Turners of the Early Modern Period in France


Portrait of Charles Plumier

Plumier was a French botanist, after whom the genus Plumeria is named. Plumier is considered one of the most important botanical explorers of his time. In addition, he devoted himself to the study of mathematics and physics, made physical instruments, and was an excellent draughtsman, painter, and turner.

Plumier wrote L'Art de Tourner, first published in Lyon in 1701 and republished in Paris in 1749. Written in French and Latin, it was the first completely theoretical work on turning with more than 200 pages describing the tools, materials, and methods of ornamental lathe turning. It also included eighty plates of illustrations that accurately depicted the various components of different types of lathes as well as examples of finished works in ivory. The plates and text were drawn from Plumier's correspondence with master turners both near and far.

Example designs and lathe parts from Plumier's L'Art de Tourner en Perfection, 1701.

This enabled for the first time in history the knowledge of turning to be shared outside the workshop, breaking the tradition of an individual master of the guild who passed on skills to an individual apprentice. Not only did it provide a new method of teaching but also provided a certain degree of standardization of equipment.

For nearly one hundred years L'Art de Tourner remained the classic work on turning (until Bergeron's Manuel du Tourneur).

Gabriel-Philippe was the son of French mathematician and astronomer Philippe de La Hire, who wrote a treatise on epicycloids in 1694. His work likely made an impression on his son, who became an architect and member of the Académie Royale des Sciences.

Gabriel-Philippe studied the problems of turning, formulated exercises, and gave lectures that were later printed in the Academy's memoirs. His keen interest in geometry led to methods for precisely turning polyhedron and his theories and techniques were included in the Encyclopédie of Diderot and D'Alembert and in the later editions of Plumier's L'Art de Tourner (1749 and 1776).

Portrait of Bonnier de la Mosson by Jean-Marc Nattier, 1745.

Bonnier de la Mosson's father Joseph Bonnier (1676-1726) was the treasurer of the purse of the States of Languedoc, possibly one of the richest men in France and, when he died, his fortune went to his son. Bonnier spent ten years travelling the world creating a "cabinet of curiosity" - a collection of thousands of objects related to anatomy, chemistry, physics, mechanical devices, optic machines, fine art, and natural history. The cabinet was widely visited by likeminded learners and immortalized in a painting by Jacques de Lajoue. Drawings by architect Jean-Baptiste Courtonne (1711-1781) were made of the various rooms of the collection in 1739-40.

Bonnier had a magnificent rose engine of excellent construction, along with an assortment of 100 turning tools, the most complete and best condition that one could find. The rose engine had 16 circular rosettes of iron together with 16 other brass rosettes for swash work, screw-cutting capability, elliptical chuck, among many other attachments.

Painting of Mosson's "Cabinet" by Jacques de Lajoue, 1734.

When Bonnier died in 1744 the estate was destitute and his widow resorted to selling off the collection. Edme-Francois Gersaint prepared a 234-page auction catalogue containing 966 lots (45 lots comprised the turning portion of the collection). The auction was held on location beginning March 8, 1745. This catalog, along with the Courtonne drawing, provides a detailed look at the lathe room. Alexis Magny (1712-1777) helped with the descriptions of the tools in the workshop. (Magny worked for Bonnier as a mecanician for ten years and later went on to become famous for his microscopes.)

The rose engine sold for 1570 livres or about the same as a new, well-equipped Hardinge lathe would cost in contemporary times. It was bought by King Adolf Friedrich of Sweden for his palace at Drottnigholm. Also in the auction were a variety of ivory turnings. Read more details about Mosson | View the auction catalog

Mosson's original wall cabinet can be seen today at the médiathèque of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle.

Engraving of La Condamine by Charles-Nicolas Cochin, 1768

Charles was a French explorer, geographer and mathematician. After serving in the army, he took to scientific explorations. His group was the first to explore the Amazon in 1743 and published an account of his travels in 1745. Like Gabriel-Philippe de la Hire, he was a member of the Académie Royale des Sciences and is credited with having studied the problems of turning, formulated exercises, and gave lectures that were later printed in the Academy's memoirs.

