Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/A gossip about the art treasures at South Kensington - Part 2


(Concluded from page 162.)

Nor was the mania for china less strong in France, than it was amongst ourselves. Louis XIV. sent to China for his porcelain. Madame Dubarri, in her memoirs, tells a story of the ingenious way in which the King made a present to the Due de la Vauguyon, through whose instrumentality the princesses had been induced to “receive” her. The King bought a solitaire of the value of 36,000 livres, and proposed that she should present it to the Duke.

“I dare not,” replied Madame: “I shall surely offend him.”

“Nonsense,” said the King; “no one here will murder you for presenting a cadeau, but do it discreetly.” Then thinking for a moment. “Parbleu,” added he, “here is a way. Put this diamond on the finger of that mandarin yonder, and give him the pagoda with the jewel attached by way of ornament. Surely the most immaculate will not refuse to receive a porcelain monster.”

Madame was charmed, and applauded the idea. So the ring was attached to the mandarin, and at once dispatched to the probably not unwilling Duke.

Madame de Pompadour, who reigned supreme in France for twenty years, was a strenuous patroness of the ceramic art. Her taste for luxury, and her love for the fine arts, were unbounded. Among other useful projects, she established upon its present splendid scale the royal porcelain manufactory of Sèvres. Of all the European fabrics, this is by far the most beautiful in texture and softness, as it is incontestably the finest in painting and colour. The forms are not always good; no attempt seems to have been made to copy the classic outlines, many are heavy and cumbrous, but the paste of the early period is exquisitely soft and pearly. From 1750 to 1769 was the palmy period of the Sèvres manufacture. Then was produced the true “pâte tendre,” which, from its peculiar texture, had the power of absorbing a large quantity of the pigments used, as well as of glaze; hence the extreme richness of the colours, and brilliancy of the glazed surface.

Fine specimens of this period, when decorated with grounds of bleu de roi, turquoise, or rose dubarri, and painted in subjects after Watteau or Boucher, command almost fabulous prices at the present time. Of the large number of vases now collected together, few, perhaps, would sell for less than 1000l. each; indeed, one rose dubarri vase has been sold since it was placed in the Exhibition for 2000 guineas.

The large and fine collection dispersed at the Bernal sale a few years ago fetched very high prices. A pair of rose dubarri vases, painted with Cupids, was bought by the Marquis of Hertford for 1940l.; these had been acquired by Mr. Bernal many years before for 200l.

The principal part of the present collection is furnished by her Majesty, whose possessions in this branch of art are the finest in the world. The greater part was purchased by George IV., when Prince of Wales, at the period of the French revolution. Beau Brummell, who was a great connoisseur in these things, assisted, it is said, by a confectioner named Benôit, in the service of the prince, succeeded in bringing to this country some of the finest works of ceramic art which had adorned the walls of Versailles under the old regime. These fine works have only, at a comparatively recent period, been brought to light. They were found scattered in closets all over Buckingham House, where they had been put away for years.

If some of these vases could tell their tales of woes and joys, what a history might they not unfold. Created in the purlieus of the most brilliant and corrupt court in Europe, fondled by a Pompadour, a Louis XV., a Dubarri, or made to adorn some dainty boudoir of the many beauties of Louis XV.’s court (for it must be remembered these fine things were never made for sale), they seem equally with their possessors to have shared the terrible events of the revolution. A complete set is rarely found; they are mostly single specimens which have survived the dark days of anarchy and confusion, when the stately royal palaces and chateaux of the old noblesse were given up to plunder and destruction.

