Baroque silver at Versailles

In 1698/9, William III commissioned a massive silver table and mirror from the London silversmith Andrew Moore, partly to embellish Kensington Palace, but also to score an ostentatious point against Louis XIV. This spectacular ensemble celebrates the Peace of Ryswick, signed after England and France had fought each other to exhaustion. A skilled engraver, probably Romeyn de Hooghe, engraved the tabletop with both the French and English arms and symbols of victory, in a public diplomatic riposte to William’s enemy, Louis XIV. Notoriously, the French king had sacrificed all his silver furniture a decade earlier. Although the English Crown was almost equally hard-pressed after its long war with France, William III knew the importance of magnificence. Lent by The Queen to Versailles this winter, this set vividly expresses the competitive edge behind late Baroque splendour.

Louis XIV presents an intriguing duality: repeatedly at war with other European rulers, the French king was still seen as the stylemaker for all European courts, embodying a certain ideal of magnificence. Until March 2008, his long-vanished interiors at Versailles, glittering with mirrors and silver lighting, chimney furniture, and sets of tables and stands, will dazzle again, thanks to loans from palaces and former princely collections across the Continent. A sequence of six state rooms the Salons of Venus, Mars, Hercules, Apollo, Diana, Mercury and Abundance is dressed with princely furniture, designs by Charles Le Brun, engravings and textiles, culminating in an evocation of Louis XIV’s Audience Chamber, where he received foreign ambassadors on a silver throne. A gold-thread tapestry from the 1720s, showing Louis inspecting new commissions at the Gobelins, is a glimpse of the extraordinary confections that surrounded the Sun King.

One of the three silver lions from Rosenborg Castle, symbolic guardians of the Danish throne since the 1660s, has travelled to France; statues of Minerva, Athena and Jupiter by the Drentwett family, from the Green Vaults in Dresden, are rare survivals of figurative silver; and large chased buffet dishes, diplomatic gifts to Moscow, embody an older concept of magnificence. Also from Copenhagen is a triad of filigree-embellished oak, made in Paris for Frederick III in 1669, which reflects the widespread court taste for filigree. Louis’s mother, Anne of Austria, left him more than 100 examples.

The sheer scale of the solid- silver objects in the exhibition is striking, most notably the chandeliers with Hanover white horses designed by William Kent for George II. Three of the original six are reunited at Versailles, sent from a private collection and from Anglesey Abbey. Another intriguing chandelier, made for William Cavendish, Earl of Devonshire, just before his elevation to the dukedom in 1694, has putti straddling its branches. Rehung at Chats-worth this year, as part of the duke’s representation of his state rooms, its journey to Versailles is a generous gesture.

Louis XIV’s interiors were emulated from Stockholm to Vienna and from Moscow to the Hague. Foreign goldsmiths came to Paris to absorb the latest designs and techniques, as the Dutch-born Adam Loofs did before returning to the Hague as court goldsmith to William of Orange. A great rarity is the pair of wheeled ‘chafing tables’ supplied by the much-travelled French silversmith Jean Henri de Moor to the Danish court in 1690. Their purpose was to keep food hot when dining en hermitage, that is, without servants, a custom enjoyed at the Danish and German courts. A little-known suite of table, stands and mirror, made in Augsburg for the Esterházy family, is accompanied by no fewer than four sets of Augsburg sconces from Forchtenstein Castle, depicting the Elements, the Seasons and the Arts, practical items which have survived in far greater profusion than larger silver furniture. Indeed, so essential were sconces for all sorts of occasions that London goldsmiths kept stock to hire out as late as the 1730s.

The exhibition takes the story of silver furniture 20 years beyond Louis’ death, through loans from Hesse, Marienburg and Potsdam. Princes and noblemen in Scandinavia, Germany and Russia had better access to silver mines than France, and retained their taste for silver chandeliers, sconces, fire screens and tables. It is regrettable that no loans were requested from Knole, as the French mirror sconces, hanging in the King’s Room there, were among Henrietta Maria’s possessions in 1669. ‘Quand Versailles était meublé d’argent’ is at Versailles until March 9, 2008 (