In the 18th century, Europe’s cabinetmakers were able to produce a range of high quality and unique furniture items that remain unparalleled to this day and which are still highly sought-after in modern times. The largest and most wellknown production sites for luxury goods were to be found in London, and especially in Paris. Therefore it is all the more surprising that the Roentgen workshop, or rather manufactory, in the small town of Neuwied in the Central Rhine Region was able to establish itself as a manufacturer of luxury furniture with patrons throughout the whole of Europe. It is estimated that the firm produced around 2,000 such items, almost all of which were intended for the European aristocracy.
Behind this success story were two personalities: Abraham (1711–1793) and David Roentgen (1743–1803). Although father and son, the two were influenced by entirely different life experiences. The foundation for their success, however, was laid by Abraham Roentgen. He was born in Mühlheim as the son of the Protestant carpenter Gottlieb Roentgen (1675/1680 –1751). Today, the town of Mühlheim, located on the right bank of the river Rhine, is part of the city of Cologne, but in Roentgen’s times it belonged to the Protestant Duchy of Berg and, endowed with the rights of freedom, also permitted freedom of religion.
Following his apprenticeship in his father’s workshop, Abraham Roentgen became a journeyman in 1731. He first travelled to the Netherlands before arriving in London in 1733. The methods of workshop organisation and labour that he encountered there seemed highly unusual to the German-born and guild-bound craftsman. Following the great fire of 1666, guild structures had been abolished in London. The strict separation of trades was thus no longer valid. There was division of labour, the number of workers was no longer restricted, advertising was permitted, and it was possible for businesses to sell everything from the raw material of wood to finished furniture products all from the same source. Larger manufactories worked together with suppliers from various other trades or with so-called working masters, who were independent craftsmen. Thus, they were able to produce large quantities of pieces as inventory for anticipated customers as well as make items to order. Alongside these organisational structures, Abraham Roentgen also learnt many new techniques. He became especially adept in the making of inlays in ivory, mother-of-pearl, brass, and finely engraved wood, as well as fine carving and elaborate mechanisms, and soon established such a good reputation that he was “sought out by the most skilled cabinetmakers”.
Alongside cabinetmaking techniques, Abraham Roentgen also adopted many stylistic characteristics of English furniture in his repertoire. His pieces often incorporate typically English elements such as cock bead mouldings on drawer faces, pigeonholes, or the form of deeply moulded apron known as the kettle bottom. He also adopted English styles of furniture feet, such as the claw and ball, club foot, pad foot, and bracket foot, and specifically English types such as the harlequin table, tripod table and tea chest would later form part of his product palette.
Whilst in London, Abraham Roentgen also met Nikolaus Ludwig Graf von Zinzendorf (1700–1760), the founder of the Moravian Church community. He was so impressed by the ideals of this Evangelical, pietist church that he joined them in 1738. The brotherhood was committed to living life strictly according to Christ’s commandments. They considered Christ, the “merciful King in Israel”, to be ever present. All important decisions were made by drawing lots, in the assumption that the Lord’s will could be recognised in this way.
Their community was founded upon a sense of brotherly love, mutual obedience, humility, communal life, responsibility for each other, and a strong orientation towards the hereafter. They considered themselves not just a religious association, but the members’ entire lives were organised around the church. The goal was to create an independent, and where possible self-sufficient, social and economic community. They were also not merely concerned with the spiritual welfare of their brothers and sisters, but also took care of their material welfare in the case of illness or old age. The “common credit” served as both the community’s cooperative bank and as a pension and health care fund for all of its members. Life in the community was strictly regimented. Girls, boys, single people, married couples, and widows lived in separate chapter houses which also included the corresponding schools and workplaces.
In many ways, the Moravian way of life went against the Absolutist status quo of the 18th century. Only particularly open-minded rulers tolerated this religious community and allowed them to settle. Due to the constant danger of being expelled from their places of residence, the community’s members did not invest their capital in real estate, but instead in loans to each other, which were repaid with interest. An important principal of Moravian philosophy was the idea that all products should be manufactured in exceptional quality in the best possible materials, and this explains the excellence of the Roentgens’ furniture. Cheap woods or shoddy craftsmanship are nowhere to be found. Another important principal of Moravian business is that goods should be offered at a fair and non-negotiable price. Thus, the Roentgens never allowed themselves to become involved in haggling.