It is curious, in this collection, to see how many of these have been brought together again. There are several instances where the missing ones have been restored—where the long severed companions have, for a time at least, been made happy. Can these fragile things of the past tell each other of their joys and sorrows? Can they, during the dark and silent hours of the night (they certainly cannot during the day), compare notes of their eventful lives? how they were happy and joyous together in the congenial society of the Trianon, or tell of the scandal and intrigues of the Œil-de-bœuf; or, oh, horror! of the utter disgrace and ruin that afterwards fell upon them, even to be handled and desecrated by the grimy paws of auctioneers’ men, and knocked down for certain guineas to la Albion perfide, better far in their own artistic opinion, have been literally knocked down and smashed at once. But it is to be hoped these high-born objects are comforted at last, for most of them are owned, if not by royalty, at least by nobility; neither can it be said that their merits are unappreciated, for the two cases of Sèvres here exhibited are valued at not less than 200,000l.

A very fine rose dubarri vase, belonging to Lord Crewe, of the rare shape, somewhat resembling an ancient galley, finds itself in company again with its long-severed companions, viz., a pair of corresponding jardinières, also of rare form, sent by Mr. Goding. A fine bleu de roi vase, centrally placed, and lent by Mr. Loftus Wigram, is made happy again after strange wanderings in the East and the loss of its mate.

It has already been mentioned that the finer products of Sèvres were not made for sale, but reserved for presents. In the last century, when the French Government looked with jealous eye on our Eastern possessions, it was not uncommon to send presents to Eastern potentates. In 1791, when our army got possession of the spoil of Tippoo Saib’s tent, a pair of Sèvres vases were found which had been sent out from France. They fell to the lot of an officer, who brought them to England. They were kept “dark” for many years, during which period one got broken, and, so to speak, returned to its original clay: the other ultimately came into the possession of Mr. Wigram, and now finds itself again amongst old friends.

The painting on many of these vases is of a very high character. It was customary to employ artists of high repute to decorate the best works; and the same labour and talent bestowed on canvas would have produced fine pictures, and would now fetch high prices, but there is nothing to warrant the giving of 2000l. for a single vase.

The beautiful rose colour named after Madame Dubarri has been successfully imitated in England; this, together with the fine dark blue and turquoise blue, are amongst the most successful efforts of the Sèvres colourists.

Apart from its scarcity, there is undoubtedly a charm about the old Sèvres porcelain which, although not easy to define, still makes it the most coveted amongst collectors.

A large portion of a very fine set, known as the Roman History Service, has been exhibited by Her Majesty. It is of the finest bleu de roi, and decorated with paintings of classical subjects, principally by Dodir, one of the most celebrated of the Sèvres artists between 1780 and 1790. It formerly belonged to Egalité, Duke of Orleans. During the confusion of the Revolution, a portion of the service became severed from the rest; this ultimately reached the hands of a London dealer, who, it is said, offered it to the Queen for 10,000l.; but as the ware is too costly for use, it was declined by Her Majesty. At all events, the missing pieces are now brought together, and they form a magnificent whole, illustrating most unmistakeably the high state of perfection to which this manufacture had arrived.

There are few things in this collection more remarkable, or that tend to show the marvellous richness of our country in works of Art, than the case containing the twenty-four specimens of the peculiar pottery of Henry II.—known as “Faience de Henri II.” Probably every specimen in existence is now known. Fifty-three pieces are extant; of these, twenty-eight are in France, one in Russia, and the remaining are contained in this case. This pottery is unique of its kind; its manufacture was not of gradual growth, but rose at once to a high degree of perfection, and was discontinued at the end of a few years. It is not known, at the present day, by whom or where it was carried on. It has been supposed that this Fayence was executed in Italy, but it differs materially from any known Italian manufacture; the greater part of the pieces are believed to have come from Touraine and La Vendée It is, however, quite possible that the artists employed were Italian. The decoration consists principally of interlaced ornaments, in black or brown, upon a white ground. These elegant incrustations are not the only ornaments used; it is enriched also with alto-reliefs, mouldings, corbels, masks, &c.; in some cases with detached figures. The forms of the different vases are always pure in outline and in the style of the Renaissance.

