9870 THE DEVONSHIRE TAZZA AN IMPORTANT MASSIVE EGYPTIAN ALABASTER TAZZA FROM THE CURVE OF THE CRYSTAL STAIRCASE, DEVONSHIRE HOUSE Probably Rome. Late Eighteenth Or Early Nineteenth Century. Measurements: Height: 31 1/2″(80 cm) Width: 57″ (145 cm) Depth 48″
Of Egyptian Alabaster. Of kylix form form with gadrooned underbowl from which massive upcurved handles protrude. The whole raised on tall waisted socle terminating in a cushion molded base. Old repairs and minor losses. Some minor recent repairs.
Probably acquired by the 6th Duke of Devonshire, an avid collector of alabaster.
Devonshire House, Removed by 1925
Acquired by Messrs Holland, Hannen and Cubitts Ltd. of 258 Grays Inn Road London WC1
Thought to have been acquired by William Randolph Hearst.
Jules Stein, Misty Mountain, Beverly Hills, California
Bradbury, Oliver. The Lost Mansions of Mayfair. Historical Publications, 2008, p162
Sykes, Christopher Simon. Private Palaces, Life inthe Great London Houses. Chatto & Windus, 1985, p270.
This massive tazza once formed part of the collection at Devonshire House, Piccadilly. Together with only two other related alabaster tazzas, these vessels represent what are probably the largest known examples of sculptures in Egyptian alabaster made during the neoclassical period. The related tazzas have equally exalted provenances: one was a gift of Pope Pius IX to King Ferdinand II (figure 1), the other stood in the Entrance Hall at the Duke of Westminster’s Eaton Hall (figure 2). Given the similarity of scale and material, as well as the presence of integral alabaster stands, it seems likely that all three were the product of a single Roman workshop.
Egyptian alabaster was “one of the most desired stone types […] from Predynastic until Graeco-Roman times.”1 The best known quarries were located east of the Nile in Middle Egypt, at Wadi el-Garawi and Hatnub, which means “mansion of gold.” They were mined sporadically by the Egyptians from as early as the 26th century BC over a period of 3,000 years and on into the Roman period, which began when Egypt became part of the Roman Empire under Julius Caesar after the Battle of Actium circa 31 BC.
Called alabastrites by the ancient Greeks and Romans, the “alabaster” of ancient civilizations actually describes calcium carbonate (sometimes referred to as calcite-alabaster, travertine, or limestone onyx), rather than gypsum, the material accepted as alabaster today. Its layers are formed by deposits in limestone caverns or calcareous springs that create an attractive banded appearance in the stone. The material was largely used by the ancient Egyptians for pavements and wall-linings, as well as for smaller items such as canopic jars, statues, and ritual objects. It was among the most beautiful ancient stones, with its distinct veining, warm color and translucent luster. It later became one of the Romans’ treasured stones, and was used to create “all kind of vases, bowls, sarcophagi, altars, temple pavements and even colossal statues.”2 According to Pliny the Elder, alabaster of the type which he described as “melleo” or honey colored was the most prized.3
The tazza, Italian for “cup,” is a shallow, saucer-like dish mounted on a stem and foot, or a foot alone. The form derives from the ancient Greek kylix, or drinking cup for wine, made of pottery or bronze (figure 3). A common characteristic of these cups is the form of the symmetrical handles, which extend horizontally from under the body of the vessel and curve upward beside the lip. This form was introduced in England upon the discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the mid-18th century by publications such as d’Hancarville’s Antiquites Etrusques, Grecques et Romaines.
Devonshire House was designed by William Kent and built in 1733-4 by William, 3rd Duke of Devonshire, on Piccadilly Street as London residence for the Dukes of Devonshire. Separated from the street by a high wall, the Palladian façade was rather understated and severe, apart from a decorative double staircase at the entrance. However, it concealed a sumptuous interior that housed the Duke’s impressive collections. Between 1776 and 1790 the 5th Duke of Devonshire enlisted architect James Wyatt to make a series of alterations and his son, the 6th Duke, employed John Crace & Company to make further modifications between 1840 and 1845. The most acclaimed of these changes was the “crystal staircase,” an interior circular stairway of marble and alabaster, so-called for its glass handrail and newel post.
The tazza was positioned in this atrium, where it was complemented by the marble and alabaster of the stairs and could be observed in all its magnificence from every angle (figure 4). Also at the foot of the stairs stood a sardonyx tiger head mounted on a platinum pedestal, purported to have been mounted on the arms of Caesar Augustus’ chair,4 that the 6th Duke purchased in Rome, and which demonstrates further the family’s interest in the classical world.
The 6th Duke of Devonshire has been described as the greatest collector of his age, who transformed his country seat Chatsworth into “a palace of spectacular splendor.” He commissioned Sir Jeffry Wyattville circa 1818 to build a new wing with a gallery specifically designed to house his contemporary sculpture collection, which includes some of the most extraordinary classical and neoclassical specimens, such as Canova’s Madame Mère and Endymion, Thorvaldsen’s Venus, and John Gibson’s Mars and Cupid. The gallery also contained a giant tazza to a design by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, made in Berlin, of polished Mecklenburg granite. Indeed, many of the Duke’s peers set about acquiring ancient and contemporary sculpture upon being “bit by marble mania.”5 The Duke made his first visit to Rome in 1819, “where ‘the love of marble possesses one like a new sense’,”6 and by 1834 the majority of his acquisitions had been moved into the Chatsworth gallery. The 6th Duke, “captivated by the beauty of marble,”7 is known to have had a particular passion for alabaster and the tazza may well have rested at Chatsworth prior to its move to Devonshire House.