Abraham Roentgen married fellow Moravian church member Susanna Maria Bausch (1717–1776) from Frankfurt in 1739. The choice of spouse was also decided by drawing lots. In 1741, he founded a small carpentry workshop among the brotherhood at Herrnhaag near Büdingen. The first commissions he carried out were for the local aristocracy. Stylistically, the pieces he produced are highly similar to English models and are frequently decorated with inlays of engraved brass, mother-of-pearl, or ivory. In place of mahogany, which was favoured in England but incredibly costly to obtain in Germany, he used woods such as cherry, oak, and walnut.
The Roentgen family — which by then numbered nine persons — moved to Neuwied on the Rhine with 33 other members of their community in 1750, where they founded another workshop. Count Friedrich Alexander zu Wied-Neuwied (1706–1791) accepted the Moravian community, which had been expelled from Herrnhaag, in his residential city and there they established a Moravian quarter consisting of two blocks of houses and a central church hall, the basic form of which can still be seen in Neuwied’s city plan to this day. Abraham Roentgen’s workshop flourished in Neuwied, and he succeeded in developing it into a manufacture that was on a par with London businesses in terms of size and organisation.
In 1764, Abraham Roentgen initially refused to accept the right to citizenship in Neuwied when it was offered to him. It would have meant that he would have been forced to join the carpenters’ guild and thus reduce the size of his workshop and give up the English style of organisation. He only accepted citizenship when the Count agreed to exempt him from the obligation to join a guild. His customer base continued to grow and alongside the Counts of Wied-Neuwied, he was also supplying furniture to clientele from the most distinguished and prosperous circles of society. Abraham Roentgen was highly active in seeking out new customers, and also offered his goods for sale at the bi-annual Frankfurt trade fairs. In advertisements, he described himself as an “English cabinetmaker” working for “both the French and the English courts”.
The furniture of the Roentgen manufactory is characterised by its exceptionally high quality and technical refinement. The marquetry motifs comprising of diamond mosaics, bouquets of flowers, and figural scenes based on the works of artists such as Nicolas van Berchem (1620 –1683) and Januarius Zick (1730 –1797) reflect the highest standards of décor. The interiors of the pieces are often no less spectacular than their outer facades and often amount to works of mechanical genius.
Since the workshop not only produced items to order, but also as inventory stock, they required costly investment in high quality materials, salaries, and payments to supply firms. This money had to be acquired somehow. This was especially challenging during the precarious times of the Seven Years’ War (1756 –1763). The manufactory came into financial difficulties during the 1760s. In addition to the high production costs, the construction of the firm’s own house on Pfarrstraße in Neuwied and the repayment of loans granted by the “Common Credit” also put a strain on the manufactory’s liquidity. The furniture warehouse was overflowing and bankruptcy seemed inevitable. The situation was so dire that the Moravian community asked the Roentgen family to leave Neuwied.
According to Moravian belief, success was a sign of God’s blessing, so bankruptcy soon posed questions as to possible moral failings. In this situation, the family’s eldest son, David, was its strongest advocate. Born in Herrnhaag in 1743, he was raised according to Moravian principals. The community paid particular attention to the education of their children, and their curriculum included lessons in art, science, the humanities, and languages such as French. Thus, children in the Moravian church were often provided with a far better education than many of their peers outside the community. At age six, David Roentgen was sent to schools in Marienborn, Lindheim, and Niesky. This education enabled him to move freely within aristocratic circles, where a knowledge of the French language and of mythological scenes and symbolism was indispensable.
He presumably began his apprenticeship as a carpenter in the family firm when he was ten years old. Unlike his father Abraham, David Roentgen had never worked according to guild regulations but had been taught entirely in the modern spirit of a free enterprise using division of labour. This should be taken into account when analysing the differences in business practices between father and son. Part of David Roentgen’s plan to save the manufactory in 1767 was to hold a lottery in Hamburg in which the warehouse stock was to be raffled off, much to the displeasure of the brotherhood. The lottery was carried out on 22nd May 1769. In order to ensure its success, he used targeted advertisements, making a list of 100 prizes and travelling throughout the countryside presenting part of the furniture which was to be included. 700 lots at 3 ducats each were raffled off. The lottery was a success and the company’s finances were saved.
