This pair of mirrors, circa 1815, were carved by Thomas Fentham (1771-1801), a leading Regency carver, gilder, looking glass, and picture frame-maker, while the reverse-painted plates are almost certainly Chinese. Fentham worked in the Strand, London where he held premises at Nos. 49, 51 or 42 (1774-93) and No. 136 (1794-1820). His business was substantial; the house and shop at No. 136 in the Strand were spacious, and insured for £5,400, and his handsome frames were acquired by such notable patrons as Lady Heathcote, the 3rd Earl of Egremont, Charles Townley, and the Yorke family at Erddig Hall. One mirror bears a ripped paper label reading: THOMAS FENTHAM / No. 136 STRAND / NEAR SOMERSET-HOUSE / Manufacturer of Looking-Glasses, / CONVEX and CONCAVE MIRRORS / AND ALL SORTS OF / PICTURE and GLASS FRAMES. / GLASS for EXPORTATION.
Between 1807 and 1821, the firm traded as Thomas Fentham & Co. and was taken over upon Fentham’s death in 1801 by his son, Thomas John, and son-in-law, John Bainbridge. He died an apparently wealthy man, and among the provisions of his will he requested that a monument be erected in his memory.
Each of the present mirrors is painted with a different river scene depicting mountainous Chinese landscapes with pagodas, fishermen and various types of boats. The vogue for Chinese-inspired interiors in late-18th and early 19th century England was revived and fostered under the patronage of the Prince of Wales, later George IV, who executed a small number of royal interiors in the chinoiserie taste, beginning with the lavish Chinese drawing room created in 1790 at the Prince’s London residence, Carlton House, and followed in 1801 by the one of the Regency’s most remarkable buildings, the Royal Pavillion, Brighton.
The convex mirror was widely popular among the high society during the Regency. An addiction to light and space led to the greatly increased use of wall mirrors, which the antiquarian John Britton (1771 – 1857) remarked ‘were adopted to extend the apparent dimensions of our rooms’. In 1803 Thomas Sheraton observed in his Cabinet dictionary: ‘the perspective of the room in which [convex mirrors] are suspended presents itself on the surface of the mirror and produces an agreeable effect’.
The frames of the mirrors epitomize Regency decoration, particularly in the eagle that surmounts each, which was a symbol of might and triumph. Each eagle sits on a pedestal flaneked by scrolled acanthus leaves, while the apron is decorated with sprigs of oak leaves and acorns, centered by a shell. The oak, adopted as the national tree of England, is symbolic of virtue, strength and endurance.
The present mirrors appear to be the only known examples to incorporate Chinese reverse glass painting onto convex mirrors. Usually “the plates of mirror glass were imported from Europe for decoration by Chinese painters and in 1764 Elie de Beaumont speaks of mirrors sent from England, painted in China and then returned.” However, Breton de la Martinière noted that a single “glasshouse” for the production of mirrors existed in Canton, “the only [one] in the Empire” and technical inspection of the present glass and mercury silvering has led to the almost certain conclusion that they were fabricated in China.
Such a new and extremely difficult undertaking would have tested Chinese glass makers to the limit, and these being the only known examples likely attest to the probability that it was a problematic and costly procedure, thus rendering the process commercially unviable.
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.
The present superbly carved convex mirror, circa 1810, was created very much in the taste of the Anglo-Dutch banker, collector, and theorist, Thomas Hope (1769-1831). Because of the presence of the surmounting mask formed as bearded male with bound hair and flower head clasps we are able to state that the mirror is in all likelihood the product of the master carver Peter Bogaert.
This can be deduced by virtue of the fact that there exists the identical mask on a table from Thomas Hope’s picture gallery at Duchess Street and again on a pair of giltwood torchères in the Royal Collection. All three masks are drawn from a unique reverse carved boxwood mold in which composition1 is poured, thus creating a consistently identical sculpted image. Reverse carved molds demand the highest level of skill a carver can attain whereby he is required to create the desired subject in the negative. Peter Bogaert is one of only two craftsmen singled out for praise by Thomas Hope in his seminal work Household Furniture and Interior Decoration:
I have, after the most laborious search, only been able to find two men, to the whole industry and takent I could in some measure confide the execution of the more complicate [sic] and more enriched portion of my designs; namely, Decaix and Bogaert: the first a bronzist, and a native of France; the other a carver and born in the low countries.2
Therefore, a strong likelihood also exists that he was the maker of Hope’s aforementioned table, one of the largest and most important items in the collection. Further confirming this likelihood, are the two pairs of giltwood torchères in the Royal Collection, which, because of recently discovered invoicing, can be attributed to Bogaert at the time of his partnership with silversmith Paul Storr (from 1809). As mentioned above, one of these pairs bears the identical mask.
