Dana Donadio

Dana Donadio

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AN UNUSUAL EBONIZED AND GILTWOOD SIDE CABINET SET WITH ETRUSCAN RED AND BLACK PAINTED TÔLE PANELS

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Carlton Hobbs LLC

Carlton Hobbs LLC

This early-nineteenth century cabinet is an unusual example of English Regency furniture profusely set with tôle peinte panels and incorporating a stepped superstructure, which seems very likely to have been inspired by the designs of the foremost tastemaker of the period, the Anglo-Dutch Banker Thomas Hope (1769-1831). He showed a similarly stepped chimneypiece in his seminal 1807 publication Household Furniture and Interior Decoration, where it was used to support a display of what he referred to as “Egyptian, Hindoo and Chinese idols and curiosities.”1 (figure 1). This was an illustration of the practical application of his maxim that came to define the period; “antiquity was to be imitated but that it was not to be copied.”2

Figure 1

Figure 1

The side cabinet is set with panels of tôle, defined as tinplate or pewter that has been varnished, painted or japanned. The techniques originally came from technical investigations into the rust-proofing of iron in the early eighteenth century, and its heat-resistance and durability made it popular for use on everyday objects like kettles, tea sets and trays. John Baskerville from Birmingham secured the first patent in Britain in 1759 and not long afterwards a fellow local manufacturer Stephen Bedford is recorded as making japanned copper panels for coaches3, beginning the industry’s long association with that region of Britain. Aside from Birmingham, other main centers of production were the Welsh towns of Pontypool and Usk, and Bilston in Staffordshire.  In Pontypool, a Thomas Allgood led a particularly successful business opening further workshops in Birmingham and London and by the late eighteenth century he was exporting large quantities of Pontypool tole to Europe and America.4

Detail. Carlton Hobbs LLC.

Detail. Carlton Hobbs LLC.

However aside from its practical uses its decorative potential was also quickly recognized; during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the material was applied to the finest of furniture; in France it was used by premier ébénistes like Adam Weisweiler (c. 1750 – c. 1810) to imitate oriental lacquer.  The term ‘tôle’ itself is borrowed from French, where such objects are referred to as tôle peinte. In England George Brookshaw, a London furniture maker, painted and fired thinly rolled sheets of copper which he applied as veneers to the tops of his tables, concealing the joins with a gilt metal band. A table by Brookshaw from c. 1785 displaying this technique can be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (figure 2).

Figure 2

Figure 2

It is not the practical usefulness of tôle that is being exploited on the present piece but its fine effect as a decorative surface.  Here the subject matter combines a few stylistic influences that perfectly define its period. The panels on the two drawers feature classical warriors in chariots (figure 3 & 4), a popular motif of the time that reminds of the French Empire style and especially Pierre-Philippe Thomire’s magnificent chariot clocks. Possibly the figures here are intended to be the heroes of the Trojan war Achilles and Hector. In contrast, the small curved reserves in the corners of the stepped pyramid tier are filled with Chinoiserie designs including pagodas and oriental landscapes.  The leader of the revival in this taste was the Prince Regent himself, who in the early decades of the nineteenth century was busy renovating his seaside residence, the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, in the most remarkable and ostentatious interpretation of the style. Additionally the restricted red and gold palate of the tole is a continuation of the taste for ‘Etruscan’ decoration that was stimulated by the publication of the designs on Sir William Hamilton’s collection of vases in the late 1760s.5  

Figure 3

Figure 3

Tôle would remain immensely popular in the nineteenth century, as would the related medium of papier maché; both are examples of the diversification of materials and technology that defined furniture and decoration in the English regency.

Figure 4

Figure 4

The Mirror Image

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The present superbly carved convex mirror, circa 1810, was created very much in the taste of the Anglo-Dutch banker, collector, and theorist, Thomas Hope (1769-1831). Because of the presence of the surmounting mask formed as bearded male with bound hair and flower head clasps we are able to state that the mirror is in all likelihood the product of the master carver Peter Bogaert.

