This series of articles dedicated to the company of the ceramist Émile Muller in Ivry gives an overview of his work in the field of Art Nouveau. In this first article, we address the history of the company and the variety of his works. A second article will focus on Muller’s production in the Art Nouveau style, the third and fourth articles on Hector Guimard’s model editions and a fith on the fireplace sector.
Émile Muller (1823-1889) was born in Altkirch in Alsace, near Mulhouse. Coming from a well-to-do family, he completed his studies in Paris, graduating from the Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufacture in 1844. He was then a professor of civil engineering for 24 years, starting in 1864.
His involvement in the field of education is also shown by his participation in the foundation of the Special School of Architecture and the (Paris) Free School of Political Science (now Sciences-Po). He also presides over the Society of Civil Engineers, where he will have Gustave Eiffel as his successor. Motivated by social ideas, after having built several public facilities, Émile Muller built a workers’ housing estate in Mulhouse in 1853, the first French experiment in decent family housing with gardens. He was also committed to protecting workers from industrial accidents.
The following year, in 1854, Émile Muller founded a tile manufacturing company in Mulhouse, then a few months later bought a large piece of land to found the Grande Tuilerie d’Ivry (the large Ivry tile plant), located on the banks of the Seine, on the Paris-Basel main road, near clay quarries in the southern suburbs of Paris. A showroom and sales room will be opened at a date that we do not know, but probably much later, at a more prestigious address: 3 rue Halévy, near the Paris Opera House.
At the beginning the factory produces interlocking tiles using the process patented by the Gilardoni brothers, also from Altkirch.
Roofing accessories are an important part of the production because they make it possible to customize a building. A number of special models are therefore created by several architects, which can then be edited.
After starting the manufacture of enamelled products in 1866, the Grande Tuilerie d’Ivry diversified its activities by producing raw and enamelled bricks and terracotta facade decorations, both raw and enamelled. Their composition allows them to be fired at high temperatures, making them waterproof.
In 1871-1872, Muller provided his first large-scale architectural decoration for the Menier chocolate factory’s mill in Noisiel, the world’s first building with a load-bearing metal structure, designed by the architect Jules Saulnier.
Soon after, in 1875, the factory had 150 workers. Muller is of course present at the Universal Exhibitions, the one of 1867 and the one of 1878 where he ensures the success of architectural ceramics. At the 1889 Universal Exhibition, the domes of the Palais des Beaux-Arts and the Palais des Arts libéraux adorned with his turquoise-blue glazed tiles caused a sensation. He also presented glazed stoneware tiles for the first time.
For the first time, he also presented enamelled stoneware, including a copy of the Frieze of the Archers from the palace of Darius I in Susa (Persia) brought back to the Louvre by the Delafoy expedition in 1885-1886. This frieze was later supplemented by a decoration of columns and flower boxes with lions for the winter garden of a private mansion in 1893, before being offered by catalogue and invoiced according to the number of archers requested.
It was at the end of the exhibition that Émile Muller died on November 11, 1889. His son Louis (1855-1921), known as Louis d’Émile, succeeded him as head of the company, whose name became “Émile Muller & Cie”. While keeping the production of enamelled bricks and mechanical tiles at the Grande Tuilerie d’Ivry, Louis d’Émile Muller opens up now fields of operations for the factory.
A good understanding of this article requires prior reading of the two previous articles. The first one deals with the fake subway surround sold by Bonhams in New York and the second with the other fake bronze surrounds known in the United States.
