle, the Great Assembly Hall: twenty four-candle wall candlesticks in the form of a female figure made from gilded bronze / all replaced with new copies". (12)
This opinion was upheld by Stanisław Iskierski in a catalogue entitled ‘Bronzes from the Royal Castle and the Łazienki Palace in Warsaw’ published in 1929, where he wrote: “The sconces from the Ballroom, so finely adapted to architectural conditions, earn admiration by their noble shapes. However, in reality they are just copies cast in bronze without any traces of chisel or gilt". Iskierski suggests a solution to the puzzle by pointing out the article in issue 8 of La Renaissance de L’art Français from August 1929, in which the antiquarian Foulkes offers “a set of sconces from the Ballroom of a palace of a Russian nobleman", acquired during the world war (13).
However, as we know today, the sconces offered by Foulkes in 1926 were not the only sconces from the Royal Castle on the Parisian market of antiquities. Eight sconces from that Room have formed part of the collection of the Muzeum Nissom de Camondo in Paris since 1913. They were purchased in two batches by Count Moise de Camondo for his Parisian residence at rue Monceau (currently the seat of the museum) (14).
François Pariset mentions the presence of other eight sconces from the Ballroom from the Royal Castle on the Parisian market. They were owned by Ramsay’s antiquary who lent them for an exhibition of Portuguese goldsmithing at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in 1956, which he then sold (15). This piece of information has been confirmed; indeed, the sconces in question may be noticed in photographs documenting the exhibition from the collection of the museum library (16). A similar number of gilded sconces with caryatids resembling that recorded at the Castle in Warsaw in 1906 appeared on the Parisian market. Despite strenuous archival research, it is still unknown exactly when and in what circumstances the original sconces disappeared from the Castle and when and where the non-gilded copies, rescued at great risk during World War II, were executed. Currently in the Castle Collection, inv. no. ZKW/2034/1-19, they were gilded in the 1980s.
Anna Saratowicz and Natalia Ładyka
(1) Teresa Sulerzyska, Stanisława Sawicka, Katalog rysunków z Gabinetu Rycin Biblioteki Uniwersyteckiej w Warszawie, part 1, Varsaviana, Warsaw 1967, p. 89, no. 300; inscription: “No 6. Grande Salle. Dessein de Bras exécuté a Paris". Published as a work of Jean-Louis Prieur from 1766.
(2) Sulerzyska, Sawicka 1967, p. 89, no. 301; inscription: “No 7. Grande Salle. Feux de Cheminée executés a Paris". Published as a work of Jean-Louis Prieur from 1766.
(3) The interior, for which designs for refurbishment were supplied by Louis – the unfinished Great Hall with then temporary decoration from the coronation period – was referred to as ‘la Salle d’Audience’, ‘Salle de Colonnes, or ‘Sale de Bal’.
(4) It has already been noted by F-G. Pariset in his article Jeszcze o pracach Victora-Louisa dla Zamku Warszawskiego. Biuletyn Historii Sztuki 1962, no. 2, p. 151.
(5) Inventaire Général des meubles et effets mobiliers qui sont dans le Château de Varsovie, fait en mars 1795 , Warsaw 1997, edited by N. Ładyka, p. 29, footnote on page 161.
(6) Hans Ottomeyer, Peter Pröschel, “Die Bronzearbeiten des Spätbarock und Klassizismus", Munich 1986, volume 1, p. 288, no. 4.16.1.
(7) Maciej Choynowski writes about those tables when citing them as an analogy to Prieur’s sconces: ‘Z badań nad meblami Stanisława Augusta – komoda i stół jako stałe elementy architektoniczne paradnego wnętrza’, Kronika Zamkowa [the Castle Chronicle], 67-68/2014, p. 186, footnote 142.
(8) Inventaire 1795, p.29.
(9) Warsaw 2001, translated and edited by Agnieszka Moczulska, p. 30.
(10) Zarząd Pałaców Cesarskich, Ref. 3179, volume III, ‘Brązy, lustra, obrazy, i różne ozdoby w pokojach dawnego Zamku Królewskiego, 1875 r.’
(11) Zarząd Pałaców Cesarskich Ref. 3197, volume III, ‘Brązy, lustra, obrazy, i różne ozdoby w pokojach dawnego Zamku Królewskiego, 1903 r’.
(12) The Archives of the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Inventories of the Royal Castle in Warsaw 34, k.3.
(13) Stanisław Iskierski, ‘Bronzy Zamku Królewskiego i Pałacu Łazienkowskiego w Warszawie’, Warsaw 1929, p. 4.
(14) Information from the article by Sylvie Legrand-Rossi, concervatrice en chef au Musee Nissim de Camondo, "Le bronze d’ameublement attribué a Jean-Louis Prieur (1732-1795) dans la collection du musee Nissim de Camondo" accompanying an exhibition of drawings by Jean-Louis Prieur. Sylvie Legrand-Rossi recalls notes taken when recording the purchases, preserved in the museum archives, from 6th June 1913 and regarding four sconces purchased from A. Decour; and the one from 26th January 1915, regarding another four sconces purchased from Guiraut.
(15) Pariset 1962, p.152.
(16) Documentation courtesy of S. Legrand-Rossi.