Sunday, July 17, 2011

Winning Bid: Directoire Bouillotte Lamp

Several weekends ago, in pursuit of yet more silver for the entertaining household, I attended a weekend auction in the neighboring town that included several pieces of silver I fancied.  The auction featured the contents of a number of what once must have been rather sumptuously decorated Fifth Avenue apartments of days gone by, along with the contents of several country estates (quite possibly belonging to the same city dwellers also featured in the sale) spread across northwestern Connecticut and along the Hudson River Valley.  I came to the sale to bid on a large silver punch bowl and a silver cigarette box (a weakness of mine, even though I gave up smoking years ago), both of which I am pleased to have won.  I won't be posting on either of those winning bids, however, as each prominently (and beautifully) displays the engraved names of the fortunate couple who received them as wedding gifts more than fifty years ago, and who—I have since learned from a mutual acquaintance—are still alive, but no longer have much use for such possessions.  I respect their privacy.

My recently acquired Bouillotte lamp,
lit with candles, and reproduction

18th-century playing cards at the ready

While at the sale I found myself bidding on, and winning, a silver-plated Bouillotte lamp of the Directoire period.  Just as I have a weakness for silver cigarette boxes, so have I weakness for Bouillotte lamps, which I consider to be the perfect occasional lamp for one's household.  Well, at least our household.  With the addition of this latest acquisition to our collection, we now have six Bouillotte lamps scattered about Darlington House.

So, what is a Bouillotte lamp, you might ask?

The Bouillotte lamp, with unlighted candles

A Bouillotte lamp is a type of lamp that was used to provide light during night-time games of Bouillotte, a card and counter gambling game popular in France from the late eighteenth century well into the nineteenth century, supposedly similar to the modern game of poker.  The lamps feature a dish-shaped base, designed to hold counters (chips), a central shaft with a movable candelabra attached to the shaft with a key, a movable metal or tole shade, also attached to the shaft with a key, and a ring at the top of the shaft that can be used to pick up the lamp or hang it from a hook.  Because both the candelabra and the shade are movable, and slide up and down the lamp's central shaft, Bouillotte lamps are a highly versatile form of lighting, and can be adjusted to shield the game players' eyes from the candles' flames as they are burned.  Bouillotte lamps provide a most pleasing, directed form of light to one's table.

A detail of the key that is used to fasten
the candelabra to the shaft of the lamp

Most Bouillotte lamps are electrified today.  Old ones made before the days of electricity, such as the one I found at auction, have in many cases been subsequently electrified.  Newer ones are routinely made as electricified lamps (and oftentimes as a result do not have as many movable features as the original ones do).  Half of the Bouillotte lamps that we have at Darlington House are old and were originally made to hold candles.  The other half are of a more recent vintage and were electrified when made.

Here the lamp is shown with the candelabra
and shade at the low end of the lamp's shaft

Most of the Bouillotte lamps we own are electrified, but a few of them are not.  We like to use a candle-burning Bouillotte lamp on our dining table at night when it is just the two of us for dinner.  When lit with candles a Bouillotte lamp casts a most lovely and intimate light.

Although one wouldn't normally slide the
candelabra and shade to the top, I am showing
it here to demonstrate the lamp's versatility

Bouillotte lamps have been popular forms of lighting since they were first made, and they are frequently seen in photographs of chic, classic interiors of upper class tastemakers of the latter half of the twentieth century, such as those of Brooke Astor, Jacqueline Onassis, Bill Blass, and Cy and Alessandra Twombly.  Bouillotte lamps work well in both traditional and modern interiors.

A detail of the key used to fasten the tole
lampshade to the shaft of the lamp,
and the ring used to carry or hang the lamp

When I attended the auction on the day it was held, my sole purpose for doing so was to bid on the silver bowl and cigarette box.  I did not go expecting to buy a Bouillotte lamp.  Not only did we not "need" another, but lamp buying was simply not on my radar screen that day.

The discarded candle-form electric sockets

I arrived at the sale well before the silver bowl or cigarette box lots were up, in the middle of the auction's household furnishings section.  I noticed that there were probably five or so Bouillotte lamps of varying quality in the sale, some first (pre-electrification) period and others later.  The first two lamps were hammered down at remarkably good prices (Bouillotte lamps tend to be rather expensive), which perked up my interest (Reggie being one who appreciates a bargain), and I found myself bidding on the sole Bouillotte lamp that I had admired at the preview, a diminutive silver one with an old tole shade.