Carlton Hobbs LLC

Carlton Hobbs LLC

This can be deduced by virtue of the fact that there exists the identical mask on a table from Thomas Hope’s picture gallery at Duchess Street and again on a pair of giltwood torchères in the Royal Collection. All three masks are drawn from a unique reverse carved boxwood mold in which composition1 is poured, thus creating a consistently identical sculpted image.  Reverse carved molds demand the highest level of skill a carver can attain whereby he is required to create the desired subject in the negative. Peter Bogaert is one of only two craftsmen singled out for praise by Thomas Hope in his seminal work Household Furniture and Interior Decoration:

I have, after the most laborious search, only been able to find two men, to the whole industry and takent I could in some measure confide the execution of the more complicate [sic] and more enriched portion of my designs; namely, Decaix and Bogaert: the first a bronzist, and a native of France; the other a carver and born in the low countries.2

Therefore, a strong likelihood also exists that he was the maker of Hope’s aforementioned table, one of the largest and most important items in the collection.  Further confirming this likelihood, are the two pairs of giltwood torchères in the Royal Collection, which, because of recently discovered invoicing, can be attributed to Bogaert at the time of his partnership with silversmith Paul Storr (from 1809).  As mentioned above, one of these pairs bears the identical mask.

Detail. Carlton Hobbs LLC.

Detail. Carlton Hobbs LLC.

The design of the present mirror, which draws down on Egyptian, Greek and Roman iconography, is emblematic of Hope’s style and his belief that “Antiquity was to be imitated but that it was not to be copied.”3 The frame is surmounted by a plinth that recalls ancient Egyptian stepped pyramids, as well as the primordial mound, the source of life in Egyptian mythology. This form was used by Hope in Plate X of Household Furniture to support “Egyptian, Hindoo and Chinese idols and curiosities.”4 The two figures on the left and right tiers of the plinth take the form of stylized Egyptian anthropoid (human-shaped) coffins. These types of funerary caskets became standard beginning in the Second Intermediate Period (1650–1550 BC) and were decorated with a representation of the deceased, along with symbols and depictions of objects that would be of use in the afterlife. The present models are adorned with fictive hieroglyphs, though some derive from authentic ancient symbols. The topmost glyph of a circle surmounting a cross most closely resembles the Greek symbol for Venus, which also relates to the Egyptian ankh, signifying life. Each figure wears a nemes, the striped head-cloth worn by the pharaohs with two flaps hanging by the ears and shoulders, and is backed by a rippled acanthus leaf.

Figure 1

Figure 1

The cavity beneath the plinth contains a mask of a crowned and bearded male figure. An identical mask can be seen in Plate XX, No. 2 of Household Furniture, which illustrates the decoration adorning the end of table (figure 1) designed by Hope for his Picture Gallery at Duchess Street. He executed further illustrations of the “comic and tragic masks of Silenus, of Bacchante, of Juno and of Hercules” in plate XXXVII. Hope used masks in a number of his decorative schemes, basing them on ancient comic and tragic prototypes used by Greek and Roman actors, such as those depicted in the mosaic of “Choregos and actors” found in the House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii (figure 2). Hope also drew upon the various 18th-century publications whose collections of classical designs comprised such masks, including Tischbein’s Illustrations of Homer from ancient monuments (1801-1823) and Baron d’Hancarville’s Antiquités Étrusques, Grecques et Romaines (1766-67) for Sir William Hamilton.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Further allusions to the ancient world can be found in the carved laurel wreath of the frame, a reference to victory and the ancient Roman Empire, as well as the crown of the god Apollo. The two pearl-string borders recall Venus, the goddess of love. The scrolled lion motif on either side of the mirror crest is clearly related to gold Cypriot spirals of the 5th century BC worn as jewelry by Grecian men and women, an example of which in the Metropolitan Museum can be seen in figure 3.

Figure 3

Figure 3

Thomas Hope was born in Amsterdam to a Scots family of court and government bankers living in Holland since the 17th century. The family had amassed a significant fortune and exercised it to influence both cultural and political arenas. Thomas’ father, John Hope, was a celebrated connoisseur of art and antiquities, with an extensive collection of Dutch and Flemish works. They participated financially in “the rise and fall of empires,”5 including the expansionism of Gustavus III of Sweden and Catherine the Great of Russia, support of Louis XVI in 1789, and completion of the Louisiana purchase by American Republic in 1803. Although prominent Dutch citizens, the Hopes’ lived according to Gallic tradition, mirroring the ancien regime, and “prided themselves on being Frenchified, spoke only French and lived entirely à la Française.”6

In 1787, at the age of eighteen, Thomas Hope embarked on his Grand Tour, which took a decade to complete and brought him to Greece, Italy, France, Spain, Germany, the Ottoman Empire and North Africa. While in Rome he enjoyed the company of fellow connoisseurs Sir William Hamilton, the Earl of Carlisle and the Earl-Bishop of Derry, as well as artist and architects such as Angelica Kauffman, Antonio Canova and Charles Heathcoate Tatham, whom Hope would later employ in England.7