Let us recall that Guimard worked for the CMP from 1900 to 1902. Starting in 1903, the company used his models to equip accesses of different widths with orthogonal bottomed uncovered surrounds as well as secondary accesses, the last of which were installed in 1922. In all, 167 Guimard structures were created. In 1908 the first removal of an access was recorded. Episodic in the twenties, the dismantling of Guimard accesses then multiplied and their number recorded a first peak in the thirties. After the end of the Second World War and the taking over of the CMP by RATP in 1945, removals slowly resumed in the 1950s and soared in the 1960s. A first protection order at the ISMH (historic monuments directory) in 1965 only concerned a small number of accesses and it was not until 1978 that full protection was finally granted to them. By that time, 79 Guimard accesses had been dismantled. Many of the remaining uncovered areas had their fragile portals replaced by a Dervaux candelabra. In the absence of parts in stock from the Guimard structures that had been dismantled decades ago, the maintenance of the remaining accesses necessitated, as early as 1976, the ordering of new parts made by overmoulding at the GHM foundry. This process induces a slight shrinkage of the copies due to the shrinkage of the metal during the cooling that follows casting. From 1983 onwards, a new generation of cast iron is produced with exact dimensions by creating new models in cast aluminum. It was finally in 2000 that RATP carried out a complete restoration campaign of the Guimard accesses, restoring them to the appearance they have today.
Common characteristics of false bronze surrounds
All the copies of bronze surrounds discussed in our two previous articles (we exclude the one from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.) show strong similarities between them. These surrounds never include the original base stone. They are always found with an orthogonal base and never with a rounded base. While the number of modules in length is variable and sometimes incomplete, the number of modules in width is always three — the most common configuration on the Parisian network— which corresponds to a hopper of about three meters and makes it possible to determine the width of a sign holder. The upper part of the sign holder of these surrounds has a slightly rounded shape, which we will come back to later but which determines an increase in the height of the sign. These surrounds never contain the original sign (whether it is made of enameled lava or red sheet metal with stencil letters), which would be expected when dismantling an old surround. In two cases, the sign is made of painted sheet metal with a discordant lettering (red sheet metal with white lettering such as the big M for Toledo; yellow sheet metal with green lettering such as the big M for the Phillips sale in New York). The Houston surround is made of two copper alloy plates, painted and riveted on an iron rim with a correct but approximate large M surround lettering. In the case of the Bonhams sale the sign is simply missing.
The detailed photos provided by the Bonhams auction house showed us the initial appearance of the painting of these false surrounds.
But a more precise study is provided by the state report of the Houston surround written by Steven L. Pine in 2002. It mentions a first coat of burnt Sienna earth-colored paint on the bronze, then the concomitant use of a dark chrome green paint and a white paint for the reliefs. This first paint application is probably the one that prevailed for most of the false bronze surrounds since we find it almost on the corner post of the Chayette & Cheval sale in 2019. The forgers did not push the abnegation to the point of multiplying the repaints, whereas the old elements of the Paris subway have undergone over the years multiple painting before their restoration in 2000 when they were stripped and repainted. For the surrounds of Toledo and Houston, exposed outside, a new, more recent painting was carried out. The one in Houston is covered with green epoxy paint enhanced with white on the reliefs.
The uncovered bronze subway surround sold in 2019 by Bonhams in New York City was in fact the fourth fake surround of this nature that we have been informed of, all of which are present on American territory. We present them below in the order in which they came to our knowledge but which is not the chronological order in which they were manufactured and sold.
Phillips Sales in New York
The first bronze copy is an incomplete uncovered surround comprising a portal and only nine modules. It was sold on May 24, 2007 by the Phillips Auction House in New York on Liveauctioneers. Estimated at $450,000 to $550,000, it was sold for $340,000, At that time we did not know that its modeled pieces were made of bronze.
We thought we had lost sight of it when we recently received the photo below, taken at the Driehaus Museum in Chicago.
This series of three articles develops an aspect dealt with in the book Guimard L’Art nouveau du metro, published in 2012 by La Vie du Rail. In it, we use the terms “old” or “authentic” Paris metro surrounds, “copies” and “fakes”, which must first be explained. We consider as “authentic” or “old” the surrounds and ædicula of the Paris metro whose elements have been edited according to Guimard’s models from the creation of the metro in 1900 until after the First World War in 1922. However, the Guimard metro entrances currently present on the Parisian network are only partly authentic because many of them have undergone more or less complete restorations since 1976, which consisted in replacing missing elements with copies. These were reissued first by overmoulding, then with new moulds with exact dimensions. It is with these copies of elements that in recent years the RATP (the Paris metro company) has supplied complete surrounds to metro companies in various foreign cities (Lisbon, Mexico City, Chicago and Moscow). These are copies of surrounds, but not “fakes” in the legal sense of the word, since there was never any question of passing them off as old Parisian surrounds. However, we will look at a series of copies of surrounds that are indeed fakes because they were created with the intention of selling them as authentic.
