Decorative Objects

A Collector’s Coral Specimen

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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.

 

Carlton Hobbs LLC

Carlton Hobbs LLC

 

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.

 

Figure 1

Figure 1

 

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.

 

Detail. Carlton Hobbs LLC.

Detail. Carlton Hobbs LLC.

 

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.

 

Figure 2

Figure 2

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).

 

Figure 3

Figure 3

 

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).

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.

 

J.G. Crace at the 1851 Great Exhibition

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Carlton Hobbs Crace 1

Carlton Hobbs LLC

 

This painted arabesque panel is almost certainly the same one designed by John Gregory Crace and exhibited at the Great Exhibition in 1851. The panel was illustrated by Matthew Digby Wyatt in “The industrial arts of the nineteenth century: a series of illustrations of the choicest specimens produced by every nation, at the Great Exhibition of Works of Industry, 1851,” Plate CXLI (figure 1). Messrs. Jackson and Sons. executed the border of composition ornament that surrounded the panel.

 

As seen in the illustration, the carotouche at the bottom of the panel is painted with a faux purple marbelized decoration, but left blank. On the present panel that same plaque reads Emie A. Shields. Decorator, London. 1914. While we have not as yet found a record of this decorator, it is almost certain that Shields acquired the panel and found the space too tempting to leave blank, altering it for their advertising purposes.

 

Figure 1

Figure 1 

As a member of the prominent Crace family of London interior decorators, John Gregory was the grandson of John C. Crace, who conducted extensive work at Carlton House, and the son of Frederick Crace, who carried out numerous decorative works at the Royal Pavilion and Windsor Castle. J.G. Crace made several trips to the Continent between 1826 and 1830, at which time he entered into a formal partnership with his father.

 

Although he is well known for designs in the eclectic gothic taste associated with A.G. Pugin, with whom he worked on the Medieval Court at the 1851 Exhibition, J.G. Crace “enthusiastically admired art from all centuries,” and his tastes were influenced by Classical, Gothic, Renaissance and ‘Old French’ (Louis XIV) styles.

 

Figure 2

Figure 2

In 1838 an opportune meeting with the 6th Duke of Devonshire earned J.G. Crace commissions for the Duke’s London residence at Devonshire House and his country home at Chatsworth in Derbyshire. It was at Chatsworth where he executed the Lower Library, which “ranks as [his] first masterpiece.” For this project, Crace employed a group of artisans from Paris to execute the ceiling and wall decoration of foliate scrolls in pastel colors. The present panel is closely related to the painted panels separating the bookshelves of Chatsworth’s Lower Library (figure 2), which are also on a gold ground.

 

This manner of decor is reminiscent of the wall panels at the 18th century Café Véfour in the Palais-Royale, which, in turn, were inspired by Pompeiian frescos. Crace may have seen this interior when he visited France in 1837. It also recalls the Louis XIV wall decoration of the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, built circa 1658 outside Paris for Nicholas Fouquet, King Louis XIV’s finance minister. The decoration was carried out by Charles le Brun in the 17th century, and is characterized by fanciful grotesques derived from ancient Roman decorations.

 

Figure 3

Figure 3

The central roundel of the present panel depicts a classical scene of Venus seated in a shell, wrapping a strand of pearls (one of her attributes) about her neck and brow, while fabric billows around her. A pelta-shaped reserve at the top of the panel depicts a putto riding a dolphin. Both of these subjects are pictured in a fresco on the rear wall at the House of Venus in a Shell in Pompeii (figure 3), providing another connection between Crace’s work and the ancient motifs adopted in the decorative arts of later centuries.

Detail of the central roundel of the panel

Detail of the central roundel of the panel

A Fine Low-Relief Roundel From The Bank Of England

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The present roundel, circa 1930, symbolic of the Bank of England, was formerly located above the main entrance to the Soane Hall, Bank of England, Threadneedle Street, London (figure 1) installed during its renovation and remodeling in the by the eminent British architect Sir Herbert Baker (1862-1946).

 

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Baker had studied architecture in London before embarking on a journey to South Africa in 1892, where he was so taken with the city that he decided to establish an architectural practice there. In 1893 he was commissioned to refurbish Groote Schuur, the estate of businessman and diamond magnate Cecil Rhodes, which today serves as the residence of the South African president. Other important projects in South Africa include St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town (1901) and, most notably, the Union Buildings of Pretoria (1910).

 

In 1912 Baker departed South Africa for India, where he worked with Sir Edwin Lutyens in planning the capital city of New Delhi. He was responsible for designing the Secretariat Building and the Parliament House (1912 onward). In 1913 he began a practice back in London with the architect Alexander Scott, and was given the Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1927.

 

Figure 1

In the 1930’s, the Bank of England’s headquarters were renovated by Baker, who controversially demolished much of the building’s original 18th century interiors designed by Sir John Soane. “Everywhere the building was lavishly embellished with allegorical sculptures, marble mosaics of historic coins, Greek inscriptions and wall paintings depicting contemporary bank staff at work,” in collaboration with sculptor Charles Wheeler and artist D. Y. Cameron.

 

One of the principal rooms of the rebuilt bank was the Soane Hall, a double-volume banking hall based on the design style of Sir John Soane. The hall was accessed through double doors from the main lobby, above which was hung the present plaque. It depicts two lions flanking a pillar which rises from a pile of coins. A similar design is repeated on the left hand overdoor to the entrance of the bank.

 

The Soane Hall interior was demolished in 1986 to make way for the Bank of England Museum at which time the roundel was rescued by the museum designers for display in their London offices.

Detail of the roundel in situ

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