Residual evidence of the lamp's later electrification

Within a minute or two I found myself to be the owner of the lamp.  I was relieved when I picked it up to bring it home with me that it appeared to be first period, made in the late eighteenth century.  While it was catalogued as Directoire style, I am convinced it is of the Directoire period, dating from 1795-1799.  This was confirmed to me by Isaiah Cornini, the architectural historian we work with at Darlington House, who is an expert on early period lighting and whose opinion I trust in such matters.

The Bouillotte lamp, restored to its
original functionality

Since we didn't "need" another Bouillotte lamp, Boy decided to de-electrify my purchase so that we could use it with candles.  He pulled out the lamp sockets and wiring, and in so doing restored the lamp to its original functionality.  Although the lamp was unfortunately (but discretely) drilled in a number of places when electrified, it is easy to have such holes plugged by knowledgeable silversmiths, which I shall do at some point.  Or not.

Tell me, do you have any Bouillotte lamps in your house?


  1. i don't have one, and , damn you, now i want, no, NEED one.....

  2. I don't have one, but I DO have the perfect spot for one ... lovely. Enjoy your beautiful treasures.

  3. That's a beautiful find, Reggie, congratulations. I love that period/style as well, though in our rambunctious household most nice things meet a swift and untimely end so for now I admire from afar.

  4. Hello Reggie:
    Such a very elegant form of lighting to have in the dining room or, indeed, anywhere else. We were delighted to learn that you have restored the lamp to its original condition rather than leaving it wired for electricity.

    Unfortunately, we do not possess a Bouillote lamp but can confirm that our dining room is, more often than not, candle lit.

  5. I have a couple plus a few of similar form but not true Bouillotte lamps. I really love decorative lamps and light fixtures, especially those that can accommodate candles in addition to discreet electric bulbs. Your new acquisition is a beauty!

  6. I do -- I have two -- both of the "second" period -- one a bit older (and therefore nicer) than the other. The "nicer" one was bought at an Estate Sale of a Judge in the city -- in my younger days, when I was a legal secretary, he often heard my bosses cases.

    I do covet one with candles -- sigh -- your lamp is terrific!!!

  7. Now, i have learnt something wonderfully new. MM, I am going to have to start looking for one. You have started a trend!

  8. Reggie, a beautiful lamp and you have a very discerning eye! It is truly lovely.


    Art by Karena

  9. Don't you find need is a relative word? I prefer to associate it with the spirit versus the practical realm of everyday. At least that's what I tell myself when I buy certain things... Your silver Bouillotte is gorgeous! Love the color candles you paired it with.

  10. I love coming here and learning something new!

    Bittersweet that the sellers no longer have a use for their wedding presents, but nice that you will enjoy, use and appreciate them anew.

  11. Oh I have one of these, bought back in my single days, I absolutely adore these lamps, they are just beautiful and fit in with any interior - I hope Boy agrees with me on that one!

  12. Since I am on a never-ending quest to make my surroundings as simple as possible I tend to avoid most light fixtures in my price range as hideous. The few I do have are from Target and Ikea.

    Of course, I completely admire your impeccable taste and love these posts. It is just that a Bouillote is neither within my budget or suitable for my house.

    xox Camilla

  13. Oh Reggie, what a marvelous find you made! I am so very jealous! I wish you much enjoyment and pleasure in your lovely find. Jane

  14. I love Bouillotte lamps as well - as you say, a classic that can go anywhere. Yours is lovely - you did obviously well at the auction. Also love the sound of your punch bowl.

  15. Bouillotte lamps are very good but Candelabra are even better i feel.

  16. Reggie,
    You beat me to this post...and of course so well done I shall not even bother. I love Boullotte lamps and (stupidly) let one go some time ago. I have been on a recent search for a new one for the top of a small secretary. I think a lovely way to spend the day would be to just "shop" for one at your house ;)

    The mention of the one you use on the table with candles is just a fantastic idea as I am always unplugging a candlestick lamp with shade on ours!

