Frieze Masters, an annual art fair “that offers a contemporary lens on historical art” is on in Regent’s Park, London, this week and we are so pleased to have loaned a number of our pieces to Richard L. Feigen & Co. whose stand (D3) was designed by JP Molyneux Studio. The design on the walls, the art, the furniture, and the sculptures have all come together to form a truly magnificent space. Below are some photos of the booth, and if you are in London, be sure to stop by!
This center table, with chessboard specimen marble top, represents the Regency taste of the early 19th century. A more subdued manifestation of the style than the extravagant pieces of furniture commissioned by the Prince Regent, the table nevertheless embodies the qualities that defined the period, characterized by symmetry, clean lines, and the archaeological influences of ancient societies.
The subtle lotus leaf carving of the stretcher evokes ancient Egypt, while the scrolled x-form legs, creating a guilloche motif in the center, reflects classical Greek and Roman architecture. The use of specimen marbles was popular in England at this time, either imported from Italy, or extracted locally from quarries such as those in Derbyshire. The present tabletop incorporates over a dozen unique specimen marbles and is centered by an inlaid chessboard with rectangular reserves of various geometric patterns on either side. The base of the table is made of rosewood, which, between c. 1820 and c. 1870, was the most widely used luxury tropical wood in British cabinetmaking after mahogany.1 It was viewed as a beautiful material on its own as well as “contrasting admirably”2 with other materials, and was “especially recommended for drawing rooms.”3
The present table shares certain decorative similarities with contemporary furniture designs depicted in various publications by the leading cabinetmakers of the day. Plate XII of George Smith’s The Cabinet Makers and Upholsterers Guide (1826) illustrates an occasional table with related scroll supports connected by a turned and lotus leaf carved stretcher (figure 1). A window seat illustrated in Rudolph Ackermann’s The Repository of Arts, published between 1809 and 1828, also takes an x-form shape and is edged with gilding. As noted in the text, the “design would have a very good effect executed in bronze, with the rosettes, fillets, and other ornaments of the frame, in mat gold”4 (figure 2).
The marble top is notable for its unusual use of Paesena marble in the divisions and borders. This interesting material, which has fossilized fern inclusions, was much prized in the Baroque period, and was set into the drawer fronts of Italian stipos.
While we are exhibiting at TEFAF Maastricht, our New York office has completed some new research on a specimen of Acropora Cytherea, or “Table Coral,” naturally formed as a tazza and enclosed within an original mirrored and ebonized display case.
Experts at the Natural History Museum in London have identified the present coral as Acropora Cytherea, a hard rock-like species that grows in substantial plate-like structures, and which can be found in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, from the Red Sea to Hawaii. It is a colonial breed, meaning a piece of this kind was home to thousands of small animals, which although individuals, were joined by tissue and nerves. What we see here is effectively the ‘skeleton’ of the coral; the calcium carbonate casing that would have protected the animals within. Acropora means ‘porous branch or stem’, and refers to the structure of the coral. Each of the visible holes would have allowed for a polyp to extend its tentacles for feeding. In the wild, examples of this coral take on a cream, pale brown or blue color owing to a thin layer of algae that lives on its surface (figure 1). It is a crucially important reef species, providing the substructure for others to grown on. Some examples have been known to extend to over a meter across and the present example is close to this size.
Coral has remained a material that has excited wonder and curiosity throughout human history. Its creation was recorded in Ovid’s Metamorphosis as resulting from Perseus dropping the Gorgon’s head on the sea floor causing the surrounding plants to take on the color of blood and turn to stone. Red coral in particular assumed spiritual and medicinal significance in the medieval and early renaissance periods, its color resembled the blood of Christ, and its perceived protective qualities explain why it was often used for amulets and babies’ rattles, and was included with portraits of children. Coral became a permanent feature of the “Wunderkammern” going back to the sixteenth century, and the Medici family, for example, claimed to have a piece in that never stopped growing,1 A highlight of the famous collection in the Green Vaults of Dresden was the Daphne cup, mounted with three separate branches of coral.2 However, during the course of the eighteenth century the magical significance and value of this rare material gradually changed to a scientific one. The Islamic scholar Al-Biruni had claimed as far back as the eleventh century that corals were animals, based on the fact that they respond to touch,3 however for centuries most assumed that they were some kind of mysterious plant-mineral hybrid. It was William Herschel, a scientist better known for his work in the field of astronomy, who looked at coral under the microscope for the first time and confirmed that is cellular structure was that of an animal, not a plant.