Although we are ignorant of the locality of this manufacture, there is no difficulty in determining the exact period, and for whom many of the pieces were made. The Salamander, and other insignia of Francis I., are to be observed on some of the pieces; but, in the finer specimens, we find the arms of Henry II., of France, with his device—the three crescents—or his initial H. interlaced with the two D.’s of Diane de Poitiers. Hence, we must conclude that the manufacture began at the end of the reign of Francis I., and continued under that of Henry II.

The choicest example known is the candlestick belonging to Sir A. Rothschild; the form is monumental, and in the finest style; for delicacy of detail and beauty of execution, this piece has never been surpassed. It came from the collection of M. Préau some years since, at a cost of 220l. Another choice specimen is the large ewer sent by Mr. Magniac; it is of perfect form, and ornamented with masks and arabesques; the handle is formed by a human figure reversed, the legs terminating in serpents’ tails, which twine round the shell that forms the mouth of the vessel.

Not less beautiful are the two smaller ewers belonging to Sir A. Rothschild, who now owns the largest number of pieces of this ware: some of these specimens were obtained at the sale at Strawberry Hill for very moderate sums, their value not being at that time apparently understood. The large price which this ware would now command, if offered for sale, may be understood, when it is asserted that this case is worth 30,000l. A large portion of this estimate, however, must be ascribed to its rarity.

If the French can lay claim to the parentage of this pottery, we can also show another kind which is purely English work, and quite equal to it; indeed in some respects far superior. There are few works of native art of which we have better reason to be proud than of the exquisite productions of Wedgwood. About the middle of the last century he began to make experiments. After many years of labour and endurance, equalled only by that of Palissy himself, he produced the admirable fac-simile of the Portland or Barberini vase, of which there are three copies in this collection. When this vase (now in the British Museum) was offered for sale by auction, Wedgwood was anxious to possess it, thinking that many persons would be willing to pay a liberal price for a good copy. For some time he continued to offer an advance upon each bidding of the Duchess of Portland, until at length, his motive being understood, he was offered the loan of the vase if he would consent to withdraw his opposition, and the Duchess became the possessor for 1800 guineas.

But Wedgwood did not confine himself to copies; he produced many fine original works, a large number of which are now brought together. He was materially assisted by the classical learning and elegant taste of his early partner, Bentley, a descendant of the famous critic. Subsequently Flaxman was employed to model the more important works, when they assumed the elevated and refined form of the Grecian school.

There are some interesting specimens of the little known Fulham pottery, exhibited by Mr. Reynolds. This establishment was founded towards the end of the seventeenth century. The examples consist of whole-length figures and busts on a small scale; the modelling evinces very considerable merit, and it is to be regretted that the manufacture of an artistic fabric of so much promise should have lasted so short a time.

Such a fine collection of enamelled works on metal has never before been brought together in England; there are examples of all periods whenever the art was practised. In the Alexandrian necklace we have the rare instance of the use of enamel by the Greeks, and it is difficult to understand why so fascinating an art was not more general amongst a people who had such a keen appreciation of the beautiful.

The very fine, though mutilated, pectoral cross, from the Debruge collection, exhibited by Mr. B. Hope, is a rare example of the art as practised by the Byzantine workmen of about the tenth century: this process is termed “cloisonné.” The design is formed by slender lines of filagree gold attached to a plate of the same metal, so as to form the outline of the design; the interstices are filled with enamels of the colours required, which become vitrified and translucent under the action of fire; the whole is then polished, and thus becomes the most enduring of all modes of decoration. In the rare cup sent by Mrs. Paul, the enamel is not laid on, but worked into the metal lines of the sides and bottom of the cup; the transparent enamel being held together merely by the fine lines of the filagree gold; this remarkable work is probably of the 14th century.

There are numerous choice examples of the process called “champ-levé.” Here the copper-surface is chiselled out into the pattern required, in the same way that a wood block is prepared for printing; the cavities are then filled with many coloured enamels, and the whole ground down to a smooth surface, and the metal lines gilt. This process was practised extensively at Limoges during the thirteenth century.

