If you do a web search for Bombay chest you will find ornate dressers and side tables with bulging bodies and curving legs. Search bombé and you will find the same. The two words are pronounced the same, and seem to be used interchangeably; however, these pieces of furniture have nothing to do with a city in India, nor with a brand of gin (though if you are inclined to spend your days bombed you could keep your bottles in a Bombay chest).
I love old dictionaries. The meanings of words change over time and an old dictionary is like an old pair of glasses that helps us to see as people did in the past. Antoine Furtière’s Dictionnaire Universel of 1690 tells us that bombé is “what craftsmen call hollow arched and curved wood.” Bombé is probably related to bombe(same letters, no accent on the E so it is silent) which is “a big iron bullet full of gunpowder,” that is, a bomb. Stands to reason – they’re both round. Etymologically, closer to bomb than Bombay.
The style began – and, incidentally, Furtière’s Dictionnaire was published – in France (not the Subcontinent) during the reign of Louis XIV, though the style was widely popular in the reign of Louis XV (1715-1774). Louis XIV? Louis XV? Louis XVI? I will save those distinctions for another post. Suffice it to say that the reign of Louis XV – when bombé was in fashion – was in general a fun-loving time for the French aristocracy. The style period the French call Louis XV we call the Rococo. Think, Fragonard’s painting The Swing:
She, in her bright frilly pink dress, is the center of attention. An older man pulls the strings (it would be a gross impropriety for him to give her a push, thus laying his hands upon her) while a younger man hides in the rose bushes. She kicks off her shoe, thus providing the young man with a scenic vista. The two statues of amori lean on a fish – a reference to the goddess of love, Aphrodite, who was born from the sea – and on the left a statue of the goddess’ son, Cupid, holds a finger to his lips, suggesting there is a secret to be kept. You get the picture: there are rules and then there are rules – some made to be broken.
The Louis XV style of interior decoration embodies the love of illusion, deception, and the ephemeral that we see in Fragonard’s painting. Curving surfaces (bombé) covered in patterned veneer and gilt ornament, multiple mirrors in gilt frames intricately carved in organic forms, paintings of the loves of the gods inserted here and there – and all of this seeming to dissolve into the candlelight.
Put a pair of candelabra on your bombé chest and a mirror above, pour something cool to drink, and settle into a night of conversation with good friends.