Object of the month: Napoleonic medal cabinet by Biennais

Purchased with Art Fund's help by the Victoria and Albert Museum, this piece is perhaps the best example of French imperial furniture in Britain.

Martin Guillaume Biennais, medal cabinet, c1810 © Victoria and Albert Museum

Martin Guillaume Biennais, medal cabinet, c1810

The cabinet was originally believed to have been made by Parisian cabinet-making firm Jacob-Desmalter et Cie, with mounts by Biennais, but now it appears far more likely that it was made entirely by the Biennais workshop. It is one of few works by him residing in Britain; others tend to be objects like small travel cases but nothing of the cabinet's size or historical and artistic value. Biennais' signature can be seen engraved in the cabinet's lockplate.

Martin-Guillaume Biennais (1764-1843), the cabinet's maker, was the French Imperial goldsmith, and he based its design on a drawing by the French artist Dominique Vivant-Denon (1747-1825). Denon's work, in turn, is inspired by a ruined Egyptian temple pylon at then-Apollonius Parva, now Qus, in Upper Egypt. It was published in the turn of the 19th century as part of his authoritative account of Napoleon's military campaign in Egypt.

In 1788, after Biennais initially trained as a turner, he became a master tabletier, a crafter of luxury goods for personal and travel use, using materials such as wood, mother-of-pearl, metal, and ivory. He opened a Parisian shop that year and his business was very lucrative. He diversified his firm’s output, expanding into cabinet-making on a smaller scale and subsequently into goldsmithing.

Medals had a central role in collecting during the Napoleonic era. New ones were a huge part of the Emperor's  propaganda and were used as a reminder and celebration of his great victories. Napoleon and his master of the mint, Denon, were collectors of ancient medals. It is not known who this medal cabinet was crafted for, yet the excellent craftsmanship implies it was for someone important. 

The cabinet was designed in a way that combines burr amboyna (thuya) veneer with silver mounts. Both crafting materials were precious and sensitive when worked. Its inside, where the drawers are, is layered in mahogany. The drawers themselves and their runners are made of solid mahogany. A small ebony band also circles the top edge.

On the cabinet's front and back a silver scarab can be seen, supporting a sun, sitting at the centre and top. The motif is flanked by two ureai (the stylised cobra snakes) which are in turn entwined round stalks of lotus. On its four sides, and banding around the cornice's low end, are mouldings inlaid with engraved silver. Inlaid strips of silver run vertically around the cornice. The cornice also has a silver plaque in the shape of an Egyptian winged disc on which a sun motif sits, also flanked by the two snakes.

The item holds several surprises: its door is opened by poking one of the uraei in the eye, unveiling a keyhole. The door that subsequently opens shows 41 medal-holding drawers. The drawers are trapezoids, and come in two sizes - the top 21 are 1.27 cm tall and the lower 20 are 1.905 cm high. Each individual drawer can be opened by lifting one of the wings of the inlaid silver bugs, scarabs or bees.

Napoleonic design utilised symbols to propagandise the Emperor's power but also to signify imperial inheritance from ancient civilisations. The winged disc represents the sun and showcases divine and, consequently, royal power in ancient Egypt. It would be found at court and temple entrances flanked by ureai, like here, and in Qus. The scarabs, meanwhile, symbolise rebirth. The bees, however, are linked to a different grouping of Napoleonic symbols: the insect was one of the most important patterns of Napoleon’s rule, connecting him to the 5th-century French Merovingian monarch, Childeric I.

The medal cabinet was acquired with Art Fund's support and it is currently on display in the V&A's new permanent Europe 1600-1800 galleries.

Venue details

V&A (Victoria and Albert Museum) Cromwell Road London SW7 2RL 020 7942 2000 www.vam.ac.uk

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