Upon returning to London, Hope established himself at the corner of Mansfield Street and Duchess Street, expanding and remodeling his house between 1799 and 1802 with the help of Tatham. Determined to improve the standards of design and craftsmanship in London, the neoclassical and neo-Egyptian interiors were filled with ancient sculpture he acquired in Italy, neoclassical sculpture by contemporary artists such as Bertel Thorvaldsen and John Flaxman, a portion of Sir William Hamilton’s collection of Greek and Roman vases, as well as furniture designed by Hope himself. The house in Duchess Street “[rivaled] in splendor and originality the other ‘lions’ of Regency taste: The Prince of Wales’s London residence and Carlton House and ‘Chinese’ pavilion at Brighton; Beckford’s neo-Gothic abbey at Fonthill; and John Soane’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields,” with the distinction that Hope’s house was  “more modern and more public.”8 Hope entertained regularly and his lavish receptions, or ‘routs,’ were attended in large numbers by the upper echelons of Regency society, not least of all the Prince of Wales.

Detail. Carlton Hobbs LLC.

Detail. Carlton Hobbs LLC.

No records as to who made Hope’s furniture have yet come to light. In his introduction to Household Furniture he bemoans the difficulty in finding in London craftsmen with adequate abilities both in their level of skill in designing furniture and familiarity with the ancient world, and was thus compelled to take upon himself “the laborious task of composing and of designing every different article of furniture” he wanted produced.13

The present mirror is a beautifully conceived and well-informed example of the British regency’s taste for Egyptian style This taste for Egyptian motifs achieved the momentum of a mania following Nelson’s destruction of Napoleon’s fleet at Aboukir Bay in 1798. In the aftermath of Nelson’s victory the use of such motifs became a statement of patriotism and high fashion as well as conveying the impression of learned sophistication and a familiarity with the history of the ancient past.

A Kentian Contribution to the Decorative Arts

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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.

 

Carlton Hobbs LLC

Carlton Hobbs LLC

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.

Figure 1

Figure 1

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.

Figure 2

Figure 2

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.

Figure 3

Figure 3

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.

Carlton Hobbs LLC

Carlton Hobbs LLC

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.

Figure 4

Figure 4

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.

Figure 5

Figure 5

Figure 6

Figure 6

 

 

Happy 282nd Birthday Warren Hastings!

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Warren Hastings, the first Governor-General of Bengal, was born in Churchill, Oxfordshire on December 6, 1732. In honor of his birthday we’re taking a look at an historic writing box that bears his arms, made in Vizagapatam in the mid-18th century.

Carlton Hobbs LLC

Carlton Hobbs LLC

The present box, bearing the arms of its owner Warren Hastings, is a superb example of the craftsmanship typical of Indian cabinetmakers working in the port of Vizagapatam in the mid-18th century. It is particularly notable in being larger than many known specimens, and containing an array of beautifully worked drawers on the inside, further enhanced with tortoiseshell veneer complementing the bands of ivory on the interior.  This piece would have been a prized object within the important collection of ivory furniture which Hastings assembled during his lifetime.

 

Located on the northern Coromandel Coast of southeast India, Vizagapatam, not far from Madras, boasted ready access to teak, ebony and rosewood from the surrounding Northern Cicars region.  As a trading port, it could also provide its craftsmen with ivory from Pegu, padouk from the Andaman Islands and sandalwood from the South, making possible the production of some of the most remarkable furniture of the 18th century.  The area was originally renowned for its dyed textiles, which had attracted European interest in the 17th century, the English founding a textile factory there in 1668.  Although the Dutch had previously established a trading post in 1628 to the north of Vizagapatam at Bimlipatam, the entire Cicars area came under control of the British East India Company in 1768.

 

Amin Jaffer has suggested that Europeans probably exercised influence over the design of this furniture, which, in colonial India, was traditionally commissioned through the supplying of a muster. Major John Corneille provides the earliest-known reference to the inlaid furniture of Vizagapatam, writing in 1756 that the city was “remarkable for its inlay work, and justly, for they do it to the greatest perfection.”  However, some known examples of ivory-inlaid furniture from Vizagapatam may have been produced as early as the late 17th century.

Carlton Hobbs LLC

Carlton Hobbs LLC

 

The Vizagapatam ivory inlay may also have been inspired partly by the marquetry seen on portable European items such as rifles and gun cases.  Nevertheless, the exotic foliage and birds depicted on the ivory is undeniably Indian in character and most probably derive from the decoration found on textiles originating from the same area, decoration which had been incredibly popular with Europeans.  The birds may be huma birds, Persian mythological birds of paradise and good fortune, a jeweled example of which surmounted the legendary gold throne of Tipú Sultán of Mysore.   The ivory on the furniture was often engraved and usually filled with black lac.  On the present box ivory has been both inlaid and, particularly on the interior, used as bands of decorated veneer.

