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April 2023

Vol. 165 / No. 1441

Process: Design Drawings from the Rijksmuseum 1500–1900

Reviewed by Simon Jervis

By Reinier Baarsen. 404 pp. incl. 365 col. + 3 b. & w. ills. (nai010 publishers, Rotterdam, 2022), €59.95. ISBN 978–94–6208–735–4. 


The manifold collections of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, include rich holdings of the decorative arts, international in scope, with a natural bias towards the Netherlands. But unlike the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, the Museum für angewandte Kunst, Vienna, and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, products of the nineteenth-century campaign to improve design, the Rijksmuseum, a national museum of art and history, had no strong motive to collect design drawings (although the Rijksprentenkabinet, housed in the museum, contains one of the world’s great assemblages of engraved ornament). About ten years ago Reinier Baarsen, who recently retired but was then the Rijksmuseum’s Senior Curator of Furniture, had the idea of creating a collection of such drawings and engaged the generous support of Rijnhard and Elsbeth van Tets-van Tienhoven. They created a Decorative Art Fund to finance purchases, which attracted other benefactors. Some early fruits of Baarsen’s energetic campaign were presented in The Rijksmuseum Bulletin in 2016,[1] but this exhibition and its catalogue present a much larger conspectus, with 204 entries, several covering more than one drawing.[2] In late 2022 the collection, still growing, comprised some 1,300 sheets, many in large and homogeneous groups.[3] 


In recent decades two great catalogues of design drawings have appeared: that of the Lodewijk Houthakker collection in 1989, in two volumes with over eleven hundred entries, and in 2006 that of the James A. de Rothschild Bequest at Waddesdon Manor, also in two volumes and in this case over six hundred entries.[4] But both these catalogues include a large representation of architecture and ornament alongside designs for objects. The drawings in the new Rijksmuseum collection are entirely focused on objects. 


Process and its catalogue emphatically do not echo the usual arrangement of a collection catalogue by, for instance, date, material, artist, school or country. Baarsen has thoughtfully articulated his exhibits, usually consisting of a single drawing, into twelve thematic chapters, which dictate both the display and catalogue structure.[5] Most chapters incorporate designs from multiple countries and multiple centuries. One exception is devoted to a varied clutch of drawings (cat. nos.133–47) from the late eighteenth-century Valadier firm of goldsmiths; they serve as a revelatory exemplar of the range of designs accumulated in this sophisticated Roman firm’s archive, brought to international attention in an Artemis Group exhibition in London in 1991.[6] A second exception is the final chapter, ‘Towards a new art’, devoted to late nineteenth-century design in France – more-or-less in an Art Nouveau manner – although three Lalique jewels (no.203a–c) and a Sèvres vase (no.204) lap over into the twentieth. It also represents increasing professionalisation – and in several instances a consequent slickness. A third tightly themed chapter, ‘Learning to draw: the training of furniture makers’, prefixed by a rare but not entirely pertinent late sixteenth-century French design for two cabinets (no.106) once owned by Hippolyte Destailleur (1822–93), the supreme collector in the field, pursues the German system of design education as a component of apprenticeship, the Meisterriss, a formal masterpiece drawing, being an essential element. A colourful design for a Neo-classical secretaire (no.117a; Fig.2), executed in Vienna in 1816, is a seductive late flower of that tradition. Two designs for locks (nos.122 and 123), one polychrome and of virtuoso elaboration, the second monochrome and workmanlike, provide a delightful conclusion. 


Designs for engraving, records of objects and antiquarian drawings constitute three small chapters. The first includes a sugar trionfo by Giovanni Battista Lenardi for Lord Castlemaine’s embassy to Rome in 1687 (no.179), a chimney-piece by Jean Berain (no.180) and a fantastical desk by Johann Jakob Schübler (no.182), all Baarsen purchases, to set alongside a great clock by Gilles-Marie Oppenord (no.181), given by I.Q. van Regteren Altena in 1963. Elsewhere in the catalogue, a design by Jost Amman for three bases (no.003) also appears to be, pace Baarsen, conceived for engraving. As for records of objects, an apparently early seventeenth- century drawing of a table (no.185) has, so far inexplicably, four kneeling versions of the Medici lions as supports, but the show-stealer in this group is a metre-long depiction of a table centrepiece (no.188) made in 1769 to celebrate a centenary at the Dutch state printing works. In the short antiquarian section, there is a piquant contrast between Jacques- Louis David’s powerful interpretation (no.192) of a Roman throne, once at the Villa Montalto and now at Brocklesby Park, Lincolnshire, and the sole British representative, a carefully coloured drawing of c.1790–1800 by John Carter (no.193) of a seventeenth-century enamelled candlestick, which carries an inscription ‘found while repairing / the chapter house at York, in the year 1740’ (p.360). 


