NEWS: Exhibit of the month March

French furniturelock with key, 17th/18th century

This masterpiece of French forging in steel cut technology has a special story to accompany it. A story of separation and reunion.To select as an object of the month a French masterpiece, which was perhaps never installed, requires some explanation.

Beautiful locks with outstanding craftsmanship, meticulously forged and cut, artistically completed, cherished and preserved and finally exhibited in the museum, can be found in many European museums for applied art. These objects have never been installed and used – they stand as a symbol of technology, beauty, creativity and craftsmanship. And that is why they are part of the inventory and exhibitions of these special museums.P1160786

The lock with the Inv. No. 8014, however, is not simply an exhibition piece. The keyhole is hidden, as is the unlocking or locking mechanism. Saint Anthony is in high-relief on the small puzzle doors and stands under a filigree round arch, cut in iron. It is flanked by two twisted columns with ionic capitals. Between their volutes small heads in high-relief can be seen.

The main motif of the decoration is S-bows and stylized acanthus leaves, centred in the round arch of the letter “A”. The same A is also found on the crown of the lantern of the key – without doubt, the lock and the key belonged together – also doubtless, because the complicated teeth fit perfectly into the key ward of the lock and locks it. The two pieces were produced together centuries ago, but their paths separated until the year 2016, when the key and the lock were reunited at the Schell Collection in Graz. The key found its way to the museum by purchase in 2007. The lock came to auction in France in 2013 and was bought by Hanns Schell in 2016 with the knowledge that the two pieces belonged together.

French smiths were required to produce a very elaborate test piece to obtain the master’s title – and the lock here, including the key, is such a piece. The French scholar Duhamel du Monceau expressed himself very critically in 1769 about these locks. “The work would take very long. The key and the lock were so heavily weighted with ornaments, pierced ornaments, carvings, and articulations, and provided with such a great number of teeth and marks as the teeth on the combs, as well as holes which were exceedingly difficult to drill, that an industrious and skilful worker spent a half year on many keys: the key and the castle together occupied him for a year, and some as long as two years.

This whole occupation, however, did not amount to anything more than to reveal a piece of work of very bad taste and equally bad practicality. Although four locking mechanisms on the locks, they had only a half-closure, and the arrangement of them could easily be disordered. As for the figures of the keys, they were particularly ridiculous… Instead of the ordinary bows, they had a square capital, on which were four sharp corners, which must have necessarily injured the hand of the one who grasped them carelessly.… At the same time, skilled workers were trained by these ridiculous and at the same time also bad works. There will be little work to be found that could not be entrusted to a man who had made such a key and such a lock. “[1]

With great certainty, it can be assumed that the lock was never installed. The superbly forged and cut lock and key consists of countless items which could only be made and assembled by very skilled craftsmen. Here, a true master of the art of locksmithing has hidden himself, which, apart from the letter A, did not set a trademark, and moreover, severely restricted the opening and closing process for strangers.P1160791

To open and find the keyhole, a hidden slider must be moved so that in the middle part, Saint Anthony opens downwards on a hidden door. After this, the left, pierced side wall must also be opened by means of a hidden slide. When this door is open, there are three sliding doors which can be actuated by hand when locking. Opening is done with a key which unlocks two of the three latches. The top bar, the so-called night bar, is moved again by hand.

About the iconography: Saint Anthony, as a hermit in the desert, resisted all temptations, such as intemperance and unchastity, but he fought with demons, and so the symbol of vice was assigned to him in the form of a pig. He is portrayed with a book, a bell, and a T-bar as the patron of the pigs, and their speck was used as a remedy for the Antonius fire (poisoning by mother’s grain). Antonius the Great, the hermit, leads the pig as his attribute and behind the figure on the lock, a pig can be seen. The Order of the Antonites was entirely in the service of the sick, and had the right to let the “Antonius-pig” run free for fattening through the whole village.

Parts of the relics of the saint can now be seen in France, in the monastery of Saint Antoine near Grenoble – they were brought there from Byzantium around 1070.

In the key (Inv. Nr. 6354) can be seen the true splendour of the art locksmiths. These toothed keys or lantern grip keys, as they are called in the professional world, are the “blue Mauritius” of every collector.

The key bow, crowned by a lantern with an inset letter “A”, passes over into the rosette, which has the stylistic repetition of the Ionian capitals of the lock. On the sides of the rosette are mounted the faces of two fauns with pointed ears. This is followed by a ferrule which is doubly convex and pierced. The key bit is soldered to the hollow mandrel with a double-set tube, which itself shows 8 lamellas and 5 piercings (“Pertuis”).inventnr-6354-rgb

On the production of the keys and the number of slats in the key bit, Duhamel du Monceau reports:  „The key bits of the locks were with Pertuis, pierced, which had no commonality with each other, nor with the edges of the key-bit. The fewest Pertuis (slats) that one had were seven. They were assigned to those who wanted to become masters for masterpieces. Those to whom they were designated, who wanted to become masters, and who had no privileges, ranged from seven to twenty-one .“[2]

This means that each master had to produce a key with up to 21 (!) Slats. Only locksmiths who had learned in Paris or who had already married the widow of a master, had privileges. In addition, every candidate had to file one lamella more on the key than his predecessor. “He who wanted to be a master was very unhappy when the number of Pertuis was already large: his work became much more difficult, and this was due both to the Pertuis and to the additional work which he had to do.

As this type of masterpiece was aimed chiefly at educating as few lock-smiths as possible, and thus holding down the competition, in 1699 the statutes, which had been in force since the time of Charles VI in 1411, were modified for easier examination pieces.

The Schell-Collection in Graz has 21 slatted-key and five of these French locks[3], which served as examination pieces.

The new aspect of these locks was the technique of iron cutting and these locks were hammered on the outside (in contrast to most German castles where this was not visible from the outside), and they followed closely the prevailing taste of the French Gothic. Tracery, fish bladders and rosettes as they were known from the great cathedrals in Paris, Chartres or Strasbourg.

The iron cut is executed like the engraving in a cold state. First, the mould has to be forged, in order to be further processed with drills, chisels and awls. This extremely elaborate and time-consuming work demanded a hardened tool. For hardening, the files, sticks, and other cutting tools were heated several times to glowing heat and immersed in cold water or cold oil. After that, the utensils were capable of “cutting” the hard iron.

The lock and the key presented here is an exceptionally rare and well-done example of early forging technology. And although it was installed on the outside of the piece of furniture and was recognizable as a lock, it concealed the opening mechanism and was hardly able to be opened by those unfamiliar with it. In addition to the knowledge of the technology of iron and the complicated interplay of bars, hooks, and springs, material knowledge and craftsmanship were reserved for masters of this profession, and hidden from all others.

[1] Monceau, du Duhamel: Die Schlosserkunst, Leipzig, 1769, p. 332 f. He took over the treatise of Réaumur from the beginning of the eighteenth century.

[2] Comp. note. 1.

[3] Pall: „Key and Lock“, Graz 2012, Page 131 ff.

Text: Mag. Martina Pall

Previous exhibits of the month:

Exhibit of the Month February 2017










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