One of the enjoyable perks of our line of work is that reminders of past events crop up from time to time. Recent discoveries in the auction and museum world have tied in quite neatly to two sites from the Trust’s spring excursions to Scotland.
Two weeks ago in London, Christie’s auctioned a looking glass as part of their sale The Collector: English Furniture, Clocks & Works of Art. The carved and gilt frame may strike our Scotland tour participants as familiar, for we encountered its mate on our tour of Gosford House in East Lothian. Robert Copley, Christie’s International Head of Furniture, and Peter Horwood, Director of English Furniture, came to the Gosford connection after discovering an old Christie’s stock number on the mirror’s reverse, linking it to a 1947 consignment from The Earl of Wemyss and March. Sold to a London dealer, the looking glass remained in private hands until consigned to Christie’s a second time nearly 70 years later.
The present Earl of Wemyss permitted Dr. Sebastian Pryke, a Scottish furniture expert, to analyze the family archives for evidence of the original maker. He located a ledger that records the purchase of looking glasses and frames for £100 on December 26, 1760, from the Edinburgh carver William Mathie. The frames are magnificent examples of Chinoiserie ornamentation popularized by Thomas Chippendale and his contemporaries, featuring an incongruous mix of Ho-Ho birds, monkeys, and quintessential rococo scrolls. Mr. Horwood suggests that the mirrors were likely displayed in a room with other Chinese-inspired furnishings and decoration. Befitting an object in excellent condition with a known maker and intact provenance to boot, the mirror achieved double its high estimate of £50,000.
California members stumbled across another Scottish connection last week during a member tour at J. Paul Getty Museum. A late 17th-century cabinet by André-Charles Boulle in the Getty’s collection has a twin that presently resides at the Duke of Buccleguh’s Drumlanrig Castle. The pair is thought to have been commissioned by Louis XIV following the Treaty of Nijmegen (1678-79) to commemorate his wartime victories against the Spanish. Although the exact provenance of each furnishing is not clear, they were likely separated during the French Revolution. However, the most perplexing aspect of the works is not how they were divorced from one another, but rather the difference in color of the two supporting figures depicting Hercules and Hippolyta at the front of each cabinet. While the Drumlanrig piece showcases two bronze-toned figures, the Getty characters are ivory white.
When the Getty acquired their cabinet in 1974, the figures had dark-bronze to black skin tones, much like the Drumlanrig cabinet does today. After a lengthy evaluation, the conservation team concluded that the dark tones were due to a buildup of repaint over the centuries. They then decided to paint the figures white with gesso to imitate marble. Subsequent research has led the Getty to believe that white may not have been the original color. The cabinet seen by Trust members at Drumlanrig serves as an invaluable resource for present-day Getty conservators to determine if the bronze-like finish was applied by the craftsmen or done after it left the French royal collection.
These are just two examples of recent developments in the decorative arts field that bring to mind our own symposia and Study Trips Abroad. With upcoming programs in the Upper Hudson River Valley, Yorkshire, Scandinavia, Vienna and Prague, and New Orleans, we fully many of these happy coincidences in 2018. We also encourage members to send us updates on past destinations that they find, as well as stories of interest for all decorative arts lovers!