The armorial on top of the box refers to Hastings of Daylesford, as borne by Warren Hastings.  This branch specifically does not have a coronet round the bull’s neck  (figure 1).

 

Armorial of Hastings of Daylesford.

Figure 1: Armorial of Hastings of Daylesford.

Warren Hastings is one of the most intriguing, and perhaps controversial, figures of the British colonial occupation of the Indian subcontinent.  His family had been settled at Daylesford in Worcestershire (now Gloucestershire) since the 12th century.  However, his grandfather sold the estate in 1715 and by the time of Warren’s birth in 1732, the family was no longer as prosperous as they had once been.  His mother having died shortly after having given birth to him, and his father abandoning Warren and his elder sister only nine months afterwards, he was raised by his grandfather and uncle, the latter taking him to London in 1740.

 

After attending Westminster School, from which he did not graduate, a place was secured for Hastings in the Bengal service of the East India Company.  He arrived in Calcutta in 1750 aged only seventeen, and married Mary Elliott, widow of an army captain killed at Calcutta, in 1756.  Mrs. Hastings, and the two children she bore Warren, had all passed away by 1764.  In 1757 the Battle of Plassey brought Murshidibad under British control, and Hastings became the first British Resident there.  He enjoyed a lasting friendship with Mani (or Munny) Begum, one of the widows of Mir Jafar, the nawab (governor) of the provinces of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. Although she had not been the principal wife, Hastings appointed her guardian of Mir Jafar’s young son and successor.  In 1760 or 1761 Hastings took up a place on the Company’s council in Calcutta under Henry Vansittart.  However, Vansittart was forced to resign his governorship a few years later, with Hastings following him back to Britain in January 1765.

 

Returning to Madras in 1769, Hastings met his second-wife-to-be, Anna Maria Apollonia Chapuset, known as Marian, on the trip over, though they could not be married until 1777, after her divorce.  Hastings returned to Calcutta in 1772 as the new governor of Bengal, in which role he solidified British hold on the state.  When the British government imposed reforms on the East India Company in 1773, Hastings became the first Governor-General.  However, council members sent out from Britain at this time opposed him, with accusations of corruption eventually being brought against Hastings in 1775.  Surviving these, and eventually regaining control of the council, Hastings remained in India until 1785.

 

Figure 2: Portrait of Hastings by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Figure 2: Portrait of Hastings by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

The present box appears to date from his first period of residency in India, and already at this point Hastings demonstrated a keen intellectual interest in the culture of the Indian sub-continent.  For example, back in England, Hastings commissioned Sir Joshua Reynolds to paint a portrait of him holding documents visibly written in Persian (figure 2).  He also wrote a proposal for a “Professorship of the Persian Language” at Oxford which he sent to Samuel Johnson.  And it is as an intellectual and patron that Hastings left his most positive lasting impression.  Hastings wrote of himself “I neither drink, game, nor give my vacant hours to music, and but a small portion of them to other relaxations of society.”  Nevertheless, his “garden house” outside of Calcutta was lavishly decorated.  He commissioned several important translations of Indian texts, most memorably that of the Bhagavad Gita done by Charles Wilkins, for which Hastings wrote an introduction.  He also collected Indian paintings and employed local musicians, as well as supporting European painters such as William Hodges, who traveled around India on Hastings’s generosity, and Johann Zoffany, who received several commissions from Hastings.  His patronage prepared the ground, in part, for the foundation of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1784.

 

Upon his final return to England, Hastings devoted himself to reclaiming Daylesford for his family.   After three years of negotiations he was successful and commissioned a new house from the architect Samuel Pepys Cockerell, laying out new gardens himself.  He and Marian moved in 1791. The sweetness of this success was marred, however, by impeachment proceedings initiated against him in Parliament by Edmund Burke, who saw in Hastings all that was wrong with British policy in India.  Burke introduced charges against Hastings 1786 and it was not until 1795 that Hastings was finally acquitted.

Carlton Hobbs LLC

Carlton Hobbs LLC

 

Hastings lived the rest of his life at Daylesford, where his impressive collection of Indian ivory furniture was housed.  He died in 1818, his wife inheriting Daylesford and living there until her death in 1837.  The ivory furniture was, in large part, a gift of Mani Begum, the furniture being the subject of correspondence between Hastings and his wife in letters which survive to this day. Queen Charlotte, to whom the Hastings presented an ivory bed sent by Mani Begum, is credited along with Warren Hastings and his wife with leading the taste for ivory furniture at this time.

