From the October/November 2014 Issue:

The Occasional Table

    By: Leslie Gilbert Elman |

The adaptable, elegant guéridon turns up in all sorts of places

Article Photo
enlarge | Winged classical figures form the tapered legs of this gilt bronze guéridon made in Paris around 1810. The top is alabaster. Attributed to Pierre-Philippe Thomire, who was an artistic director at the Sèvres porcelain manufactory before being appointed engraver and furniture maker to the Emperor Napoleon I, it is offered for sale by German antiques dealer Peter Mühlbauer. Photo courtesy of Kunsthandel Peter Mühlbauer, Pocking, Germany
The Grove Dictionary of Art defines a guéridon as a “small ornamental pedestal table or stand, usually ornately carved with a circular top. Early examples are tall, fragile structures...used as holders or supports for candelabra.” This is accurate, of course, but it only scratches the surface of what a guéridon can be and has been through the ages.

A guéridon that Philippe Caffiéri made for King Louis XIV in the 1660s and that’s now in the collection of the Louvre, measures 1.45 meters in diameter—nearly 5 feet. That’s not small.

The French Cubist painter Georges Braque is known for his series of “Guéridon” paintings in which he placed various objects—such as a guitar, a bowl of grapes, playing cards, a bottle of rum—on top of the guéridon in his studio. It’s not particularly ornamental.

A Dutch play written by Jacob Campo Weyerman in 1713 uses the word guéridon to refer to a table on which tea is served. That’s not the purpose for which a guéridon was intended originally.

Article Photo
enlarge | This guéridon was made in Berlin around 1800-1810. Its legs are mahogany and the top and lower shelf are white glass. What makes this guéridon special are the bronze mounts made by Werner and Mieth, the premier German bronze workers of their day. It is offered for sale by the German antiques dealer Frank C. Möller. Photo courtesy of Frank C. Möller Fine Arts, Hamburg, Germany.
Shedding Light
In the 17th century, when guéridons came into vogue, they were fancy candle stands that held candelabra to light a room. To light a large room would have required a number of candelabra and a number of guéridons to hold them. There were hundreds of guéridons in the palace of Versailles, for example. For a party or social gathering, they would have been placed on the periphery of the room, often in front of mirrors that would reflect and intensify the candlelight.

As historian Donna Bohanan explains in Fashion Beyond Versailles, French interior design style of the late 17th and early 18th centuries was based on the principle of “reiteration.” Objects and furniture were made in pairs, multiples or variations on a theme so a room was furnished as a “suite” of coordinated pieces made from the same materials and decorated in the same manner. “To have a set of [guéridons] flanking and matching a table or commode, and perhaps a matching mirror hung over the table, would have made an important design statement,” she writes.

Guéridons also were made to accompany desks, card and game tables, and sofas and chairs. They were small, lightweight and portable, which allowed for “task lighting” wherever it was needed.

Specimen Tables
As time passed, the role of guéridons expanded. They became “occasional” tables, accent pieces or works of art in their own right. One of the most famous is a guéridon made for Madame du Barry in 1774. Now in the collection of the Louvre, the tilt-top table stands on a mahogany tripod base. Its top is inlaid with plaques of hand-painted Sèvres porcelain so perfect and refined that covering them with anything, let alone the dripping wax of candles, would be unthinkable.

The guéridon’s design evolved from a single pedestal to the sturdier, but no less elegant, three-legged style that has come to define guéridons today. A more stable and balanced base was able to support heavier, more elaborate tabletops such as the ones you’ll find on guéridons of the Napoleonic era.

Napoleon Bonaparte rekindled interest in guéridons in the early 19th century, turning them into showpieces. They became almost like elaborate display cases for the marvelous goods the emperor accumulated, such as specimens of various colored marble from Italy, malachite from Russia, alabaster, lapis lazuli and Egyptian porphyry (see “Purple Passion,” Design NJ, February/March 2013) that were cut and pieced into geometric mosaics.

More fabulous still is a guéridon that famed jeweler Peter Carl Fabergé made for Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II around 1917. Carved from exotic palisander wood, its top is made from nephrite (a type of jade) and its trims and mounts are pure silver, right down to the silver-capped lion’s paw feet on its four legs. This guéridon is now in the collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.

Why Guéridon?
The origin and development of the guéridon is easy to understand. Its name, however, is a mystery. The word “guéridon” is French, but its origin is unclear.

One story says that Guéridon was the name of a Moorish slave who helped the Christians to defeat the Muslims during the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. (If you’re a fan of mystery novelist Linda Fairstein, you might recall two characters discussing this in The Bone Vault.) It’s a nice story, and it would explain why the pedestals of many early guéridons were carved in the shape of a Moorish figure carrying a tray, but it might not be true.

Another theory says Guéridon was a household servant in the employ of Louis XIV. That’s even less likely, although it might explain why, in the restaurant business, guéridon is the name for the three-tiered service cart used for the tableside preparation of dishes such as cherries jubilee or Caesar salad.

The word guéridon appears in a song written by the 12th century French troubadour Gace Brulé, which long predates the Battle of Lepanto and Louis XIV, but its meaning and connection to furniture is unclear.

So let’s just say a guéridon is a guéridon—something historic and elegant that you’ll find in many forms and styles. Guéridons regularly come up for sale at auction and through fine antiques dealers at prices that range from four to six figures depending on age, provenance, materials and workmanship. They are fine additions to any room. You’ll use them occasionally and admire them always.

Leslie Gilbert Elman is the author of Weird But True: 200 Astounding, Outrageous and Totally Off the Wall Facts. She writes about antiques and other subjects for Design NJ.