In March 2019 we were contacted by the representative in France of the American branch of a well-known British auction house: Bonhams. They suggested that we give our opinion on an “exceptional Guimard ensemble” and that we write the presentation leaflet for its sale scheduled for June 2019 in New York. Sensing what it could be about and contrary to our usual practice, we responded favourably to this request. We then received confirmation that it was indeed a new Parisian subway surround that was being sold in the United States.
As we are beginning to have some experience with the “new-parisian-subway-surrounds-being-sold-in-the-U.S.A. ” and not wishing to show our hand at this point, we immediately asked Bonhams New York for more information.
The first thing we wanted to clarify was the nature of the metal used for the shaped parts of the surround. As we expected, we were told that they were made of bronze. This fact alone implied that these pieces had been overmoulded and cast in a material other than the original pieces (1) and that the railing was therefore a copy.
We also asked for additional photos, focusing on points where we were pretty sure we would find something to comment on. The photos provided to us supported the copy hypothesis by showing that some of the modelled pieces had a different aspect from what they should have and that their assembly suffered from errors and approximations.
In addition to the requested photos, Bonhams Auction House provided us with two documents:
– a copy of an inventory, undated, written by Mr. Dean P. Taylor in Fresno, California, and addressed to Mr. Joe Walters in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
– a certificate of authenticity drawn up in English by the French expert Mr Nicolaas Borsje on 9 July 1993. It refers to a metro surround purchased by Mr Arnold P. Mikulay in 1991.
In order to facilitate the description of an uncovered surround, we recall below the names we have given to its constituent parts:
1- pillars (cast iron).
2- arches (cast iron).
3- upper sign holder (cast iron).
4- lower sign holder (cast iron).
5- stirrups (cast iron).
6- helmets (cast iron).
7- crests (cast iron).
8- signaling bowls (originally in blown-moulded glass then replaced by moulded synthetic material).
9- badges (cast iron).
10- hoops (cast iron).
11- middle posts (cast iron).
12- corner posts (cast iron).
13- flames (U-shaped irons made of rolled steel, cut and bent at the ends).
14- irons (U-shaped irons made of rolled steel).
15 & 16- blades (rolled steel bars).
17- base stones (Comblanchien).
18- sign (enamelled lava).
So we sent Bonhams Auction House the following sales pitch:
It is delightful to realise that research on Hector Guimard continues to yield surprises. There is a basic part of the architect’s production where much remains to discuss and discover: furniture and interior decoration.
For instance, recent and thorough-going research on the French Village Townhall, Guimard’s chief contribution to the 1925 International Exhibition on Decorative Arts, yielded a very interesting discovery: two oak chairs for the Mayor’s Office have just been identified.
Acquired from an antique dealer by a fervent Art Nouveau admirer who was intrigued by their silhouette, the chairs didn’t reveal their origin.
A few months ago, the chairs changed owner and a photo appeared proving that they did indeed come from the building imagined by Guimard for the 1925 Exhibition.
This discovery is important for several reasons. First of all, it enhances our knowledge of that building which was rather singular but relatively neglected by fans of our favourite architect-decorator because deemed less interesting than his creations predating World War I.
To date, only two almost identical photos of the building’s interior have been known. And yet they differ on a basic point: only one of them shows three (!) chair backs by the Mayor’s desk. Thus the pair of chairs placed for the Mayor’s assistants were accompanied by a third, perhaps an armchair for the Mayor himself. The photo in question clearly shows that the third chair was different from the other two, having a gold coat-of-arms, an evident symbol of the Mayor’s rank. What became of the armchair? Despite our research we still haven’t been able to find it.
Above all, however, we think that the interest of these chairs is that they are a unique example of furniture designed by Hector Guimard towards the end of his creative period.
Was it not customary to say – with no later examples – that World War I put a stop to furniture creation by Guimard?