The Art of Paperwork

May 13 2011, 2:59pm

A French serre papiers, circa 1810. Carlton Hobbs LLC

The letterbox, or serre-papiers (“filing cabinet” or, from the old French, “to store” or “to gather”), was devised to sit on great writing tables to house important papers.  Like the knife boxes and cellarettes of a dining room, letterboxes were designed as independent, moveable pieces of furniture for the study, and they, likewise, evolved to take on more imaginative forms. The present letterbox takes the shape of a peltarion, or pelta, shield. These modified crescent-shaped bucklers were used prior to the 3rd century BC by ancient soldiers including the Peltasts, a type of light infantry in ancient Greece whose title derives from the shield. In figure 1, a Roman wall fresco in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, depicts an amazon warrior holding her shield. The pelta shape has been used as a decorative motif from ancient Roman floor mosaics to Renaissance pietre dura designs, such as that on the famed Farnese Table in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  It continued into the 18th and 19th centuries, where it was used in the decoration of neoclassical interiors. Figure 1: Warrior depicted holding a pelta shield in a fresco. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples. A similarly shaped serre-papiers, illustrated in Serge Grandjean’s Empire Furniture, is attributed to M.G. Biennais of Paris, circa 1810.  This letter cabinet, now in the Musée National du Château de Malmaison, also takes the form of a pelta shield and bears the arms of Empress Josephine (figure 2). Figure 2: A similar mahogany and gilt-bronze serre-papiers by G.M. Biennais, now in the Musée National du Château de Malmaison. Another pelta-shaped letterbox from Naples, circa 1810/1815, whose “model is of French origin,” 1 was previously in the Royal Palace of Caserta and of Naples. It is illustrated in Alvar González-Palacios’ I Mobili Italiani, p.92 (Milano: BNL edizioni, 1996).   The serre papiers, open. Carlton Hobbs LLC.