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English breakfront commode, made about 1772, by Christopher Fuhrlohg

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About the artwork

This English breakfront commode was made by Christopher Fuhrlohg a Swedish cabinetmaker and marqueter. Fuhrlohg was born in 1740 in Stockholm, Sweden to Swiss émigré parents. Nothing is known about his apprenticeship in Sweden. In 1762 he travelled as a journeyman with George Haupt (later cabinetmaker to the Royal court in Sweden 1769) who eventually became Fuhrlohg’s brother in law. They worked first in Amsterdam but by 1764 had moved on to Paris and it is probable that they worked at Simon Oeben’s workshops. It was in Paris that both men adopted the newly developing Neo-Classical style that is greatly evident in this breakfront cabinet. Fuhrlohg came to London in around 1766 to work for John Linnell.

Fuhrlohg was an accomplished marqueter and inlayer as well as being a cabinetmaker experienced in the latest Parisian fashions. His influence was vital in the introduction and development of the Neo-Classical style to this country. His work demonstrates extremely skilful execution of marquetry decoration and the subtle use of woods, colour and images.

This commode is richly decorated with marquetry motifs. It has a marquetry medallion of Diana the Huntress - in the distinctive style of Angelica Kauffmann who worked in London in the 1760’s - on the breakfront door panel and an oval floral panel on its top.

The commodes at the Lady Lever Art Gallery date from the 18th century. The word commode is derived from a late 17th century French innovation and they played a major role throughout Europe for over 100 years. The use of chests and chests-drawers had been established in most European countries, including England since the 1600s, but commodes set new standards of style and status. The chest-drawers can be traced back to the 1600s in Italy and soon after, in the Netherlands and England. It took over from the chest and the coffer for practical reasons but was ignored in France until the end of the 17th century. The French commode appears to have evolved from the writing desk/bureau or dressing table, which would have had narrow drawers to accommodate a kneehole. When the narrow drawers were replaced with larger practical drawers, the furniture became more 'commodious' - the most likely origin of the term 'commode'.

By the French definition a commode only merits its name if it has drawers. As the name suggests it was originally perceived to have practical advantages over existing furniture forms. In England many commodes of the 18th century were not in the form of chests of drawers, but cupboards with shelves. The Lady Lever collection has many commodes that do have drawers hidden behind cupboard doors. Some have an assortment of both, shelves on one side and drawers on the other.

As the commode became increasingly a status symbol and accepted as the most prestigious type of ornamental cabinet furniture, paradoxically its practical features were overridden, some English examples lack any practical function at all. It is ironic that such prestigious types of furniture were initially named for a virtue that would benefit the lives of servants.

From the start, the forerunners of the commode were always reserved for the grand apartments and not servants’ quarters. Such a distinguished pedigree accounted for the higher value that was vested in them.