The buffet a deux corps is one of the grandest of all pieces of French furniture, literally meaning a buffet in two bodies it can incorporate many variations, but always one piece is set upon a slightly larger piece (thus two bodies!). In the Anglo-American tradition this form is much rarer. England has a few china presses and housekeeping cupboards. American has a tradition of Pewter Cupboards which are enclosed at the top and often glazed–perhaps our melting pot brought this European concept to the colonies at an early stage and its usefulness for storage as well as display was appreciated. For whatever reason, we have a long tradition of “step-back cupboards” and “Pewter Cupboards” showing every regional characteristic imaginable throughout America.
In France we have a range of forms from every region, sometimes a simple tow part piece, each with two doors; sometimes a buffet enfilade a deux corps–three or more doors and drawers in each section, thus “in a line”–enfilade; sometimes a “grand” piece, a particularly imposing or flamboyant piece; sometimes a grand buffet a deux corps horloge, one incorporating the movement of a tall case clock (very rare). Currently you will find on our website every type of buffet a deux corps including one with a clock–please examine all of them after reading this study–each has a lesson in design and history to offer.
What we are now going to examine is a truly delicious example from Vire in Normandy–wood, carving, mounts–it has it all as you will see. (WOF-2114Z on our website)
This example is of solid cherry with brass escutcheons, drawer pulls and hinges–the latter aspect, brass rather than steel, is typical after the late 18th century when brass replaced steel almost exclusively. The essence of this piece is pure neoclassicism–floral and repetitive carved motifs repeated over and over moving up the entire surface to the rather resplendent multi-tiered crown molding. Detail shots will reveal the intricacy of these carved motifs.
As you look at the apron detail, keep referring to the full view photo–you will see that while the entire piece is robustly carved, there is successful movement upwards so that this truly massive piece actually has a graceful presence that lifts the eyes ever upward–the most important visual statement accomplished by every fine cabinetmaker. This apron has a centered urn of flowers flowing delicately across the base. It will be repeated in various iterations to the top.
(NOTE: if you view the photo details on our website you can blow-up the thumbnails for even more intense study.)
A brilliant device of this cabinetmaker was his use of slightly arched upper doors to move the eye upward. Above the robust carved upper panels of the doors is an arching panel with the urn of flowers again–beginning tight and spreading outwards.
Here the cabinetmaker has literally crowned his achievement with a rounded corner on the crown molding and repeated several carved motifs to help again lift the eyes to the very top. The molding conforms to the outset columns which grace the entire piece–and note those columns are stop fluted top and bottom–and each stop contains a line of tiny bellflowers which are of differing lengths to further the appearance of lightness and grace. The center flute up and down is longer than its flanking flutes. (Stop flutes are the reverse of the flute, which is a rounded gouge, and partially fill the gouge or groove with, normally, a reed ending in a little sharp point. In this case the reeds become flowers for their last few inches!)
Now let’s open a lower door.
If you have not noticed, the exterior has a gorgeous color and consistency–the finest cherry selected for every inch of this piece. Inside we see several important aspects of successful cabinetmaking. The elegant door panels are floating within a four piece frame cut to reflect the desired and intriguing shape of each panel–these frame rails are actually very thick to allow for the robust carving (see above full length photo. Note that the shape of the base of each door panel is reflected across the bottom line of the apron. Observe also the stock of the timbers (thickness) used for that apron as well as the corner upright stiles–all of which must be fitted together with large and substantial mortise and tenon joints. Yet there is a minimal number of pins or pegs–this cabinetmaker made these joints with incredible precision. Of course, unlike his English counterpart, the French cabinetmaker did not glue these joints–each peg could be rapidly popped out, the piece dismantled in a few minutes, transported to the new owner’s home and erected in place, again in just a few minutes. In England every piece was, with a few exceptions, shipped in expensive crates to its new home in only a few pieces. The Gillow firm offered their clients substantial rebates on shipping charges if they returned the crates! And according to surviving records the English often had goods heavily damaged in shipment, sometimes sending a craftsman to the home to repair the piece on site.