11436 A FINELY FIGURED MAHOGANY OBELISK-FORM PEDESTAL IN THE MANNER OF SIR JOHN SOANE English. Circa 1800. Measurements: Height: 36″ (91.4 cm) Width: 15 5/8 (39.7 cm) Depth: 14 3/4″ (37.5 cm).
Of figured mahogany. The square top above a molded frieze and tapered base with door to one side. The molded plinth applied to each side with shallow relief triangular pediment with acroteria.
The present cabinet is an interesting and informed example of the British regency’s taste for ancient style in nineteenth century architectural designs and decorative schemes. Its truncated obelisk form is an understated evocation of ancient civilization and derived from the large monolithic tapered pillars initially erected by the Egyptians and later widely adopted in Rome. This shape, with slanting sides typically terminates in a pyramidal shape; here, however, a square plateau provides a functional surface, on which a sculpture or ancient artifact probably rested.
This British 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.
The molded plinth of the cabinet is surmounted by a low relief triangular pediment with fan-shaped acroteria to the corners. This form was prevalent in ancient Greek and Romanfunerary architecture, particularly the naiskos, a small temple commonly used in shrines or reliefs, and grave stelae, like that of Hegeso, 410-400 BC., found in Kerameikos and today in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens (figure 1). This motif was adapted to many eighteenth and nineteenth century European monuments and tombstones, in some cases paired with the obelisk form. The tomb of Marshal André Masséna in Père Lachaise cemetery, Paris, is one such example, and was illustrated at the time in Francois-Marie Marchant de Beaumont’s “Vues pittoresques, historiques et morales du cimetière du P. La Chaise…” (1821) (figure 2).
The austere form of the cabinet emphasizes clean lines and displays to the best advantage the patterns of the finely figured mahogany. It is executed much in the manner of the great Georgian architect, Sir John Soane (1753-1837), who believed that “furniture itself should partake of the decorative character of the building.”1 Known for his influential and inventive interpretations of the neoclassic idiom, Soane’s style developed into “a novel handling of proportion [and] a highly personal mode of decorative emphasis.”2 Rather than revive historical Greek, Roman and Italian styles, he “distilled all three info forms of great beauty and originality.”3 During the twentieth century his astylar form of architecture had been influential and admired by some of the leading modernist architects.
Soane began in the offices of George Dance and rose to prominence after his return from Italy, where he studied through the sponsorship of the king. He went on to become a professor of architecture at the Royal Academy and, most notably, architect for the Bank of England and the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Soane was also a collector and adapted his house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, as a museum ‘for the study of architecture and allied arts,’ filling it with a vast assemblage of drawings, sculpture, models, antiquities, and furnishings.
Soane had a “fascination with commemorative and funereal architecture”4 and the present cabinet fits within these “sepulchral themes”5 of Soane’s designs. He employed acroteria-flanked pediments on countless designs for monuments and mausolea, and incorporated elements of tomb chambers into his domestic and public works. For example, the pedestal finds comparatives among his oeuvre in a design for his library at Lincoln’s Inn Fields by Samuel Thornton Esq. in 1802 (figure 3); designs for a tomb for Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg in the churchyard of St Nicholas, Chiswick in 1812 (figure 4); a design for a monument with obelisk datable to 1786 (figure 5); and a painted wood model designed by Soane in 1806 for the Samuel Bosanquet Monument in St. Mary’s churchyard in Leytonston (figure 7). It is also of note that Soane had been “greatly struck” by the Pere Lachaise cemetery and included in his Royal Academy lecture on furerary buildings a tomb of more sober design than that of the aforementioned Marshal Masséna, and more comparable to the present cabinet.
1. Soane, Sir John. Royal Academy Lecture VIII.
2. Furján, Helene M, and John Soane. Glorious Visions: John Soane’s Spectacular Theater. Abingdon, Oxon [England: Routledge, 2011. 14.
3. Bradbury, Oliver. Sir John Soane’s Influence on Architecture from 1791: A Continuing Legacy. S.l.: Routeledge, 2018. 12.
4. Lukacher, Brian. “Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol. 55, no. 4, 1996, pp. 454–457. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/991184.