His techniques and theories were included in the Encyclopédie of Diderot and D'Alembert and in the later editions of Plumier's L'Art de Tourner (1749 and 1776). He developed a technique for the automatic engraving of patterns on flat surfaces in order to produce portrait medallions.

Portrait of Louis XV by Maurice-Quentin de La Tour, 1748

Louis XV, known as Louis the Beloved, was king for almost 59 years (from 1715 to 1774), the second longest in the history of France. He was known to be a skillful turner. The ivory casing of a pendulum clock he worked is preserved in the Palace of Versailes.

The royal turner to King Louis XV was M. de Maubois, who is said to have provided Charles Plumier an account of the tools and techniques of ornamental turning for his book L'Art de Tourner (although the timeline for this does not match unless Maubois had done so years prior to his court appointment.)

Turned ivory ornament by Lambert Xhrouet, 1746 (H. 18") (Courtesy Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich)

Born in Spa (now Belgium), Xhrouet began as an apprentice turner in 1722 and was accomplished at the craft of ornamental turning by 1732. He became well known throughout Europe in the years following: Between 1748 and 1759 Xhrouet gave lessons in Vienna for Emperor Francis I, assisted the Duke Charles of Lorraine in Brussels on a couple of occasions, and was the appointed turner for Louis XVI, Duc d'Orléans, and the Queen of France at Versailles.

In 1760, Xhrouet returned to Spa to receive the honor of city mayor and adviser. A hollow ivory sphere turned by Xhrouet in 1746 survives in Munich. He was also a master of creating incredibly detailed miniature objects.

Mid-18th century rose engine lathe by Lambert Xhrouet

Xhrouet is documented to have constructed and delivered rose-engine lathes as early as 1740. A rose engine lathe made by Xhrouet in 1744 has a brass plate engraved with the arms of his employer, Charles Alexander de Lorraine, brother-in-law of Empress Maria Theresa, and her Governor General of the Habsburg Netherlands. Xhrouet also served as court turner to Louis Philippe I, Duke of Orléans, who owned a lathe of the same design and is also depicted in the famous Encyclopédie by Diderot and D'Alembert.

The two nearly identical lathes survive today, one at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. and one at Musées de la Ville d'Eaux in Spa, Belgium. (However, the one in Belgium is much more complete by comparison.) These, along with his other property, were divided between his son and grandsons after his death and their provenance is detailed in Making Marvels: Science and Splendor at the Courts of Europe.

Louis Michelin gold guilloché snuffbox, 1752/1753. (Courtesy The Met)

Louis Michelin began his apprenticeship in 1736 and was recognized as a master in 1751. He was active through 1781. Among his accomplishments were gold snuffboxes with guilloché engraving.

Charles Le Bastier gold, guilloché and enamel snuffbox, 1773/1774. (Courtesy The Met)

Charles Le Bastier began his apprenticeship in 1738 and was recognized as a master in 1754. He was active through 1783. Among his accomplishments were gold and enamel snuff boxes with guilloché engraving—some of the finest ever produced.

Phillippe-Emmanuel Garbe gold guilloché snuffboxes, 1756/1757. (Courtesy Christies)

Phillippe-Emmanuel Garbe was known to have been active between 1748 and 1793. Among his accomplishments were gold snuffboxes with guilloché engraving. His work was known to have been in the collection of Louis XV.

Portrait of Louis XVI by Antoine-François Callet, 1786.

Louis XVI (Louis-Auguste) was the last king of France before the fall of the monarchy during the French Revolution. The first part of his reign was marked by attempts to reform the French government in accordance with Enlightenment ideas, which was met with opposition. His credibility became increasingly undermined and he eventually found himself in the midst of both civil and international war. In 1792, his monarchy was replayced by the first French Republic.

Mercklein's rose engine, 1780, at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers, Paris.

A series of rose engines believed to have belonged to Louis XVI are still in existence at various locations: One dated between 1760-1770 is currently at the Science Museum in London. It is a combination rose engine - medallion lathe. Another made by I. T. Mercklein in 1780 is now in the Musée des Arts et Métiers, Paris. A third survives at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, where Louis XIV was born.

Rose engine lathe, possibly of Louis XVI, c. 1760, at the Birmingham Collection of Science & Industry Museum.