Drawings for church furnishings, with a strong line in beefy pulpits, are also set apart in the chapter ‘For the church’. That category, like the six others already mentioned, is easily grasped. The remaining five are more conceptual but two, not large, have clear identities: one groups drawings that display alternative treatments within the same design, including a fluent little seventeenth-century Italian drawing for a carved frieze (no.042), which prices one variant against another. The other modest category is formed by drawings that play a direct practical part in execution (most such drawings were sacrificial) ranging from a simple Austrian chair back (no.131) of 1843 to highly elaborate damascened ornament from the late nineteenth-century Madrid firm of Zuluoga (no.132). 


Of the three largest chapters, each comprising some forty highly varied exhibits, ‘Drawing to sell’ has the clearest parameters, commencing with drawings from what is probably a Tyrolean glass catalogue (no.148) of c.1590–1610 and ending with others from a French tile catalogue (no.178) of c.1860–90. Proposals for a sedan chair and a carriage (nos.150 and 151), both French, on either side of 1700, a series of Augsburg designs for silver, from an ethereal representation of ten different sizes of dish (no.154) to an almost hyperreal life-size depiction of a silver-gilt cutlery set (no.157) and a sphinx armchair of the highest refinement designed by Jean-Démosthène Dugourc in c.1784 (no.163) were all primarily intended to inform and seduce. The first chapter, ‘Designing is drawing’, covers the broadest spectrum, ranging from sketches by Baldessare Franceschini, known as Il Volterrano (no.009), Filippo Juvarra (no.018) and Giovanni Battista Foggini (no.020) to a famous Daniel Marot pier glass design for the palace of Het Loo, Apeldoorn (no.015), heavily annotated for execution, and a lushly sculptural jewel casket designed in 1891 by Alexander Kips for the Berlin porcelain factory (no.039). Its gamut extends to the crisp putti- infested border of a dish by Salomon de Bray, dated 1647 (no.008), and to a crepuscular vision of à la grecque vases in a landscape, dated 1761, by Jean-Charles Delafosse (no.026). The other large chapter, ‘The ideal design’, presents drawings created as models or as demonstrations of virtuosity rather than for execution. The former motive may be represented by a magisterial ewer by Peter Flötner of c. 1530–40 (no.054; Fig.1), the latter by two almost absurdly elaborate missal covers of c.1841–48 by Frédéric-Jules Rudolphi (no.089). Inevitably doubts are possible: was a Foggini casket design (no.065; Fig.3), formerly in the Fountaine collection at Narford Hall, Norfolk, really too elaborate for manufacture? And does the existence of a seventeenth- century pietre dure plaque of a centaur (private collection) rule out that a Charles Percier design for a commode (no.087), which incorporates a similar plaque, would have been realised? 


This review has attempted to give a hint of the exhilarating variety of drawings in Process. It is less easy to do justice to the acumen with which Baarsen has anatomised his exhibits, both as groups and individually. In the catalogue he interrogates each drawing with close attention to detail and sets out his observations with great clarity. In so doing he supplies a vast amount of contextual information, but what is truly groundbreaking is his concentration on functions within the design process, including such matters as patronage, production and promotion. Process is at once an education in evaluation and appreciation and a vindication of the potential of the Rijksmuseum’s freshly created collection of design drawings for the decorative arts. 


[1] R. Baarsen and E. van der Hoorn: ‘Acquisitions: drawings for objects’, The Rijksmuseum Bulletin 64 (2016), pp.156–91. 

[2] The exhibition opened at the Design Museum Den Bosch, ‘s Herzogenbosch (5th November 2022–12th February 2023) and is currently on view at the Fondation Custodia, Paris (25th February–14th May). 

[3] R.Baarsen:‘Acquisitions: European drawings for the Decorative Arts’, The Riksmuseum Bulletin 70, no.4 (2022), pp.374– 98, describes thirty drawings acquired since the selection chosen for Process

[4] P. Fuhring: Design into Art. Drawings for Architecture and Ornament: The Lodewijk Houthakker Collection, London 1989; and A. Laing et al.: Drawings for Architecture, Design and Ornament: The James A. De Rothschild Bequest at Waddesdon Manor, Waddesdon 2006. 

[5] Half of the 204 exhibits are evenly divided between Germany or Austria, whereas the other half is predominantly French and one eighth Netherlandish. Chronologically the eighteenth century is dominant, comprising a full half, followed by a quarter from the nineteenth century, while the remaining quarter is divided roughly into a third from the sixteenth century and two-thirds from the seventeenth century.

[6] A. González-Palacios et al.,eds: exh. cat. Valadier: Three Generations of Roman Goldsmiths. An Exhibition of Drawings and Works of Art, London (Artemis Fine Arts) 1991.