11128 AN EXQUISITE REGENCY POLYCHROME PENWORK CHINOISERIE CABINET ON STAND ATTRIBUTED TO GEORGE WIMPEAR, ORIGINALLY TO CONTAIN A COLLECTION OF SHELLS English. Circa 1820. Measurements: Height: 45 1/2″ (115.6 cm) Width: 22″ (55.9 cm) Depth: 14″ (35.6 cm).
Of polychrome penwork decorated wood. The canted rectangular top above a pair of doors, each decorated with an ebonized ground with polychrome chinoiserie scenes of figures in gardens, above a canted base, the sides decorated with floral penwork decoration. The interior with six variously sized drawers decorated with further penwork chinoiserie garden scenes, the inner doors decorated with ebonized ground and polychrome chinoiserie scenes of figures in gardens. Decorated overall with foliate scrolling penwork borders and frieze. The stand with inset frieze on square tapering legs terminating in turned cylindrical feet.
Some original written labels to the inside of the drawers including Cypraa, Helix, and Bulla
Private Canadian Collection
The present cabinet belongs to a small group of similarly exquisitely decorated pieces, that can be attributed to the same maker. One of these pieces is illustrated in Marked London Furniture 1700-18401 and described as “a magnificent cabinet on stand with polychrome penwork decoration in the Chinese taste. It is inscribed in pencil ‘Made by George Wimpear in the employ of Mr Loudon, December 16th 1821’ (figure 1). It is not known whether Mr. Loudon was a master and George Wimpear a journeyman, or whether the former was a patron. The interior of the signed piece is decorated with scenes around Clifton, Bristol, and may have been executed there.
A much larger cabinet, formerly in the collection of Maurice ‘Dick’ Turpin sold by Christie’s (9 March 2006, Lot 300) employs the same decorative schemes and even replicates one of the vignettes from the inside right hand door of the present cabinet (figure 2). A further, small table cabinet in penwork, with a related canted top and decoration was sold in the American art trade in 2014 (figure 3). The table cabinet includes a vignette also found on the Turpin cabinet, further supporting the attribution of this group to the same hand.
Like the present example, the vignettes of the aforementioned cabinets are framed in ‘India’ flowers. The decoration is executed in penwork, a technique by which a varnished lacquered surface is painted with decoration added in ‘India ink,’ a true black ink made from lamp-black (soot), drawn with a quill and fine brushes. An important source for penwork design was Rudolf Ackermann’s The Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashions, and Politics, published in London between 1809 and 1828. Ackermann had opened a combination print shop, drawing school, and art supply store in London in 1795,”2 which encouraged the fashion for related decorative penwork, or ‘Painting on Wood and Fancy Work,’ as he described it. Contemporary textiles printed with hand blocks or the newly invented copper rollers also helped to popularize this style of Asian floral borders.3
The chinoiserie decoration of the cabinet reflects the Regency taste for the exotic, fostered by the patronage of the Prince of Wales, later George IV, who executed a small number of royal interiors in this taste, beginning with the lavish Chinese drawing room created in 1790 at the Prince’s London residence, Carlton House and reaching its apogee in the magical fantasy of Indian and Chinese taste of the Royal Pavilion at Brighton. The example of the Regent, and the group of culturally sophisticated aristocrats that surrounded him, meant that the use of lacquer became a prominent part of repertory of materials and forms available to the most fashionable furniture makers of the early eighteenth century London.
Most interestingly, some of the interior front drawer linings in the present cabinet bear handwritten paper labels for various types of snail shells. These include Cypraa (Cypraeidae, commonly known as cowry shells), Helix (Helicidae, the most common belonging to garden snails), and Bulla (Bullidae, known as ‘Bubble’ shells, belonging to sea snails). The popularity of shellwork objects made by artisans and ‘ladies of leisure,’ as well as shell collecting by naturalists and enlightened amateurs interested in Conchology, had reached its height in England during late-18th, and early to mid-19th century. The allusion to the natural world is charmingly personified by the figure to the right hand outer door; a Chinese gardener tending his flowers with a watering can. Shellwork was among the refined pastimes of noble and aristocratic ladies in the 18th and 19th centuries, among other such genteel recreations as paper filigree, embroidery, painted textiles, decoupage, and even penwork. These ‘accomplishments,’ as they were called, were performed by such high-ranking women as Princess Elizabeth (daughter to King George III and Queen Charlotte), the courtier Mary Delaney, and Sarah, Duchess of Richmond. Encrusted sewing boxes, display cases, and elaborate vase displays were just some of the ways shells were applied to to decorative objet d’art, and the present cabinet would have served as a practical and fashionable repository for such a collection of materials.
- Gilbert, Christopher. Pictorial Dictionary of Marked London Furniture, 1700-1840. Furniture History Society/ W.S. Maney and Son Ltd, 1996. Page 308, figure 578.
- Penwork: The Triumph of Line, October 12-November 10, 1989. New York: Hyde Park Antiques, 1989. 8.
- Ibid., 14.