Posts tagged neoclassical

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.

Wedgwood that Stands the Test of (Telling) Time

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The present clock possibly combines the decorative talents of gifted 18th century artisans, namely Josiah Wedgwood and Matthew Boulton. Collaboration of this type occurred often; jasperware was mounted with cut-steel to make toys (the 18th century term for small, personal items) and furniture and decorative objects were mounted with jasperware. The neoclassic movement of the 18th and 19th centuries bore patrons of the arts with a taste dictated by antiquity, and the mounts of the clock, its shape and finial, uphold this neoclassical ideal.

Though Wedgwood produced large medallions, he set upon the market with smaller and more ornamental jasperware. His cameos and buttons, as they were called, were supplied for mounting to firms in Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Woodstock, the chief centers of cut-steel production. One Birmingham manufacturer of steel toys was the industrialist Matthew Boulton. Boulton was both friend and business rival of Josiah Wedgwood and he framed Wedgwood cameos in steel for sword-hilts, buckles, and jewelry at his Soho factory. Dr. Anthony North, former Assistant Curator for the Metalwork, Silver and Jewellery Collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, has said of the present clock that “the mounts are clearly Wedgwood and Boulton – compelling factor in attributing the actual clock to Soho is the Neoclassical form and the curious steel feet, which are obviously Soho work.”

In the late 1700s, Wedgwood’s pottery was adapted for the purpose of creating interesting furnishings; he produced a number of urns and vases with clock faces, as the fashion at the time was for fancy clocks of all forms, and “Wedgwood jasper decorations were used on some clocks in other media during the late eighteenth century.” Benjamin Vullimay, a Swiss watch and clock maker working in Britain, fitted several of his clocks with Wedgwood cameos. Vuillamy’s clocks did not utilize the same cut-steel frames, but could nevertheless employ up to a dozen craftsmen with different areas of specialization. It is interesting to note that one clock, while it lacks a Wedgwood plaque, maintains a similarly austere shape and is topped with a related urn finial (Figure 1). It is probable that the maker of the present clock moved in the same production circles as Wedgwood, Boulton, and Vulliamy.

Figure 1

Another related clock belongs to the Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery Joseph Collection (Figure 2). This table clock is decorated with cut-steel and blue Wedgwood medallions. The reliefs of the jasper medallions on the front of the Nottingham clock are also“ classical in subject and the medallions on the side are of the same design as those at the bottom front corner of the [present] clock.” Similarities also extend to a strongly comparable clock face, urn-form finals and a plinth base resting on four cut-steel feet.

Figure 2

Massive Mirrors on the Wall

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The design on which these remarkable mirrors are based was officially registered by the cabinet maker George Sims of 50-152 Aldersgate Street, London, in March 1878 and survives in the National Archives at Kew. Standing at just over 7 feet tall, the mirrors follow the design very closely, although they are given a stricter architectural quality by the decision to leave out the ornamental crest and swag on the drawing.

George Sims

Although clearly closely inspired by Robert Adam’s work, Sims has lent these pieces an inventive edge by subtly departing from the conventions of Adam’s oeuvre. For instance, the hemispherical fans are curiously but successfully inverted and placed at the base of the mirror. Other motifs within the array of finely detailed neoclassical decoration are on close scrutiny more stylised and angular versions of their eighteenth-century counterparts.

Carlton Hobbs Sims2

Furthermore, Sims’ handling of the geometry and proportions of the mirror is exemplary and is redolent of the more radical designers of the early years of the nineteenth century, all the more remarkable given the date of conception of the present pieces. The exceptional quality and scale of the mirrors suggests that they were clearly a special commission of the highest order.

The diamond mark [patent registration label] on the present pair of mirrors, pictured to the right, gives the date 25 March, 1878 Top. You can find a detailed explanation of these diamond marks here: The Registered Diamond Mark.

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