11442 A SUPERB PAIR OF REGENCY ROSEWOOD LIBRARY CABINETS WITH GILTWOOD DETAILING AND FAUX BOOK PANELS English. Early Nineteenth Century. Measurements: Width: 51″ (129.5 cm); Height: 37 1/4 (94.5 cm); Depth: 13 3/4″ (35 cm).
Of rosewood, giltwood, gilt composition and gilt brass. Faux books and mirror glass. Each with white marble top with straight front and concave ends, rests upon a plain frieze set with giltwood roundel and patereae and centered by a giltwood star motif. The central door with plain lozenge pattern brass grills encloses a panel of three rows of faux books. The door is flanked by ebonzied circular parcel gilt columns surmounted by Egyptian busts. The concave ends with three fixed shelves and mirror glass panel backing. The whole raised on four massive giltwood leonine feet with gadrooned collars. One mirror panel a recent replacement using old glass. Small repairs and replacements to gilt detailing. The tops old but with repairs and slightly shortened at the widest extremities.
Old distinguished UK West County collection.
The cabinets may be considered some of the most sophisticated examples of Regency furniture whose design so successfully melds elegant late ançien regime French influence with a more informal Englishness, typified by the use of leather book spines and sparing but poignant use of sculpted ornament. They are also illustrative of the revival of interest in ancient architecture and decoration that informed the English furniture design of the early nineteenth century.
Through the second half of the eighteenth century a series of pioneering scholarly studies by men such as Robert Wood, Robert Adam, James Stuart and Nicholas Revett made the artefacts and remains of the classical world increasingly familiar to the English connoisseur; whilst Charles Heatchcote Tatham’s publication in 1800 of his Etchings of Ancient Ornamental Architecture introduced a new range of classical motifs into English furniture design. Napoleon’s military campaign in Egypt brought a series of publications in its wake, including from 1803 the exhaustive twenty-three volume official account Description de l’Egypte, that came to be treated as ornamental source books for those designers working in the newly fashionable Egyptian taste. These texts provided the inspiration for a new antiquarian approach to furniture design; led by Thomas Hope, who published his widely influential Household Furniture and Interior Decoration in May 1807, and manifested in the designs of George Smith.
The busts heading the uprights to the front corners of the cabinets are unusual representations of the inventiveness of regency design. The heads of the figures owe something to Egyptian forms but are more original in detail with respect to the headdress and veil and are closer in spirit to Grecian caryatids, particularly canephora, or basket-bearers, in the lotus-like blossom issuing from their cylindrical hats. This iconography relates somewhat to the Egyptian figure of Isis, who was associated with the lotus and whose headdress, the Hathor (cow horns enclosing a sun disk), takes a similar shape (figure 1). The Romans blended this deity with Fortuna; the closest contemporary design sources were produced by Bernard de Montfauçon in Antiquity Explained, and Represented in Sculptures in his illustrations of Fortune (figure 2) and a similar representation by Thomas Hope in Costumes of the Ancients (figure 3). The zigzag pattern bands on the body of the columns also have their origin in ancient Egypt. “The frieze or broad-band is the commonest form of these decorations. and the details are generally some of the more important symbols, as the lotus, or water-lily of the Nile…and the zigzag, the type of water of the Nile itself. This ancient signification of the zigzag is still preserved in the present zodiac sign of the Water-carrier, or Aquarius.”1
The form of the cabinets draws down on French influences of the 1780s and 1790s, and enthusiasm for French 18th century furniture remained consistent in England as pieces were made available for import after the revolution. The Prince Regent, later George IV, was heavily responsible for popularizing the style. A related French example in the Royal Collection, of the same overall form with concave mirrored shelves to the sides, is a cabinet by Adam Weisweiler, circa 1785-95 (figure 4). The shape was introduced in England by great Georgian cabinetmakers such as George Hepplewhite, who published designs for pier tables with similar incurved sides, and designers like Henry Holland were instrumental in bringing a subtle and restrained version of this style to Great Britain.
Undoubtedly the most intact example of an English house that employed furniture in the Gallic taste is Samuel Whitbread’s (1764-1815) Southill (c. 1795). Henry Holland was the architect and it is thought likely that he designed much of the furniture for the specific spaces within in the house. In his chapter on the furnishings included in Southill: A Regency House, F.J.B. Watson makes specific reference to cabinets related to the present examples which flank the chimney of the Drawing Room. Here he states: “In their use of tapered, fluted and partially gilded pillars at the corners…and especially in their curved ends containing open shelves, they vividly recall the forms adopted for commodes in the last decade before Revolution by Beneman and Weisweiler…”2 Archive records show that Whitbred employed a number of leading furniture makers at Southill, including Morel, Marsh, Lichtfield and Tatham, and it is possible that the present cabinets were made by one of these preeminent names used to working in a sophisticated French-inspired style.
The doors of the present cabinets have been cleverly designed as bookshelves, employing faux book spines behind lozenge pattern brass grills. This conceit was applied to pieces made by leading late 18th and 19th century furniture designers. Thomas Sheraton describes the need to incorporate ‘sham books’ into his design for the Sisters Cylinder Bookcase in his 1803 publication The Cabinet Dictionary. Gillows of Lancaster similarly required approximately 52 “book backs” to be applied to the side panels of their small pedestal bookstands, circa 1830, illustrated in the firm’s ‘Estimate Sketch Book’ of April 1831 (figure 5).
- Wornum, Ralph N. Analysis of Ornament: The Characteristics of Styles. London: Chapman & Hall, 1884. 40.
- A.E. Richardson et al., Southill: A Regency House, London: Faber and Faber (1951), p. 24