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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

A Cabinet Fit For The Royal Pavilion

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This remarkable gilt-bronze mounted Brazilian rosewood cabinet is much in the manner of the furniture thought to have been designed by John and Frederick Crace for the Royal Pavilion, Brighton.

Carlton Hobbs LLC

The vogue for Chinese-inspired interiors in England had been in its heyday in the middle of the eighteenth century, closely associated with the Rococo taste, and was declining in the later part despite some notable projects employing Chinese features, for example Thomas Chippendale’s work at Harewood House and Nostell Priory in the 1770s. However, in the early 19th century the taste had retreated to a point that, as the eminent scholar John Harris remarked in his Regency Furniture and Designs 1803-26, “Sinomania or Hindoo Mania exerted little influence beyond court circles.” He goes on to say that “only in rare instances do these exotic styles make an appearance in the early 19th century pattern books,” the barometers of popular demand and taste. It appears that the Prince of Wales began to be interested in the style around 1790, when he commissioned the lavish interiors for the Chinese Drawing Room at Carlton House. From 1801 onwards, he went on to “relieve the chaste (classical) interior of Brighton Pavillion,” where he wished for a “gay and lively scheme of decoration that would be more appropriate for a seaside holiday palace.”

 

Having worked for the Prince of Wales in the 1790s at Carlton House and completed several commissions for Sir John Soane, John and Frederick Crace began their employment at the Royal Pavilion shortly after 1800. The Pavilion’s legendary interiors are breathtaking examples of complete Chinese schemes, set within the largest building project ever undertaken in this taste. It is important to note the little known fact that, under the guidance of the Craces, both overall decorative concepts and detailed elements are not the wild Cino-European fantasies now associated with the Chinoiserie. Instead, actual Chinese designs were employed, faithfully derived from porcelain, textiles and enamel etc. This literal approach was a result of John Crace’s genuine fascination with and scholarly knowledge of the Orient. Upon John’s death in the year 1819, Sotheby’s sold his considerable collection of Chinese curiosities and a library which included many works on the Orient. Interestingly, a typescript survives at Brighton that records that the Craces acted as agents acquiring for the Prince “enormous quantities of Chinese furniture, porcelain and curiosity of many kinds…” This gives rise to the intriguing idea that these items served as first hand sources for decorative motifs which appear in the Crace designs for the interiors at the Pavilion.

 

Figure 1

Like much of the decoration at the Pavilion, the present cabinet’s design shows a particularly pure vocabulary of Chinese ornament throughout, incorporating both the large famille verte porcelain panels, materials imported from China, and design elements directly and deliberately chosen from Chinese prototypes. The imagery on the panels appears to portray the wedding of a high-ranking military family. The bronze decoration consists of meaningful characters and symbols selected to support the theme of marriage: To the frieze is mounted the ancient Chinese meander motif known as “thunder pattern,” which “typified the downpour that brought the heaven-sent gift of abundance.” The thunder pattern is enclosed within gilt-bronze moldings shaped as continuous rods of bamboo, signifying longevity (figure 1). The porcelain panels are framed to the top and bottom with foliate gilt-bronze mounts centered by the Chinese character “Shou,” generally translated as “Longevity.” These mounts are cast in the mode of Chinese metalwork, devoid of sculptural content, with engraved lines to delineate the foliate shapes. The Chinese pattern plinth is applied to the corners with the Chinese character “Wan,” regarded as “the Buddha’s Heart” and described as the “accumulation of lucky signs possessing ten thousand efficacies.” The choice of rosewood may have been relevant for its visual relationship to the rare and much prized Chinese indigenous wood, Huanghuali.

 

Figure 2

A further aspect in the design of the present cabinet, which relates closely to Frederic Crace’s work, is the unusual feature of the fully canted sides. In the Pavilion, numerous pieces of cabinet furniture share this rare form, which allows the decorated sides of a piece to be viewed together with the front. This includes, for example a set of six cabinets made in 1802 to line the Corridor (figure 2); and a set of four originally in the South Drawing Room, now in Buckingham Palace (figure 3). Instead of porcelain, the doors and sides of both sets display large Japanese black lacquer panels. On the Corridor group, as in the present piece, two strips of “bamboo” frame a pattern at the top and a single “bamboo” strip finishes the cabinet at the bottom (figure 4).

Figure 3

The present cabinet has been carcassed in fine oak and is of exceptional quality. It also has the exquisite feature of an interior entirely veneered in mahogany. Furthermore, the fixings for the large gilt bronze frames that retain the porcelain panels are unusual in being very finely crafted cylindrical brass lead plugs with steel threaded ends. The Belgian black marble top is original to the cabinet and was often the stone of choice for highest quality English tables and cabinets of this time.

 

Figure 4

While the present cabinet has not been found in the inventory of the Royal Pavilion, it is possible that it may have been made for another royal house, or for a member of the high aristocracy. One nobleman, George Child Villiers (1773-1859), 5th Earl of Jersey from 1805, created a Chinese room circa 1806-10 as part of the alterations to Middleton Park under the direction of the architect Thomas Cundy Senior (1765-1825). It is interesting to note that the royal furniture makers Marsh and Tatham, who are thought to have produced the early furniture for the Royal Pavilion, including the set of six cabinets for the Corridor, are also likely to have supplied the “Chinese” Middleton Park furniture furniture, as evidenced by the existence of invoices from this firm to Lord Villiers in 1804.

Carlton Hobbs LLC

This Cabinet is a Hole-in-One!

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This carved mahogany golf cabinet, circa 1910, is stamped Hindley and Wilkinson, London. It is apparently the only known item of fine antique furniture that is set with golf clubs as a decorative device. The design is very much derived from the Chippendale oeuvre with tapering Gothicized corner columns which have tightly conceived acanthus capitals. The paired carved golf clubs are wittily and imaginatively treated being in the form of crossed foliated “trophies.” The piece must have been a very costly special commission in its time and was presumably made for one of the early golfing professionals or a wealthy enthusiast.

Carlton Hobbs LLC.

The Wilkinson firm of furniture manufacturers founded by Joshua Wilkinson in 1778 passed through the hands of four Wilkinson generations over a period of one hundred and fifty years. From their Cheapside premises in London Wilkinson and Sons advertised themselves as a ‘Cabinet, Upholstery, Carpet and Looking Glass Warehouse’, and indicated that their stock included ‘down, goose and other feather beds; Turkey, Brussels, Wilton, Kidderminster and Scotch carpets; library, writing, ladies’ dressing, Pembroke card, and tea tables; cabriole, japanned and Windsor chairs etc.’ By the number of men employed it is evident that there was a fairly extensive manufacturing side to their business. The amount of insurance coverage also provides an indication that the enterprise was of substantial size. In 1788 stock and utensils were valued at 300 pounds out of a total insurance coverage of 1500 pounds.

Detail of the cabinet.

In 1909 the firm’s Old Bond Street building was demolished, and the company, re-named Hindley and Wilkinson, relocated to 70/71 Welbeck Street. It is not known whether Frederick Wilkinson’s son Charles remained with the business, bringing in Hindley as a partner, or whether it was sold to Hindley who maintained the Wilkinson name for continuity. In any event, the business was eventually absorbed by Marshall & Snellgrove in about 1918.

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