Who would not wish for a cabinet like this one?
The Roentgens' Berlin Secretary Cabinet
In 1753 his father Abraham Roentgen, who had trained in London in the workshop of William Gomm, migrated to the Moravian settlement at Neuwied, near Coblenz, where he established a furniture manufactory. David learned his trade in his father's workshop, and succeeded to the paternal business in 1772, when he entered into some kind of partnership with the clockmaker Kintzing. At that time the name of the firm appears already to have been well known, at all events in France; but it is a curious circumstance that although he is always reckoned as one of the little band of foreign cabinetmakers and workers in marquetry who, like Jean-François Oeben and Jean Henri Riesener, achieved distinction in France during the last years of the Ancien Régime he never ceased to live at Neuwied, where apparently the whole of his furniture was made, and merely had a shop, or show-room, in Paris.
Roentgen was first and foremost an astute man of business, and Paris was the style center of Europe. Before very long Marie Antoinette appointed him her ébéniste mechanicien. He appears, indeed, to have acquired considerable favor with the queen, for on several occasions she took advantage of his journeys through Europe to charge him with the delivery of presents and of dolls dressed in the Paris fashions of the moment; they were intended to serve as patterns for the dressmakers to her mother and her sisters.
He appears at once to have opened a shop in Paris, but despite, and perhaps because of, the favor in which he was held at court, all was not smooth sailing. The powerful trade corporation of the maîtres ébénistes disputed his right to sell in Paris furniture of foreign manufacture, and in 1780 he found that the most satisfactory way out of the difficulty was to get himself admitted a member of the corporation to which all his great rivals belonged. By this time he had attracted a good deal of attention by the introduction of a new style of marquetry, in which light and shade, instead of being represented as hitherto by burning, smoking or engraving the pieces of veneer, were indicated by small pieces of wood so arranged as to create the impression of pietra dura.
We have seen that Roentgen had been appointed ébéniste-mechanicien to Marie Antoinette, and the appointment is explained by his fondness for and proficiency in constructing furniture in which mechanical devices played a great part. The English cabinetmakers of the later eighteenth century often made what was called, with obvious allusion to its character, harlequin furniture, especially little dressing tables and washstands which converted into something else or held their essentials in concealment until a spring was touched. David was a past master in this kind of work, and unquestionably much of the otherwise inexplicable reputation he enjoyed among contemporaries who were head and shoulders above him is explained by his mechanical genius. The extent of his fame in this direction is sufficiently indicated by the fact that Goethe mentions him in Wilhelm Meister. He compares the box inhabited by the fairy during her travels with her mortal lover to one of Roentgen's desks, in which at a pull a multitude of springs and latches are set in motion. For a desk of this kind Louis XVI paid him 80,000 livres. Outwardly it was in the form of a commode, its marquetry panels symbolizing the liberal arts. A personification of sculpture was in the act of engraving the name of Marie Antoinette upon a column to which Minerva was hanging her portrait. Above a riot of architectural orders was a musical clock (the work of the partner Peter Kinzing), surmounted by a cupola representing Parnassus. The interior of this monumental effort, 3.4 m high, was a marvel of mechanical precision; it disappeared during the First Empire.
Roentgen did not confine his activities to Paris, or even to France. It has been said that he traveled about Europe accompanied by furniture vans, and undoubtedly his aptitude as a commercial traveler was remarkable. He had shops in Berlin and Saint Petersburg, and himself apparently twice went to Russia. On one of these visits he sold to the Empress Catherine furniture to the value of 20,000 roubles, to which she added a personal present of 5000 roubles and a gold snuff-box in recognition, it would seem, of his readiness and ingenuity in surmounting a secretaire with a clock indicating the date of the Russian naval victory over the Turks at Cheshme, news of which had arrived on the previous evening. This suite of furniture is believed still to be in the Palace of the Hermitage, the hiding-place of so much remarkable and forgotten art. The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars which so speedily followed, eclipsed Roentgen's star as they eclipsed those of so many other great cabinetmakers of the period. In 1793 the Revolutionary government, regarding him as an émigré seized the contents of his showrooms and his personal belongings, and after that date he appears neither to have done business in Paris nor to have visited it. Five years later the invasion of Neuwied led to the closing of his workshops; prosperity never returned, and he died half ruined at Wiesbaden on 12 February 1807.
According to his biography in the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition of 1911, Roentgen was not a great cabinetmaker: "His forms were often clumsy, ungraceful, and commonplace; his furniture lacked the artistry of the French and the English cabinetmakers of the great period which came to an end about 1790. His bronzes were poor in design and coarse in execution; his work, in short, is tainted by commercialism. As an in-layer, however, he holds a position of high distinction. His marquetry is bolder and more vigorous than that of Riesener, who in other respects soared far above him. As an adroit deviser of mechanism he fully earned a reputation which former generations rated more highly than the modern critic, with his facilities for comparison, is prepared to accept. On the mechanical side he produced, with the help of Kintzing, many long-cased and other clocks with ingenious indicating and registering apparatus. Rontgen delighted in architectural forms, and his marquetry more often than not represents those scenes from classical mythology which were the dear delight of the 18Th century." He is well represented at the V&;A Museum in London, and other collections.