  17. Reggie,
    I'm reading a novel that takes place in France in the 1790's and now can picture the characters aglow under the suttle lighting of bouillotte magic. Love the shade on this, its shape and age.
    Fascinating, as always

  18. Reggie, you are in such august company with the purchase of this handsome lamp! I was recently looking at a copy of Jacques-Louis David's portrait of Napoleon in his study (it hangs at the National Gallery of Art), and there is a bouillotte lamp just like yours.

  19. I should stop reading your "new acquisition" postings, Reggie, as they always leave me feeling somewhat envious. I'm also a fan of the bouillotte lamp and have four of them in my living room. Unfortunately I couldn't possibly afford to buy genuinely antique bouilottes, so all of mine are newer versions of the design. My favorite employs swan figures that hold up the candle cups(?). Sounds tacky, I know, but it's really quite nicely done. And that particular lamp only cost me fourteen bucks and some change (plus shipping), as I found found it on eBay, misidenitifed and poorly marketed.

    I've never before seen a silverplated version of a bouillotte before, so your lamp is especially intriguing, and I never knew the bases of these lamps were meant to hold poker chips either. Interesting! Thanks for sharing both the information and the lovely images.

  20. Une Femme: You might reconsider--Bouillotte lamps are made entirely of metal, so are more forgiving to the attention of rambunctious little hands than one might think...

    Jane and Lance Hattat: I encourage you to keep your eyes out for a Bouillotte lamp to add to your lighting collection(s). But you will find, as I have, that it is difficult to only have one of them...

    Martha: I am sure that yours are quite lovely. Our later, reproduction ones are quite handsome. I am not at all opposed to owning reproductions, so long as they are well made and have some patina to them.

    David Toms: Thank you, you will enjoy having one when you find it.

    My Notting Hill: You are correct, "need" is a word vested with meaning for many of us. That is why I used it in quotations in my post.

  21. Beautiful. The contrast of the green candles is perfect.

  22. Patsy: It is indeed somewhat bittersweet that the owners of the bowl and cigarette box no longer have use for them. Particularly since the engraving on them is both lovely and thoughtful. I don't believe the lamp was their's.

    Bourbon: Yes, Boy does agree with you!

    Camilla: We both appreciate each others' taste. I fully expect that I will come to a point when I want to simplify and streamline, as you are. At the end of the day it is just "stuff."

    Acanthus: It is funny how things turn up when we aren't searching for them. There was a time that we were looking to buy Bouillotte lamps, and could hardly find them, and the ones we found were often out of our price range. At this sale there were five of them (most unusual) and the prices they were hammered at were very reasonable!

  23. JWP: One has a most vivid connection with those who came before us when one has something, such as a Bouillotte lamp, that is antique and that is as useful and functional today as it was when it was first made. When lighting this lamp, and using it to illuminate our table, I do feel as if time has gone into a warp, and I could be enjoying its light at any time over the more than 200 years it has been around, lighting tables. I often play a little game of considering what people would be wearing, and how rooms would be decorated at specific dates over a possession's life, say--in this case--1799, or 1840, or 1915, or 1970...

    MDR: Now, that Napoleon fellow sure knew the impact that style and decoration could have, considering his clothes, furnishings, palaces, and more. Imagine that a head of state today could have anywhere near the level that he had. But then, I suppose it helps to be an Emperor, at least for a while!

  24. Anon 1:53: I suspect that I may have a similar swan-supported Bouillotte lamp as yours, and agree that it is most handsome. I have come across silver Bouillotte lamps, such as my recent acquisition, in the past, but only infrequently. Although I got it for what I consider to be a very good price (less than what a new pair of Gucci loafers costs), your "find" of one for only $14 is a true score!

    Tess: Thank you for commenting on the candles. I thought I might get a few "tsk-tsk" comments for using green candles (as opposed to "anything so long as they are white"), and am pleased that you like them, as do I. So summery!

  25. Hello Reggie,
    I always enjoy reading about your finds and discoveries for your home--and the restoration process. Your minatures would look great next to these lamps. BarbaraG

  26. The lamp is beautiful and I think the green candles are lovely really add a glow. I was unfamiliar with the style and now shall have to keep an eye out for one.

  27. REGGIE-

    You are going to start a run on bouillottes...if not indeed a rush and a stampede. And a good thing, too.
    Yours is a fine example, very chic. It has wonderful charm and integrity.
    You will have it for the rest of your life--and will enjoy it every time you see it.
    Cheers, DIANE


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