The fourth lathe of Louis XVI can be seen at the Birmingham Collection of Science & Industry Museum. An article by Olga Baird provides many interesting details about its history.

Photo details: This rose engine lathe is said to have come from the private worship of Louis XVI at the Palace of Versailles. It is of advanced design including various rosette patterns, rocking and pumping motion, graduated slide-rest, oval chuck, and other accessories.

By relaxing with a mechanical art, I believe, after my royal duties, I come closer to the lower classes, who are also part of my great family. King Louis XVI
Salivet was a prominent lawyer and "man of letters" who may have helped author Manuel du Tourneur published in 1792 and attributed to L. E. Bergeron.
Portrait of L. E. Bergeron

L. E. Bergeron was the nephew of a wealthy Perisian merchant who became a skilled lathe turner and opened a shop in 1776 in the center of Paris that sold rose engines, tools, lathes and materials for turning.

Bergeron authored Manuel du Tourneur in 1792, perhaps in collaboration with Louis Georges Isaac Salivet. It was a seminal work that contained numerous engravings of various objects and patterns for modelling both turning equipment and turned objects.

Plate XLV from Bergeron's Manuel du Tourneur 1792.

Manuel du Tourneur consists of three separate volumes: Volumes I and II are text only and contain no plates; the third volume, often called the "Atlas", contains all the Plates referred to in Volumes I and II.

In 1816, a second edition was re-written by Pierre Hamelin-Bergeron who also took over the turning shop after his father-in-law's death.

A contemporary translation of Manuel du Tourneur is available from The Society of Ornamental Turners.

Bergeron lathe, circa 1796.

At least one ornamental turning lathe attributed to Bergeron survives from the late 18th century, although it is not known how much of a hand Bergeron had in its actual construction.

Additional details about Bergeron can be found in SOT Bulletin #119.

Barreau's ivory and thuya wood turning, circa 1800. (Courtesy Getty Museum)

French contemporaries considered François Barreau to be the best ivory turner of the time, praising his intricate ivory forms. He spent most of his life in the town of Avignon and didn't gain notoriety until he was nearly seventy years old.

In 1794, he wrote to the newly established Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers (Conservatory of Arts and Crafts) offering his work for their collection. They purchased thirteen objects for the large sum of 3000 francs and this led to his widespread recognition. Inspired by this, Barreau moved to Paris in 1799 and installed himself at the Conservatoire where he worked in secret, careful not to share the techniques for producing his delicate objects with other craftsmen.

His final work, which he called a Kiosk, was a complex ivory tower produced for Napoleon I at a price of 2000 francs. Other sphere-in-sphere and intricate ivory turnings survive in museums, some at Le Musee des arts et Métiers in Paris, and at least one at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, CA (pictured here).

Photo details: Curiosity Cabinet Object (objet de curiosité) -- François Barreau (French, 1731 - 1814) -- Paris, France; about 1800 -- Thuya wood and turned ivory -- 49.5 x 20.6 cm (19 1/2 x 8 1/8 in.)

Portrait of Charles X (Count of Artois) in 1798 by Henri-Pierre Danloux.

Charles (Charles Philippe) was created Count of Artois at birth by his grandfather, the reigning King Louis XV. As the youngest male in the family, Charles seemed unlikely ever to become king, but his eldest brother, Louis, Duke of Burgundy, died unexpectedly in 1761, which moved Charles up one place in the line of succession.

A long and detailed history can be read on Wikipedia, culminating in Charles' older brother becoming King Louis XVIII in 1814. However, with increasing poor health, he died in 1824 and Charles X became King of France from 1824 until 1830. Unfortunately, he was rather unpopular and eventually exiled with having the distinction of being the last of the French rulers from the House of Bourbon.

Lathe of the Count of Artois, 1773.

Charles is known to have worked at a rose engine lathe at Versailles in 1773, which still survives today.

Photo details: The rose engine lathe of the Count of Artois. It was installed at his residence in the south wing at Versailles in 1773.

How much useful knowledge is lost by the scattered forms in which it is ushered into the world! How many solitary students spend half their lives in making discoveries which have been perfected a century before their time, for want of a condensed exhibition of what is known!

Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707 - 1788)