A whole case is filled with very fine examples of the later Limoges enamels; a sort of revival of the art established by Francis I. about 1530, and adopted by Leonard Limousin. They are simply surface paintings, enamelled on copper; the colours used are frequently very rich and effective, especially in those portraits having a background of the deepest blue. Many fine works were produced “en grisaille,” that is, the drawings were executed with white opaque enamel on black ground, the flesh tints were coloured, and the whole heightened with gold, thus producing a very harmonious effect. At the beginning of the 18th century the art sunk into utter imbecility.

The practice of enamelling was by no means confined to Limoges. Germany had a school of its own, as well as Italy; to one of these latter schools must be ascribed the very curious cup lent by Lord Arundell of Wardour; it is ornamented en grisaille, heightened with gold, both inside and out; the subject is the old story of the monkeys, who having stripped the traveller of his clothing whilst asleep, are scampering from tree to tree, each carrying some article of attire; it is full of the most playful fancy, and of wondrous delicacy of execution.

Another very remarkable example of the enameller’s art is to be found in a pair of stirrups, sent by Mr. Forman; they are of the same form as those used in Turkey and in the south of Spain at the present day, having a square foot-rest with high rounded sides; they are ornamented with bands of the most delicate filagree gold, filled in with translucent enamel; the remaining portion is nielloed, that is, the surface in silver is slightly incised, and the interstices blackened with a preparation of sulphur; the arabesque pattern of this niello is very charming. The whole work is doubtless Italian, and is an unique example of this choice mode of decoration being applied to such a purpose. The price of five hundred guineas was not thought too much for the purchase of these fine things; and one can only marvel at what must have been the cost of a mediaeval “mount,” if the other trappings bore any proportion to the value of the stirrups.

Baron Lionel Rothschild, as becomes a millionaire of the first class, has a case all to himself. One of the most noteworthy things here is an antique Roman vase of coloured glass—if glass it be—it is a work of the lower empire, probably of the third or fourth century; the ornamentation consists of figures cut in high relief, and of foliage so completely undercut, that the different parts are only attached by projecting points; the colour of the material is a sort of sage green, but the effect when seen by transmitted light is very beautiful; the ground becomes a delicate pink, and the thicker portions a lovely mauve. This rare object has almost its match in the corresponding angle of the case, where is seen a sculptured cup, cut out of a single topaz, larger than an ostrich’s egg; it is mounted in cinque-cento enamel; the supports are formed by dragons in green and gold, the whole profusely sown with diamonds; a larger dragon, of the same costly material, forms the handle. This is a very choice example of mounting, and well illustrates the admirable way in which the Italian artists of that period used diamonds to give a life and brilliancy to their enamelled jewellery; a much more judicious employment of these precious stones than in the stiff, cold, silver setting of the present day, where all the interest centres in the value and sparkle of the stones, rather than on any artistic efforts which should have been bestowed upon the mounting. Another glorious example of this enamelled and jewelled mounting is to be found in the beautiful sardonyx cup sent by Mr. Beresford Hope. This mode of enamelling differs entirely from that of Limoges: it was practised in Italy by Cellini and others during the cinque-cento period. It was not confined to surface ornament; figures in high relief, and sometimes detached altogether, were minutely and exquisitely modelled, as may be seen in the jewel exhibited by Mr. Holford. Here, on an oval plaque, some three inches by four, is represented the whole subject of the Last Judgment; a multitude of figures is shown, surmounted by the angelic host, and our Lord resting on a rainbow; this is represented by fine opals, whose iridescent lustre conveys ingeniously, but somewhat clumsily, the idea of ethereal matter.

