This ‘nécessaire’ was a gift from Joseph Fouché, Duc d’Otrante (1759-1820), to his future wife, Ernestine de Castellane (1788-1850), a few days before their marriage on 1 August, 1815. And it was to the official goldsmith to the Imperial Court that Fouché turned, namely Martin-Guillaume Biennais, when commissioning this sumptuous wedding present. Marquetry specialist, cabinet maker and goldsmith, Biennais had set up shop « Au Singe Violet », that is, under the sign of purple monkey, in Rue Saint-Honoré. One of his speciliaties was the production of ‘nécessaires’, in other words, portable boxes commonly known as ‘travel nécessaires’, of different sizes, containing a maximum number of accoutrements in a small space. Napoleon owned several of these large ‘nécessaires’ in vermeil and silver (Musée Carnavalet, Musée du Louvre), also called portemanteau ‘nécessaires’ for the smaller variety.
The ‘nécessaire’ was an object of great refinement, and the one commissioned by Fouché contains seventy-five pieces in a hollowed-out mahogany box, decorated on the top with a palmette frieze and lyre motifs, an escutcheon engraved with the monogram CF beneath a ducal crown surrounded by laurels and, on the side of the box, branch motifs and gryphons. The interior of the box is arranged symmetrically around the central bowl containing a three-layered inset, on each layer of which all the utensils required for meals, washing and needlework slot perfectly into the spaces allotted to them. Around this fit a multitude of small objects, boxes, cases, flasks, and the elements for a ‘tête-à-tête’, in other words, cups and saucers, a teapot, a strainer, coffee pot, chocolate pot, burner, tea caddy, and jug, all in chased vermeil and engraved with an antique style frieze of mythological characters (the Three Graces, cupids, peacocks, etc.) and palm and lotus leaf motifs. The way in which all the pieces are set into the box is remarkable and reveals Biennais’s virtuosity – indeed, if a single piece is wrongly inserted the box will not shut. A draw to the side contains a portable writing surface with two inkwells, a penholder and a pair of compasses – there is also a secret box. On the underside of the lid is an octagonal mirror. By pressing a small button this can be removed to reveal an ensemble of portfolios in green and red gold-leafed morocco.
Karine Huguenaud (tr. P.H.)
This object is one of the masterpieces of the Fondation Napoléon’s collection, which you can learn more about here.