The design of the present mirror, which draws down on Egyptian, Greek and Roman iconography, is emblematic of Hope’s style and his belief that “Antiquity was to be imitated but that it was not to be copied.”3 The frame is surmounted by a plinth that recalls ancient Egyptian stepped pyramids, as well as the primordial mound, the source of life in Egyptian mythology. This form was used by Hope in Plate X of Household Furniture to support “Egyptian, Hindoo and Chinese idols and curiosities.”4 The two figures on the left and right tiers of the plinth take the form of stylized Egyptian anthropoid (human-shaped) coffins. These types of funerary caskets became standard beginning in the Second Intermediate Period (1650–1550 BC) and were decorated with a representation of the deceased, along with symbols and depictions of objects that would be of use in the afterlife. The present models are adorned with fictive hieroglyphs, though some derive from authentic ancient symbols. The topmost glyph of a circle surmounting a cross most closely resembles the Greek symbol for Venus, which also relates to the Egyptian ankh, signifying life. Each figure wears a nemes, the striped head-cloth worn by the pharaohs with two flaps hanging by the ears and shoulders, and is backed by a rippled acanthus leaf.
The cavity beneath the plinth contains a mask of a crowned and bearded male figure. An identical mask can be seen in Plate XX, No. 2 of Household Furniture, which illustrates the decoration adorning the end of table (figure 1) designed by Hope for his Picture Gallery at Duchess Street. He executed further illustrations of the “comic and tragic masks of Silenus, of Bacchante, of Juno and of Hercules” in plate XXXVII. Hope used masks in a number of his decorative schemes, basing them on ancient comic and tragic prototypes used by Greek and Roman actors, such as those depicted in the mosaic of “Choregos and actors” found in the House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii (figure 2). Hope also drew upon the various 18th-century publications whose collections of classical designs comprised such masks, including Tischbein’s Illustrations of Homer from ancient monuments (1801-1823) and Baron d’Hancarville’s Antiquités Étrusques, Grecques et Romaines (1766-67) for Sir William Hamilton.
Further allusions to the ancient world can be found in the carved laurel wreath of the frame, a reference to victory and the ancient Roman Empire, as well as the crown of the god Apollo. The two pearl-string borders recall Venus, the goddess of love. The scrolled lion motif on either side of the mirror crest is clearly related to gold Cypriot spirals of the 5th century BC worn as jewelry by Grecian men and women, an example of which in the Metropolitan Museum can be seen in figure 3.
Thomas Hope was born in Amsterdam to a Scots family of court and government bankers living in Holland since the 17th century. The family had amassed a significant fortune and exercised it to influence both cultural and political arenas. Thomas’ father, John Hope, was a celebrated connoisseur of art and antiquities, with an extensive collection of Dutch and Flemish works. They participated financially in “the rise and fall of empires,”5 including the expansionism of Gustavus III of Sweden and Catherine the Great of Russia, support of Louis XVI in 1789, and completion of the Louisiana purchase by American Republic in 1803. Although prominent Dutch citizens, the Hopes’ lived according to Gallic tradition, mirroring the ancien regime, and “prided themselves on being Frenchified, spoke only French and lived entirely à la Française.”6
In 1787, at the age of eighteen, Thomas Hope embarked on his Grand Tour, which took a decade to complete and brought him to Greece, Italy, France, Spain, Germany, the Ottoman Empire and North Africa. While in Rome he enjoyed the company of fellow connoisseurs Sir William Hamilton, the Earl of Carlisle and the Earl-Bishop of Derry, as well as artist and architects such as Angelica Kauffman, Antonio Canova and Charles Heathcoate Tatham, whom Hope would later employ in England.7
Upon returning to London, Hope established himself at the corner of Mansfield Street and Duchess Street, expanding and remodeling his house between 1799 and 1802 with the help of Tatham. Determined to improve the standards of design and craftsmanship in London, the neoclassical and neo-Egyptian interiors were filled with ancient sculpture he acquired in Italy, neoclassical sculpture by contemporary artists such as Bertel Thorvaldsen and John Flaxman, a portion of Sir William Hamilton’s collection of Greek and Roman vases, as well as furniture designed by Hope himself. The house in Duchess Street “[rivaled] in splendor and originality the other ‘lions’ of Regency taste: The Prince of Wales’s London residence and Carlton House and ‘Chinese’ pavilion at Brighton; Beckford’s neo-Gothic abbey at Fonthill; and John Soane’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields,” with the distinction that Hope’s house was “more modern and more public.”8 Hope entertained regularly and his lavish receptions, or ‘routs,’ were attended in large numbers by the upper echelons of Regency society, not least of all the Prince of Wales.
No records as to who made Hope’s furniture have yet come to light. In his introduction to Household Furniture he bemoans the difficulty in finding in London craftsmen with adequate abilities both in their level of skill in designing furniture and familiarity with the ancient world, and was thus compelled to take upon himself “the laborious task of composing and of designing every different article of furniture” he wanted produced.13
The present mirror is a beautifully conceived and well-informed example of the British regency’s taste for Egyptian style This taste for Egyptian motifs achieved the momentum of a mania following Nelson’s destruction of Napoleon’s fleet at Aboukir Bay in 1798. In the aftermath of Nelson’s victory the use of such motifs became a statement of patriotism and high fashion as well as conveying the impression of learned sophistication and a familiarity with the history of the ancient past.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.