Interestingly, Charles Darwin began his career studying sea life, specifically marine invertebrates including coral. His work in this area resulted in his first major publication, The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs, which appeared in 1842 and examined the different kinds of coral that form a reef. The species of the present example, Acropora Cytherea, was first classified in 1846, 4 just four years after the publication of this research.
It is clear that 1840s constituted a period of major progress in the field of marine biology, and a rise in interest amongst the public is represented by the opening of the Coral Room in the British Museum in 1847 to much acclaim (figure 2).
The present piece dates from this mid-nineteenth century period of growing interest in the scientific study of natural wonders, and was most likely made for a private collector who commissioned the case specifically for the piece. Apart from providing protection for the precious specimen, the case is fitted with a mirror beneath the coral that enables the viewer to examine it from every angle whilst also acting as a light source from below. The design of the case resembles that of the domestic aquariums that became popular around the same time, like the fountain aquarium designed by Philip Henry Goss, one of the great ‘popularizers’ of natural science (figure 3).
This oak presentation center table represents a rare example from the nineteenth century practice of creating commemorative furniture from materials taken from buildings, ships or wood in particular locations. Perhaps the most notable piece from this tradition is the chair in the British Royal Collection, fashioned from an oak tree that grew on the battlefield at Waterloo by Thomas Chippendale the Younger in 1820. Another important example previously in the Carlton Hobbs Collection was a striking table created circa 1840 by Guillaume Grohé (1808-1885), one of the most celebrated and fashionable French cabinetmakers of the 19th century. Commissioned in France by the Pécoul family, who had extensive interests on the French Caribbean island colony of Martinique, the table’s top was constructed of a single massive specimen piece of Spanish cedar (Cedrela odorata) presumed to have come from a tree that grew on their large and successful sugar plantation.
The present table consists of timber and stone from several fascinating ancient locations, primarily in the West Riding of Yorkshire, especially from the environs of the great steel manufacturing city of Sheffield. The selection of materials from a tight locality appears to have been intentional, as an inscription on the table together with a remarkably unusual accompanying folder of documents, confirm that it was created in 1835 as a gift, to be presented to local community leader and businessman Benjamin Sayle (1770-1846).
Sheffield in the 1830s was booming. Although the steel industry had been present in the area for centuries, it was beginning to grow exponentially in the early decades of the nineteenth century. In 1787 there were eleven steel manufacturers, by 1856 that number had grown to 135. There is much evidence available that suggests around the time that this present table was made, Benjamin Sayle was at the forefront of local affairs in the city. He is frequently listed as an ‘Iron Master’ and as a partner of Booth and Co., who ran the Park Iron Works in the Brightside district. It is apparent that the company was highly successful; the great philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham obtained quotes for the commissioning of the metal fittings for his planned national penitentiary in 1808 and the company was responsible for complex projects such as the construction of a 900 ton steel bridge in Dunham, Nottinghamshire which stood from 1832 to until 1975.