Contrary to popular belief, the lottery was not the reason for David Roentgen’s exclusion from the Moravian community. A letter sent from Neuwied to the Moravian church syndicate council in Herrnhut on 16.08.1767 already reports that, “the eldest (David Roentgen) is no longer listed in the catalogue (list of community members)”. This decision was also made by drawing lots. David Roentgen had been a thorn in the community’s side for some time, it was already reported to the syndicate council on 23.04.1767, “We have here a family, that of Abraham Röntgen, with three sons, all of them terrible children. The eldest, who rules over the entire household, is a miscreant.” In order to avert some of the damage that would have been brought on by his own looming expulsion from the brotherhood, Abraham Roentgen transferred part of the family firm to his eldest son David in the latter part of 1773.
David continued to lead his part of the firm from a house constructed opposite the brotherhood’s block in 1774. As Hans-Jürgen Krüger was able to prove, the two Roentgen manufactories existed side by side for some time in Neuwied. Abraham was “a supplier to David from 1773 to 1775”, or rather, since he also produced furniture himself, he was the head of a “branch”. Abraham gradually relinquished the running of his part of the firm in the course of the year 1775. He remained active in his son David’s manufactory until 1784, witnessing its continued expansion into a fabrique with business connections throughout Europe.
Johannes Juncker’s (1751–1817) portrait of Abraham Roentgen from 1772 depicts him in middle-class attire, holding a design sheet in his left hand upon which are shown bronze furniture mountings in the contemporary Neoclassical style. We see a set of compasses and a pen in the left edge of the image. In the work, Abraham Roentgen presents himself in his role as a working cabinetmaker and ebéniste à la mode.
Author: Dr. Ursula Weber-Woelk
Dr. Ursula Weber-Woelk
2006–2007 Exhibition curator at the Roentgen-Museum Neuwied – "Edle Möbel für höchste Kreise – Roentgens Meisterwerke für Europas Höfe".
2007–2009 Co-editor of "David Roentgen – Möbelkunst und Marketing im 18. Jahrhundert".
2011–2015 Research associate at the Stadtmuseum Simeonstift Trier: Forschungsauftrag zum Trierer Möbel.
Since 2013 lecturer at the TH Köln, Department of General Art History and Arthistory of the furniture for restorers.
Stiegel, Achim: Präzision und Hingabe. Möbelkunst von Abraham und David Roentgen. Exhib. cat. Kunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Berlin 2007.
Büttner, Andreas & Ursula Weber-Woelk ed.: David Roentgen. Möbelkunst und Marketing im 18. Jahrhundert. Regensburg 2009.
Fabian, Dietrich: Roentgenmöbel aus Neuwied. Leben und Werk von Abraham und David Roentgen. Bad Neustadt 1986.
Fabian, Dietrich: Abraham und David Roentgen. Das noch aufgefundene Gesamtwerk ihrer Möbel und Uhrenkunst in Verbindung mit der Uhrmacherfamilie Kinzing in Neuwied. Bad Neustadt/ Saale 1996.
Büttner, Andreas & Bernd Willscheid ed.: „… Nützlich zu sein und Gutes zu stiften …“ Roentgen-Möbel für das Gartenreich Wörlitz – Dessau und Neuwied als Vorreiter der Aufklärung. Exhib. cat. Kreismuseum Neuwied & Haus der Fürstin, Wörlitz. Neuwied 2006.
Büttner, Andreas, Ursula Weber-Woelk & Bernd Willscheid ed.: Edle Möbel für höchste Kreis. Roentgens Meisterwerke für Europas Höfe. Exhib. cat. Roentgen-Museum Neuwied. Neuwied 2007.
Willscheid, Bernd & Wolfgang Thillmann ed.: Möbel Design- Roentgen, Thonet und die Moderne. Exhib. cat. Roentgen-Museum Neuwied. Berlin 2011.
Koeppe, Wolfram ed.: Extravagant Inventions. The princely Furniture of the Roentgens. Exhib. cat. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. New Haven & London 2012.
Röntgen, Ludwig: Das erste Buch meines Lebens. Rotterdam 1845.