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.
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.
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.
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.