Secrets of a Secretaire

THIS IS A SECRETAIRE, meaning a desk with a bottom-hinged front section that falls forward to provide a writing surface. It has been donated to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art although the public cannot see this exquisite piece because it is locked in storage.

This especially light and graceful kind of secretaire is called a bonheur du jour [daytime delight]. Introduced in the 1760s to please the ladies, a bonheur du jour features a raised back with storage compartments.

Dr. G. Harry McLaughlin's grandmother Ethel used to own the secretaire. It was in her home at Lyston Hall near Long Melford, Suffolk. The large amount of wear on the velour writing surface may indicate that Ethel's father William Pawley bought it for his bride Angeline when they married in 1875.

From the end of the 1920s Ethel lived in hotels in London and Rome. She therefore gave the secretaire to her daughter Daphne McLaughlin, who lent it to help furnish historic Milbourne House, Barnes, which her aunt Winifred McLaughlin acquired in 1957. While on honeymoon in 1980, Harry and his Belgian-born bride Liliane visited Milbourne House with Daphne. When they gasped at the beauty of the bonheur du jour, Daphne gave it to them as a wedding present.

In 2006 they donated it to LACMA at the request of Thomas Michie, Curator of Decorative Arts at the time. He wanted it to be displayed in the gallery of 19th century French art. But the gallery opened without the secretaire. It has never been put on show except for a few days for Liliane's benefit before she died, as shown in this photo with Harry, Mr. Michie and Assistant Curator Bobbye Tigerman.

The secretaire is in the style of Louis XV but the signature on the lock shows that it was made in the mid-nineteenth century by Alphonse Giroux. His father, François-Simon-Alphonse Giroux, the official restorer for Notre Dame, had studied painting under Jacques-Louis David. But he gave it up to become a cabinetmaker and to run an artist supplies store at 7 Rue du Coq St Honoré in Paris from 1799 until his death in 1848. Aided by Alphonse, his workshop produced technically sophisticated furniture and luxury toys.

The French kings Louis XVIII and Charles X were among their clientele. For the Count of Chambord, a pretender to the throne, they made a superb drawing table, now listed in the official Heritage of France. In 1838 Alphonse took control of the enterprise. For the 1855 Universal Exposition in Paris Giroux capitulated to the fashionable Roccoco Revival by exhibiting a bonheur du jour with sculpted excrescences of plants and animals. The tasteless Empress Eugenie bought it for 5,500 francs and it is now, together with her portrait, in le château de Compiègne museum.

The choicer examples of a bonheur du jour, such as this one, are covered with parquetry, an overlay of wood veneers, cut and fitted to make a repeating pattern. The plain back is covered with straight-edged pieces of veneer, as in most parquetry. But elsewhere the rosewood shapes are curved like dumbbells. The cabinet maker made his task even more intricate by gently bowing outward the surfaces to which the parquetry is fixed. There is a single exception: the top is flat so that ornaments may be placed on it. To safeguard them the top is surrounded with a chased and gilded bronze gallery.

All hinges are finely engraved and all the major surfaces are embellished with the large ormolu [gilded bronze] mountings pictured alongside.

Nearly every edge is protected by a more or less elaborate gilded serpentine apron which flows into the four cabriole legs, each topped by a nubile caryatid. When the secretaire is unlocked, four drawers can be seen on either side by opening the cover doors. Hand-painted 18th century figures in garden settings grace the inner side of each door, inset on the exterior of which is a Sevres panel of putti. A similar panel is inset under the keyhole on the lid.

The key is used to pull up on the folding slant lid which can then fall forward. The lid's inner side provides the front half of a writing surface lined with blue velour.

Below the full width drawer on the far side is a metal handle. Pulling on it lifts the rear half of the writing surface, thus opening a large recess which can be used to store stationery and writing materials.

In a recess at the centre a centurion stands bold as brass. He is flanked by two Corinthian columns. The plinth supporting them all is actually a concealed drawer.

When the drawer is opened one can press on a spring hidden in the top of its frame. This releases a catch, allowing the centurion and his surroundings to be pulled away completely. One now finds that he was guarding a box suitable for secreting large pieces of jewelry.

Removing the centurion's box gives access to another hidden spring. This one is in the roof of the frame that held the box. Press the spring and a drawer concealed behind the pediment can be pulled forward.

There are more secret drawers, but they are much harder for a jealous husband to find. After determined prying in the space left by the removal of the centurion's box, a pair of ebony drawers can be made to swing out from each side. They are very small, but adequate for concealing billets doux.

Alphonse Giroux was noted for his ingenuity. After the Belgian physicist Joseph Plateau invented a precursor of animated movies in 1830, Alphonse not only manufactured and sold the device, he also named it: the phenakistiscope. To see some fascinating phenakistiscope animations click here.

Perhaps the most famous of Giroux's accomplishments was the manufacture of the world's first commercial camera in 1839. Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, having invented the first practical photographic process, went on to design the camera. To make it he chose his brother-in-law none other than Alphonse Giroux.

The camera, shown right, consists of two wooden boxes; moving the inner one focuses the picture. With its accessories the camera cost $50, half the profit going to Giroux. Within months all of the 250 cameras he had made were sold.

Only 12 original Giroux cameras remain in the world. They bear a plaque which reads: "No apparatus is guaranteed if it does not carry Mr Daguerre's signature and Mr Giroux's seal."

If you could not afford a camera you could at least purchase its description, published by Giroux, of course.

The photographer and painter André Giroux (1801-1879) was a brother of Alphonse.


© 2012 G. Harry McLaughlin.
Reproduction or transmission, in whole or in part, for other than personal use is prohibited without advance permission from Dr. McLaughlin [email: ghmcla at gmail dot com].