 

A Very Rare Breakfront Cabinet Retaining Its Original Etruscan-Style Painted Decoration

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This elegant cabinet, which retains its original painted decoration, is a rare survival of the Etruscan taste introduced into England in the late 1760s. The black and terracotta decoration to the ovals and the stylized frieze, set against a light-blue ground, are much in the manner of the Etruscan style of Robert Adam (1728-1792), the most celebrated architect and designer of the day.

Carlton Hobbs LLC

Carlton Hobbs LLC

Adam used decoration in classical forms rendered in black and terracotta, “evidently imitated”, as Adam said, “from vases and urns of the Etruscans,” to create rooms of daring originality and high fashion. In The Works of Robert and James Adam, Adam wrote “persons of taste will no doubt observe, that a mode of Decoration has been here attempted, which differs from any thing hitherto practised in Europe.”  Adam’s first exercise in the Etruscan style of interior decoration was undertaken at Derby House, where he worked for Lord Stanley, later 12th Earl of Derby, in 1773. Adam created three further rooms, all designed before 1775, at Home House, where he was employed by Elizabeth, Countess of Home; at Apsley House, where he worked for the 2nd Earl Bathurst, and at Osterley Park, Middlesex, when the house was remodelled for Robert Child between 1762-80.

Figure 1

Figure 1

The magnificent ‘Etruscan Dressing Room’ at Osterley (figure 1) is the only one of these interiors to remain substantially in its original condition. At Osterley, the decoration takes the form of arabesque trellis-work, interspersed with representations of classical vases, sphinxes, bucrania, figures and decorative scenes. The novelty of the interior, however, lay not in the form of the decoration but rather in the distinctive black and terracotta colouring. The present cabinet also draws on the conventional classical vocabulary, with a fan motif to the doors and sides and anthemion arcading to the frieze, but renders them in these Etruscan colours. The ‘Etruscan Dressing Room’ was executed by Adam’s decorative artist Pietro Mario Borgnis (1743-1801). The decoration was first painted onto paper that was then pasted onto canvas which was attached to the walls of the room. Much the same technique is employed in the present cabinet, where the black and red Etruscan work is painted onto paper and then laid down onto the painted pale blue ground.

The same blue ground is also found at Osterley where the main scheme of decoration is set above a frieze of stylized decoration set with roundels, whilst the doors and the area below the dado rail is coloured in sky blue. Each of Adam’s Etruscan interiors combined the decorative design with a pale blue or bluish grey ground. The intention seems to have been to create an impression of lightness or transparency. Horace Walpole regarded the effect of the Etruscan Dressing Room as being like the open air, comparing the room to that of a pergola. The present cabinet’s use of this light blue colouring is of considerable significance in that it retains its original paint-work. As such it constitutes a rare survival of the subtlety of eighteenth century coloration. Repeated acts of restoration and repainting of interiors has meant that the quality and effect of the original paint-work has generally been lost. In the case of Robert Adam, Eileen Harris points out that his interiors have “been restored more frequently and diligently than any other architect’s; so much so that not a spot of their original paint work survives untouched.” 

Figure 2

Figure 2

The form of the present cabinet, with its simple but beautiful proportions, was an ideal vehicle on which to create an Etruscan composition. This type of low breakfront cabinet was favoured in England in the 1780s. Another example of this model was formerly at Woodhall Park, Hertfordshire (figure 2). In that instance the cabinet is of more common satinwood but, like the present piece, is painted with neo-classical decoration including oval fan motifs.

The chief source for the use of the Etruscan coloration seen in the Adam interiors and the present cabinet, was the publication in four volumes between 1767-1776 of Pierre Francois d’Hancarville’s Catalogue of the Collection of Etruscan, Greek and Roman antiquities from the cabinet of the Hon. William Hamilton. That work published the red-figure vases acquired by Hamilton whilst British Ambassador at the Court of Naples and given, in 1772, as a gift to the British Museum. Hamilton’s vases were an important addition to the increasing range and volume of antique sources that fed the expanding vocabulary of neo-classicism in the second half of the eighteenth century. At the end of the 1760s Josiah Wedgwood was among the leaders of fashionable taste to take up and experiment with this form of decorative effect. It was a fashion given added impetus among the connoisseurs and collectors of the day by the theory, widely propounded in the period, that in Etruscan culture lay the origin and font of all classical civilization.

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