From early in his career Sayle was involved in his community. He was a Trustee of the Brightside Sunday School by 1805, and in later decades his involvement in local affairs would broaden. Around the time the table was made he was involved in defending the interests of the Sheffield General Infirmary and prominent in the Sheffield Shakespeare society, where some of his speeches were published. He was a supporter the city’s Mechanics’ Library, a place where the working classes could learn and read, purchasing for display there a bust of James Watt, and a portrait of Samuel Glanville by John Raphael Smith, who established the first regular stage coach service from Sheffield to London in 1760, an entrepreneurial spirit whom he presumably admired. His political life is especially interesting; Sayle was a leading light in the Sheffield Reform Society, and by in 1836 was its chairman. The reform movement, which strove for improved parliamentary representation via the abolition of “rotten boroughs” and increasing MPs for the northern industrialized cities, dominated the short seven year reign of king William IV. Although the movement enjoyed considerable success achieving the Representation of the People Act in 1832, and further acts in 1835 and 1836, many still felt that suffrage was too narrow, and the campaigns would persist up until the twentieth century. At a pubic dinner held in 1825 to thank the important local humanitarian James Montgomery (1771 – 1854), a figure who is still associated with the abolition of slavery and the banning of children chimney sweeps, Sayle gave a lengthy speech, the chair was Lord Milton; the future Earl Wentworth. Indeed Sayle’s active community life appears to have put him in touch with the most prominent landowners of the area notably the Earl Fitzwilliam and the Duke of Norfolk. There is evidence in archives in both Sheffield and Nottingham that Sayle was in touch with these local grandees over various issues including a letter to the fifth Viscount Gallway about a new surgeon for the Sheffield Infirmary and another to Lord Milton, the future Earl Fitzwilliam, asking about his plans for the forthcoming elections.
The broad range of activities mentioned above give us an idea of Sayle’s political, charitable and religious preoccupations and his impressive connections. We should therefore not be surprised that he would receive such a gift as the present table. The piece has a brass band running around its edge that appears to explain the reasons for its commission and its presentation to Sayle. Frustratingly after nearly two centuries this has become close to illegible. However we can be confident, given Sayle’s activities, that it was some kind of gesture of gratitude, perhaps from one or several of the societies with which he was involved. To gather together all of these different materials used in the table from these various locations would have been no mean feat, and represents the clear esteem in which Benjamin Sayle was held by members of his community.
The places represented in the table have clearly been selected to reflect the history, culture and importance of the local region. Tankersley Hall is now a ruin, however it did enjoy a long history, and was home to the leading local Wentworth family until they built the much larger and grander Wentworth Woodhouse in the 1650s. Similarly, only a wing of Sheffield Manor remains standing. This was originally built in 1516 as a hunting lodge and country retreat for the fourth Earl of Shrewsbury and was used later in the century by the Sixth Earl as a prison for Mary Queen of Scots. Like many of the surrounding area it was inherited by the Dukes of Norfolk in the late seventeenth century. Two castles are mentioned; Pontefract, which remained an important strategic stronghold in the north of England up until the civil wars of the 1640s, and Conisbrough, famed for its particularly striking keep which still stands today. Religious institutions are well represented, including the ruined Roche Abbey, one of England’s finest cathedrals York Minster, and Trinity Church Sheffield, which would later become the city’s cathedral. For Sayle to be presented with this piece, made from some of the finest local antiquarian landmarks is clearly intended as a symbolic gift, and is comparable to being presented with the freedom of the borough, or the key to the city.
This was a perfectly selected gift for Sayle, as it is apparent he had considerable antiquarian interest and pride in it. The remarkable survival of a specially hand-made folder, likely to be original, with letters and notes relating to the woods and stones and their origins confirms that Sayle contacted historians and the donors of the materials for more information to keep with the table. It also contains two information cards on Tankersley Hall and a letter from a J. Hall of Greasbrough on which these cards appear to be based. Also included is another card on the history of Sheffield Manor and some more letters, on Conisborough Castle, one that mentions both Roche Abbey and Conisbrough Castle, one that deals just with Roche Abbey and another on Trinity Church Sheffield. Also within the folder is a diagram that appears to explain where each section of the table came from, in addition to the locations mentioned in the letters, it includes Pontefract Castle and York Minster. It is this diagram that clarifies sections of the table were presented with the blessings of the Earl Fitzwilliam and the Duke of Norfolk.
