A Kentian Contribution to the Decorative Arts
Just twelve days remain for a chance to visit the Bard Graduate Center’s wonderful exhibition William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain. In continued celebration of this prolific designer, today’s blog focuses on a pair of chimney-pieces in the Carlton Hobbs collection possibly by Kent for Wanstead House, Essex.
These magnificent chimneypieces can be confidently attributed to William Kent on the basis of sketches made by the architect William Chambers of a chimneypiece at Wanstead House, Essex (figure 1). The splendour of Wanstead is difficult to overestimate. According to one contemporary observer, Mr. Young, “Wanstead, upon the whole, is one of the noblest houses in England. The magnificence of having four state bed-chambers, with complete apartments to them, and the ball-room, are superior to anything of the kind in Houghton, Holkham, Blenhim and Wilton.” The house, which was designed by the architect Colen Campbell, was built for the banker Sir Richard Child between 1714 and 1720 was arguably the greatest country house of the Palladian period. Kent’s involvement in the decoration of the interiors Wanstead is certain. Kent painted representations of Morning, Noon, Evening and Night on the expansive ceiling of the Great Hall and his authorship was celebrated by a portrait of the artist which hung in the same room.
The Chambers sketch (figure 2) which relates to the present chimneys was probably executed around 1756. It depicts a chimneypiece with female term bearing a basket on her head below a massive protruding cornice comprising a series of mouldings almost identical to those on the cornices of the present pieces. Additional similarities between the drawing and the present piece are provided by the foliate carving to the lower section of the term and the distinctive molding on which it is raised. The drawing, which is in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, is inscribed in Chambers’ hand “Wanstead fine Kent.” Surviving furniture and elements from Wanstead now at Chatsworth House and ”Wanstead Villa” in Cambridge reveal that other decorative elements also had a strong Kentian feel.
Given the strong similarities between Chambers’ drawing and the present chimneys, it seems quite conceivable that the chimneypieces originally stood in Wanstead and that one was sketched by Chambers. One discrepancy between Chambers’ drawing and the present pieces is the absence of a rampant lion on the frieze in the drawing, replaced instead by a swag. However, Chambers’ sketches, particularly those executed in England, are notoriously subjective. The architect would often deftly modify elements of objects he was drawing to conform to the fashions of the day. Most famously he added neo-classical elements to his drawing of a baroque throne probably designed by William Kent, leading one commentator to describe his drawings as “veritable time bombs for art historians of the future.”
Comparison with other chimneys in Kent’s oeuvre reveals a number of distinctive features, which are apparent on the present pieces. Kent’s chimneys at both Holkham and Houghton share with the present piece the distinctive basket surmounting the female terms heads. A design for a chimney by Kent, reproduced by Sir Isaac Ware in his ‘Designs of Inigo Jones and Others’ (1731) (figure 3) shares with the present pair the central panel depicting a mask against a sunburst, boldly projecting cornice, canted female herms as well as the distinctive baskets resting on their heads.
The herm figure, named after Hermes, the god of travel, originated in ancient Greece as a tapered pillar continuing from a sculpted head or bust, and traditionally served as a boundary marker. The terms on the present chimneypieces take the form of a kanephoros, a title which translates in English to “basket bearer” given young unmarried women with the honorary task of leading festival processions in ancient Greece. The kanephoroi selected for this procession, or pompe, would carry the baskets, which contained the articles needed for a sacrifice, on their heads. The front and sides of the herms are decorated with carvings of draped fabric and acanthus leaves.
The tongue-and-dart and dentiled moldings below the shelf of the chimneypiece are ancient decorative devices used in classical architecture such as the Basilica of Neptune in Rome. The center of the breakfront frieze is decorated with a mask of Apollo with rays of light radiating from his head, a reference to his role as the god of Sun and Light. The mask is flanked to the left by a relief of a lion, a symbol of Fortitude; and to the right by a relief of an eagle, a symbol of Strength and Victory. Festoons and of fruit and vegetables surround these carved animals, and also decorate the rest of the frieze.
In 1794 an anonymous writer described Wanstead as “one of the noblest houses, not only in England, but in Europe… its grand front is thought to be as fine a piece of architecture as any in Italy.” However such grandeur was short-lived. In 1794 the house passed to the young Catherine Tylney-Long who became the wealthiest heiress in England. In 1812 she married the Hon. William Pole-Wellesley, the elder son of Lord Marlborough. Unfortunately Pole-Wellesley emerged as one of the most prolific philanderers and gamblers of the early nineteenth century. In just ten years he managed to squander his wife’s fortune through his bacchic nocturnal activities. By 1822 the situation had became so accute that the couple were forced to sell the contents of the house. The resulting auction was perhaps the greatest house sale ever held. It was spread over thirty days, and staged on the premises by George Robins, auctioneer, of Regent Street. The sale raised a staggering £41,000, but even this sum was insufficient and the house itself was sold the following year to Stannard, Athow, de Carle, Wright and Coleman, a group of Norwich tradesmen on the condition that the building was completely demolished and the site cleared by Ladyday, 1825.
None of the chimneypieces from Wanstead were included in the 1822 sale, however they were sold as part of the building itself bought by Stannard and his partners. A surviving account of the 1823 sale of the building reveals that “Messers, Stannard and Athow of Norwich… sold a pair of marble chimney-pieces for 300 guineas before they left the room.” The rarity of a pair of chimneys of a calibre which could command such a price, coupled with Chambers’ drawing of the Wanstead chimney, suggests that the present pair once formed part of the Wanstead’s legendary interiors.
If Wanstead was one of the grandest homes of eighteenth century England, the chimneys’ next home constituted one of the most celebrated of London’s nineteenth century mansions. The chimneys were acquired by Lionel Rothschild for his house at 148 Picadilly (figure 4) which was completed in 1858 following his acquisition of two adjoining houses, Nos. 147 and 148 (figures 5 & 6). The resulting house, which stood next to Apsley House at Hyde Park Corner provided the crowning glory of what became known in Victorian London as “Rothschild Row,” the series of grand houses at the top of Picadilly belonging to various members of the Rothschild family. The chimneys remained in 148 Picadilly until after the Second World War when they were removed prior to the house’s demolition to make way for the road which now connects Park Lane with Hyde Park Corner. Thus another example of the opulent splendour of late nineteenth-century London was lost forever. The present chimneys not only provide a link with these lost palaces, but also to an earlier age of even greater grandeur, evoking one of the great forgotten houses of Palladian England.