The British, for some reason, always feel a bit in awe of anything French, be it good food (haute cuisine), fashion (haute couture), or art (beaux arts), but perhaps slightly less when it comes to fine pieces of early antique furniture where we tend to think we can hold our own.
However, it doesn’t really help that many antique furniture pieces have French names, thereby assuming that the art of writing ie escritoire, was somehow the invention of the French, or it gets worse, the commode again assuming that efficient ways of dealing with sanitation amongst the very wealthy was again down to the French.
If we look at a 1774 Paris made commode by Gilles Joubert, it is really the most fabulous Rococo transitional phase construction of marble, marquetry on tulipwood, all on an oak frame with gilt bronze mounts that you will ever see. The word commode means convenience (so that’s were the name comes from), and they were introduced around 1700 in France. Originally these pieces of furniture were mainly for storage and there would often be a pair of them, perhaps flanking a chimney piece, or standing central on two walls within a room.
The commode came over to Britain around the middle of the 18th century and their elaborate designs were adopted by Thomas Chippendale to describe his ‘French Commode Tables’ in his 1753 Directory. The commode became associated with toilets later, where wealthy Victorians would place their chamber pots in the bedside commode overnight to be collected by the servants in the morning.
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