Posts tagged Etruscan
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
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
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.