9939 PAIR OF PURPLEHEART AND GILT BRASS MOUNTED CABINETS ATTRIBUTED TO GEORGE BULLOCK English. Circa 1815. Measurements: Height: 68 1/2″ (174cm) Width: 25 1/4″ (64cm) Depth: 14 3/8″ (36.5cm).
Of purpleheart with gilt brass grilles and mounts. Each with eared triangular pediment mounted with harp-playing putti astride trumpeting centaurs above two doors with scroll-pattern grilles and a long drawer, the lower part with grilles backed with pleated silk enclosing fourteen satinwood drawers edged with ebony. Columns flanking base and feet reinstated.
The cabinetmaker George Bullock (d. 1819) made his name as a highly important contributor to Regency design. In that brief time he executed distinctly original works and won commissions from esteemed persons of the day, and notably, Napoleon’s final home at New Longwood on St. Helena, contracted by the British government.
Bullock began his career in 1801 working as a portrait sculptor in Liverpool, where his brother William was also stationed. He soon began a transition into cabinet making and furniture design, and in 1804 went into business with looking-glass manufacturer William Stoakes. The pair opened “Bullock and Stoakes Cabinet Makers, General Furnishers and Marble Workers.” This partnership, as well as a subsequent collaboration with Joseph Gandy, did not last, and in 1814 Bullock moved his practice to London. He continued to work in sculpture, but expanded his business to include a furniture workshop and antiques dealership. Over the course of his career Bullock received several major commissions: those of Cholmondely Castle, Abbotsford for Sir Walter Scott, Great Tew Park for industrialist Matthew Robinson Boulton and, as mentioned above, New Longwood for Napoleon.
The extraordinary story of the furnishing by Bullock of New Longwood House, St. Helena for Napoleon’s exile has only recently come to light.1 After Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815 he was sent to the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic at the suggestion of the British Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool. It was important to the British Government that Napoleon, although exiled, was “properly housed and furnished,”2 and to this end George Bullock was commissioned to supply furniture, curtains, and wall and floor coverings in just six weeks’ time. Upon Napoleon’s arrival, he lived at a house known as Old Longwood House and, although the New Longwood residence would be planned, built and mostly furnished by 1821, Napoleon did not live to make it his home.
The present bookcases are of the same form, as those supplied in 1819 for the breakfast room at New Longwood. In the elevation for the breakfast room, dated November 1815, the bookcases are shown flanking the window (figure 1). According to “His Majesty’s Government in account with George Bullock. for Household Furniture, Stores &c for the use of Genl. Bonaparte at St. Helena. shipped on board the Adamant Transport 1st January 1816” today held at the Public Record Office, Kew, Bullock charged £73 10s for ‘2 Dwarf Cabinet Bookcases’ intended for the ‘Sitting Room for General’ (another name for the Breakfast Room). According to a label on one of the bookcases, they “formed the bibliothèque, in his cabinet at St Helena, of the Emperor Napoleon” and “contained his books, MSS., and valuables.”3
The St. Helena bookcases were later recorded as having two rows of seven small drawers enclosed by the lower doors; the same arrangement as on the present bookcases. At Napoleon’s death they were taken by St. Helena’s governor, Sir Hudson Lowe, and later sold in his sale by Phillips in 1844 to W. Knight of Cannonbury Square. The bookcases next appear in the John Copling sale at Puttick and Simpson, 3 July 1867, lots 254 and 255, sold to Russell. They were subsequently advertised for sale in the September 1920 issue of The Connoisseur (figure 2). The advertisement mentions that the bookcases were also included in a sale catalog of 1876, lot 331, however this sale has not been identified. The present location of the St. Helena bookcases is unknown.
Two other known examples of the present model of bookcase have been documented. At Christie’s sale of Bullock’s stock in 1819, Lot 98 was a “rosewood Lady’s bookcase and cabinet… the lower part with brass folding doors, enclosing 14 cedarwood drawers, with satinwood fronts filleted with ebony, and with ebony knob handles, 5′ 10″ high.”4
Another bookcase of the same form is illustrated in the Bullock exhibition catalogue, No. 39 (figure 3). This bookcase, executed in gonçalo alvez, has the same gilt handles to the middle drawer and the same flanking pediment mounts as the present bookcases. The central pediment mount of the horn-blowing centaurs occurs only on the present bookcases; both the gonçalo alvez bookcase and the St. Helena bookcases are mounted with two lions drinking at a fountain. A similar bookcase pattern, entitled ‘A Lady’s Bookcase, with Cabinet’ later appeared in Richard Brown’s Rudiments of Drawing Cabinet and Upholstery Furniture, 1822, pl. XVIII (figure 4).
The purpleheart of the present bookcases has now faded to the color of mahogany, but the purple would originally have been quite startling. Coming mostly from British Guiana, Trinidad, and Brazil, purpleheart, sometimes known as amaranth, is a very heavy hard wood, difficult to work but giving a lustrous finish. Bullock seems always to have been on the lookout for unusual timbers and employed a remarkable repertoire of native and exotic species including holly, bog oak, laburnum, larch, maple and gonçalo alvez. In an advertisement of 1812, Bullock mentions; “scarce and valuable wood… Mahogany, Zebra, Topaz and other woods… exhibiting specimens of various fancy woods.”5
Bullock’s talent and success lay, in part, in his ability to master a range of styles. He could execute furnishings at both extremes of design from weighty, carved gothic baronial pieces to more austere and restrained examples, considered avant-garde in their time. His unmistakable take on neoclassicism, both severe and highly inventive, is embodied in the lines and crisp execution of the present bookcases.
- Bullock, George, and Clive Wainwright. George Bullock: Cabinet-Maker. London: Murray, in association with H. Blairman & Sons, 1988. 33-36.
- Levy, Martin. Napoleon in Exile: The Houses and Furniture Supplied by the British Government for the Emperor and His Entourage on St Helena. Leeds: Furniture History Society, 1998. 79.
- Ibid., 93.
- Wainwright, 103.
- Ibid., 45.