The last confirmed owner of the table was General Sir Henry C. Jackson K.C.B. (1879-1972), a senior British Army Officer in the early twentieth century, a descendent of Sayle’s. Sir Henry C. Jackson was the son of Henry Jackson O.M. (1839-1921) an eminent English Classicist and Senior Academic at the University of Cambridge, who was born in Sheffield. It was his grandfather, also Henry, a Sheffield Surgeon, who married Benjamin Sayle’s daughter Olivia in 1801.14 Thus a direct line own ownership can be traced from the table’s creation to almost the present day.
This table is a piece of industrial history, a symbol of philanthropic and civic pride, community interaction and nineteenth century antiquarianism.
This pair of mirrors, circa 1815, were carved by Thomas Fentham (1771-1801), a leading Regency carver, gilder, looking glass, and picture frame-maker, while the reverse-painted plates are almost certainly Chinese. Fentham worked in the Strand, London where he held premises at Nos. 49, 51 or 42 (1774-93) and No. 136 (1794-1820). His business was substantial; the house and shop at No. 136 in the Strand were spacious, and insured for £5,400, and his handsome frames were acquired by such notable patrons as Lady Heathcote, the 3rd Earl of Egremont, Charles Townley, and the Yorke family at Erddig Hall. One mirror bears a ripped paper label reading: THOMAS FENTHAM / No. 136 STRAND / NEAR SOMERSET-HOUSE / Manufacturer of Looking-Glasses, / CONVEX and CONCAVE MIRRORS / AND ALL SORTS OF / PICTURE and GLASS FRAMES. / GLASS for EXPORTATION.
Between 1807 and 1821, the firm traded as Thomas Fentham & Co. and was taken over upon Fentham’s death in 1801 by his son, Thomas John, and son-in-law, John Bainbridge. He died an apparently wealthy man, and among the provisions of his will he requested that a monument be erected in his memory.
Each of the present mirrors is painted with a different river scene depicting mountainous Chinese landscapes with pagodas, fishermen and various types of boats. The vogue for Chinese-inspired interiors in late-18th and early 19th century England was revived and fostered under the patronage of the Prince of Wales, later George IV, who executed a small number of royal interiors in the chinoiserie taste, beginning with the lavish Chinese drawing room created in 1790 at the Prince’s London residence, Carlton House, and followed in 1801 by the one of the Regency’s most remarkable buildings, the Royal Pavillion, Brighton.
The convex mirror was widely popular among the high society during the Regency. An addiction to light and space led to the greatly increased use of wall mirrors, which the antiquarian John Britton (1771 – 1857) remarked ‘were adopted to extend the apparent dimensions of our rooms’. In 1803 Thomas Sheraton observed in his Cabinet dictionary: ‘the perspective of the room in which [convex mirrors] are suspended presents itself on the surface of the mirror and produces an agreeable effect’.
The frames of the mirrors epitomize Regency decoration, particularly in the eagle that surmounts each, which was a symbol of might and triumph. Each eagle sits on a pedestal flaneked by scrolled acanthus leaves, while the apron is decorated with sprigs of oak leaves and acorns, centered by a shell. The oak, adopted as the national tree of England, is symbolic of virtue, strength and endurance.
The present mirrors appear to be the only known examples to incorporate Chinese reverse glass painting onto convex mirrors. Usually “the plates of mirror glass were imported from Europe for decoration by Chinese painters and in 1764 Elie de Beaumont speaks of mirrors sent from England, painted in China and then returned.” However, Breton de la Martinière noted that a single “glasshouse” for the production of mirrors existed in Canton, “the only [one] in the Empire” and technical inspection of the present glass and mercury silvering has led to the almost certain conclusion that they were fabricated in China.
Such a new and extremely difficult undertaking would have tested Chinese glass makers to the limit, and these being the only known examples likely attest to the probability that it was a problematic and costly procedure, thus rendering the process commercially unviable.