There are some fine specimens exhibited of the long-neglected art of damascening. This art, like so many others, was early practised in the East, especially at Damascus, hence the name; but subsequently with great success by the workers of Milan and Venice in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. These works in iron were formed by roughening the whole surface of the metal with a fine graver; the ornaments, for the most part consisting of thin threads of gold, were then fixed by means of pressure: the whole was afterwards burnished, which restored the ground, where not covered by the gold, to nearly its original polish. The table sent by the Duke of Hamilton, and the toilet mirror resting upon it, are fine examples of the process. The shield belonging to the Queen, and sent from the guardroom at Windsor, is another example of this mode of treatment. Here, the value of damascened work as an auxiliary to iron is shown in the great richness and warmth it gives to this otherwise cold material.

A very magnificent specimen of chased iron work, depending only on its own material, is seen in the chair sent from Longford Castle, perhaps the richest and most tasteful of its kind known. It was presented to the Emperor Rudolph II. by the City of Augsburg in 1574; it is adorned with small statues and reliefs of the most delicate workmanship, representing numerous events; from the flight of Æneas, and the history of the Roman Emperors, down to the time of Rudolph. It was made by one Thomas Ruker, and it is remarkable that little or nothing is known of this artist by the local writers of the city of Augsburg, a place particularly distinguished for workers in iron during the sixteenth century.

On the conquest of Prague, the Swedes carried off this chair from the cabinet of curiosities. After being long in the possession of a noble family in Sweden, it was brought to England, and sold to the father of the present Earl of Radnor.

The collection of glass, both ancient and mediæval, is very rich; the two cases of Greek and Roman glass, sent by Mr. Webb, contain very choice examples.

There is also a charming piece of mediæval glass lent by the Duke of Hamilton and Brandon. It is a bottle of elegant form, almost covered with gold and enamels of the richest hue; the style of ornamentation, and probably the fabric, is of Arabian or Persian work. This is only another instance of the rich mine of artistic wealth which has come to us from the East. These orientals seem intuitively to understand the harmony of colours; whether it be a shawl from Cashmere—an ordinary Turkey carpet from Smyrna, or, in this instance, an early work of a Persian or Arabian artist—the same fixed principle is found. Take for example, as only one instance out of many, the neck of the bottle in question, the decoration is merely a foliated scroll in gold, with a light touch of crimson just to define the outline, placed on a rich blue ground; a small white thread of enamel interlaces the pattern and serves to mark the character of the idea: the result is excellent.

Indeed there are many examples in this collection, of purity and simplicity of design, which might well teach us a lesson when we see the senseless overlaying of ornament which is but too often found in our ordinary works of modern art.

There are some splendid specimens here of decorated furniture, a branch of art in which the French were unrivalled in the last century. A cabinet, sent by the Duke of Buccleugh, is a noble example of the Buhl fabric, as is the marqueterie piece, lent by the Duke of Hamilton, of inlaid wood work. There is also a cabinet of tulip wood, profusely decorated with ormolu, and ornamented with plaques of Sèvres porcelain in green, with three fine jardinières to correspond; this cabinet with its garniture of Sèvres, lent by Mr. Charles Mills, is a most dainty specimen of what the best French artists could produce in this way.

An equally fine example belonging to Mr. Barker is in the same case; here the ormolu is very finely chased, and the dark wood relieved by plaques of the purest white porcelain, covered with bouquets of flowers; the whole piece is a charming specimen of the kind of decoration which prevailed in the best salons and boudoirs of France, before the revolution and the sans culottes played such havoc in the French palaces.

The collection too is very rich in the snuff boxes of this powder and peruque period. In those days of stately action, the art of using the snuff box gracefully, was as much an accomplishment as the proper use of the ladies’ fan, as we read in “The Rape of Lock:”

“Sir Plume of amber snuff-box justly vain.”

All the art of the enameller, the painter, and the jeweller was lavished on the production of these gorgeous trifles; and although their original use has passed away, they are by no means to be overlooked. A glance at the magnificent series lent by Mr. Goding and others will show that some of the finest work of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries has been exhausted on snuff boxes.

