Update 2 April 2014: This post is a very silly April Fool’s joke. All the images used are taken from objects in our collections, but the story is complete nonsense. As a couple of websites have linked to it, we’ll keep the post live, but it should be considered a piece of daft fiction, and is not the professional view of any of the Royal Pavilion and Museums’ curators!
Several years ago, one of our conservators found two mysterious metal objects beneath the floor of the Great Kitchen in the Royal Pavilion. Although apparently tools of some sort, their purpose has remained a mystery for some time. A visiting researcher has now examined the objects, and identified them as ‘lankeys’: rare material evidence of the forgotten Regency pastime of ‘furniture amusements’. In this blog post, Dr Lionel Tigers explains how assembling furniture became a pleasurable activity for Europe’s monarchs and aristocrats, and provided a memorable incident in the Pavilion’s history.
The Late Georgian fashion for self-assembly furniture has its roots in a much older Chinese tradition of ‘puzzle furniture’. Inspired by Confucius’ aphorism that ‘he who wishes to sit at the top table should learn to build it first’, the Emperor Wu decreed in 130 BC that senior civil servants should learn to construct tables as part of their training. Since most prospective mandarins had little experience of manual labour, examinations were conducted through the use of oddly shaped pieces of wood which could be connected with bamboo rods into a working piece of furniture. The practice faded from use during the Tang Dynasty, but it evolved into a popular game amongst the wealthy merchant classes. Known as I-Kea, the game often accompanied tea drinking ceremonies: the male players would take regular tea breaks from the game, and use the time to argue over competing solutions to the puzzle.
Puzzle furniture was introduced into Europe by a Frenchman, Gabriel Allanqui. In the late 1770s Allanqui toured Austria and the princely states of Germany with his ‘furniture amusements’. He enjoyed some initial success in these countries until he was exiled from Bavaria by an angry nobleman, whose prospective marriage had been cancelled after his fiancé encountered a misfortune with a poorly constructed dressing table. Allanqui returned to France, and refined his product with two innovations. One was the development of a small metal key that served as the only tool required to assemble the furniture; Allanqui immodestly named this after himself, although it became more commonly known in English as ‘a lan key’, or ‘lankey’. The other was the supply of etchings which demonstrated how the piece of furniture should be constructed. Although developed with his Bavarian experience in mind, these etchings came to seen as part of the puzzle: as the elderly Voltaire remarked, the shapeless figures and barely comprehensible pictures were ‘an unusually inscrutable teacher’.
Yet it was in France that Allanqui achieved his greatest success. Louis XVI was fascinated by Allanqui’s puzzles, and furniture amusements became regular features of the French court. While Marie Antoinette could be found playing milkmaid in her mock farm at Versailles, her husband and his courtiers would often be wrestling with the construction of a bookshelf or drinks cabinet. Although dismissed by some as a novelty, furniture amusements became increasingly fashionable in France through the 1780s. Allanqui set up a factory in Chippe, Bordeaux, and began to manufacture his amusements on an industrial scale. Borrowing from Leibniz’s work on Flachplatten geometry, Allanqui managed to pack his furniture into ever smaller packages. In one advertisement from 1786, he proclaimed that his ambition was to create a ‘banqueting table that could be carried in your pocket’.
The height of Allanqui’s success came when he was ennobled in 1788. Given the unusual title of Marquis de Facture, the initials MDF were proudly embossed on the amusements leaving his factory. But his fortunes were rapidly reversed by the French Revolution. His amusements were suddenly seen as a symbol of the excesses of the Ancien Regime. In a 1791 edition of L’Ami du Peuple, Jean Paul Marat penned a stinging attack on furniture amusements:
Why must good French peasants sleep upright for want of beds, while our nobles play with furniture like spoilt children?
In spite of this, Allanqui remained in France, convinced that a new bourgeois market for his products would emerge from the revolution. But he became a victim of the Terror, and was sentenced to be executed with unique torment on 1 April 1794. On the personal orders of Robespierre, who is believed to have suffered a bad experience with a self-assembled writing table, Allanqui was forced to construct his own guillotine in front of a mob of baying Jacobins. Perhaps as a result of his trembling hands, his guillotine was lopsided and the blade jammed at every attempted drop. The executioner was only able to complete his work by paying two small boys to sit on top of the blade, providing sufficient weight to pull it down onto the unfortunate Allanqui’s neck.
Furniture amusements might well have been expected to have faded with the revolution, but they were revived almost thirty years later by George IV. While considering the Chinoiserie designs for the Royal Pavilion, George learned of the ancient practice from Chinese Export paintings. As he was not an enthusiastic card player, he introduced furniture amusements as a form of after dinner entertainment for his guests. Although they had traditionally been enjoyed by men, George encouraged his female guests to grapple with them too. His last mistress, Lady Conyngham, is rumoured to have charmed her way into George’s affections through her ‘dexterous use of a lan key’.
In spite of his fondness for the pastime, George had little personal skill in solving them. This is illustrated by an event that took place in the Royal Pavilion in 1819. His brother, the Duke of York, had joked that George would be unable to dine while sitting at a ‘seat of his own making’ so a bet was made to test this. George constructed a chair in the Great Kitchen, and proceeded to eat, but owing to a wobbly chair leg he was pitched onto the floor, sending food and drink crashing from the table. George finished the remainder of his meal seated on the floor of the kitchen. On hearing the news, his brother agreed to pay on the bet, remarking that George’s ample bottom was most certainly a ‘seat of his own making’.
Although William IV was known to have dabbled with self-assembly furniture in private, the practice was banished from the court of Queen Victoria. While serving as Leader of the House of Lords, the Duke of Wellington is said to have remarked to the queen that a few hours with ‘a lankey’ might prove a good source of relaxation. He was met by a thoroughly unamused reaction. The Iron Duke, who was renowned for being able to construct a set of nested tables in less than an hour, is said to have been met with such a terrible glare that it was ‘more fearsome than anything he had faced from the armies of Napoleon’.
Dr Lionel Tigers, Senior Lecturer in Ludic Furniture.