Another branch of old art is well represented, that of illuminated manuscripts, one which, perhaps, reminds us more than anything else, in these days of never-ending type setting, of the change going on in the world. In mediæval times, when the production of a fine missal was almost the life-long work of a man, every page had an interest of its own. In the monotonous illuminated books of the present day, where every leaf is a weak counterpart of the rest, no such interest exists. A fine example of the old work may be seen in the interesting volume of St. Chad’s Gospel, a work of the tenth century: the illuminations consist of the most delicate interlaced work, in subdued colours; the play of fancy in the endless combination of birds and beasts is most remarkable: it is a very fine example of the peculiar style of ornamentation in vogue in these islands, and especially in Ireland, during the three or four centuries preceding the Conquest. The large folio missal of English work, presented in 1506 to the parish church of Caldbeech, in Cumberland, is a gorgeous example of the richness of even our country churches in works of ecclesiastical art previous to the Reformation.

No part of the collection is more historically interesting than the specimens of Glyptic art contained in the two cases exhibited by the Queen. Thanks to the valuable work of the Rev. C. W. King, the knowledge of gems has become of late far better understood amongst us. From the nature of the objects exhibited, it is not in all cases possible to see them satisfactorily.

There will be no difficulty in recognising the grand antique Roman Cameo, bearing the profile bust of Constantinus II. It has been pronounced the most important as to dimensions, subject, and material that distinguishes any English cabinet of gems. Immediately under the large cameo is a massy gold ring, set with a ruby of the finest quality, on which is cut a crowned head in profile of Louis XII. of France; this is perhaps the earliest authentic regal portrait extant of modern date; both for material and execution this gem is an invaluable example of this period of the art. The name of the king and the date of his death, 1515, are engraved inside.

Next comes a bust in front face, showing the bluff features of Harry VIII.; it is minutely finished upon a choice sardonyx. Still more important is another likeness of the same good-humoured tyrant, accompanied by that of the infant Edward VI. These likenesses, being after Holbein, tend (says Mr. King) to support the opinion that cameos were at that time executed in Italy or France after paintings sent to the gem engravers. The matured skill of the last half century of the cinque-cento period has never produced a more extraordinary or more beautiful cameo than the bust of Queen Elizabeth upon a large and perfect sardonyx. The face is life itself, whilst the jewellery, the plaits, and intricacies of the head tire, and of the farthingale, testify abundantly to the incredible patience of the engraver. The disputed point, as to whether the true diamond has been engraved, is here set at rest by the signet made for Charles II. when Prince of Wales. In this the ostrich plumes are neatly and deeply cut upon a table diamond; and, to remove all possibility of scepticism, it has been examined and declared a diamond by Professor Tennant.

An account of the large and most interesting collection of miniatures now brought together would suffice to fill a volume. From the time of Henry VIII. down to the end of the last century, most of the notabilities are found represented in some form or other. The series opens with Holbein, and includes all that brilliant galaxy of miniature painters which flourished during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, such as Hilliard, Oliver, and Cooper; and the enamellers, Petitot, Boit, and Zincke; and ending only with Cosway. The collection represents in a small compass almost a complete national portrait gallery. There are several admirable miniatures of Oliver Cromwell, by S. Cooper, which deserve especial attention; and it may be observed with regard to this artist’s works in general, that they are marked by such breadth of treatment and power, that, although merely miniatures, they rank in the highest sense as great paintings. The French series of miniatures is scarcely less rich, principally, however, of the beauties of the Court of Louis XIV. and XV.

When looking at these exquisite productions of a past age, one cannot but feel something more than regret that the miniature painter’s art should have become almost a thing of the past; and, in truth, one feels but little disposed to accept as a substitute the grim formalities of the photographer’s work. In fine, it must be owned, that great as our progress has been in many things during the present century, there is still much to be learnt by a careful study of these art treasures of bygone times.

J. E. N.