While it is not certain at what point the present tazza entered the Devonshire collection, we do know when it was sold, as a letter dated January 1, 1925 reveals that Messrs Holland, Hannen and Cubitts Ltd. of 258 Grays Inn Road London WC1 acquired the tazza. The letter records the purchase of “the onyx [the alabaster vase at the foot of the stairs was consistently referred to like this in all documents] vase and the two grey marble vases [also at the foot of the stairs] for £90 ‘as they now stand at Devonshire House’”8 for American clients.
The tazza is believed to have later been acquired by American business mogul and newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, possibly the same American client referenced in the aforementioned letter.
It was then owned by Jules Stein, founder of MCA, and his wife, Doris, who displayed it on the grounds of their Beverly Hills estate “Misty Mountain,” a semicircular villa originally built for Fred Niblo by Wallace Neff circa 1927 (figure 5). Neff was one of the preeminent architects of Spanish colonial-revival houses in Southern California, creating “architectural fairytales”9 for wealthy businessmen such as King Gillette and Carol Post, as well as Golden Era Hollywood royalty like Cary Grant and Claudette Colbert. His eclectic designs embodied “the mood of poetic taste wedded to a regional identity itself fabricated though metaphors of Italy, Spain, Algiers or Tripoli, which constituted such an important design for living in the Southern California of the 1920s.”10 While the Steins resided at Misty Mountain in the 1940s, they were Beverly Hills’ preeminent entertainers. “In their home, filled with exquisite seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English furniture, Doris and Jules gave parties that were famous—seated dinners of fifty to a hundred guests,”11 including Howard Hughes, Jimmy Stewart, The Duke and Duchess of Bedford, The Reagans, and Sam Goldwyn.
The second of the known monumental Egyptian alabaster tazzas stands in the Sala di Marte (Hall of Mars) in the Royal Palace of Caserta. It was given to King Ferdinand II of the Two Sicilies by Pope Pius IX in 1848. During the revolutions of the Italian states, in which a republican government replaced that of the Papal States, the pope fled Rome and took refuge in Gaeta from November 1848 to September 1849. Ferdinand’s response to Pope Pius’ arrival was “both princely and Catholic.”12 Not only did he grant Pius asylum, but he and the entire royal family traveled to Gaeta to personally receive the pope. Ferdinand “endeavored to honor the sovereign pontiff during the seventeen months of his voluntary exile…sparing no expense”13 to make the pope feel at home. Like many popes before him, Pius IX was a patron of the arts, supporting painting, sculpture, architecture, and theatre. He had elaborate bookshelves installed in the Gallery of Urban VIII to house the papal collection of manuscripts and books. While in Naples, Pius made visits to Pompeii and Herculaneum after which Ferdinand presented him with the relics excavated during his visit for the Vatican collections. The Caserta tazza was made by Roman craftsmen active during the latter half of the eighteenth century/early nineteenth century14 (see figure 1) and was certainly purchased as a gift for the exceptional support and hospitality shown by the King during Pius’ exile.
The third related marble tazza is in the collection of the Duke of Westminster at Eaton Hall. It stood for a time on the terrace and by the 1930s was placed in the center of the Entrance Hall (see figure 2). Robert Grosvenor, the 2nd Earl Grosvenor, and later the 1st Marquess of Westminster (1767-1845), appointed William Pordon to make improvements to the house in 1802, encasing it in “every possible permutation of the gothic style,”15 with its interior no less lavishly decorated. The Grosvenor family had been collectors of art for hundreds of years with one of the most notable acquisitions being that of the Agar Collection of paintings by the 1st Marquess in 1808. He was also responsible for increasing the family’s collections of furniture and “most rare specimens in the art of sculpture.”16 Eaton Hall’s scheme of magnitude and massivity was improved upon by his son, Richard Grosvenor, 2nd Marquess of Westminster (1795-1869), who commissioned William Burn to further alter the house. After making his Grand Tour in 1818, the 2nd Marquess set about improving his London home and country seats. Beginning in the 1820s he also developed Belgravia, one of London’s most fashionable residential districts which the Grosvenor family owned, and in which a classical influence in the architecture dominates.
1. Klemm, Dietrich D., and Rosemarie Klemm. “The Building Stones of Ancient Egypt – a Gift of Its Geology.” Journal of African Earth Sciences 33.3-4 (2001): 631-42. Print.
3. Pliny, Book XXXVI, 7.
4. Leach, Henry. The Duke of Devonshire: A Personal and Political Biography. London: Methuen & Co, 1904. 280.
5. Yarrington, Alison. ‘“Under Italian skies’, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, Canova and the Formation of the Sculpture Gallery at Chatsworth House.” www.chatsworth.org/files/italian_skies.pdf. 57.
6. The Duchess of Devonshire. Chatsworth The House. London: Frances Lincoln Limited, 2002. 126.
7. Barker, Nicholas. Five Centuries of Collecting at Chatsworth. Alexandria: Art Services International, 2003.
8. Charles Noble, Curator (Fine Art & Loans) The Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth. “Egyptian Alabaster Tazza from Devonshire House.” Email to Mr. Anthony Outred. 12 July 2010.
9. Starr, Kevin. Material Dreams: Southern California Through the 1920’s. New York, N.Y: Oxford University Press, 1996. Print. 207.
10. Ibid., 208.
11. Bruck, Connie. When Hollywood Had a King: The Reign of Lew Wasserman, Who Leveraged Talent into Power and Influence. New York: Random House, 2003. Print. 86.
12. Mills, Alexius J.F. The Life of Pope Pius IX, Volume I From 1792 to 1868. London: D. Lane, 1877. 91.
13. O’Reilly, Bernard. A Life of Pius IX Down To The Episcopal Jubilee of 1877. New York: P.F. Collier, 1877. 242.
14. Lucia Bellofatto, Direttore scientifico, Palazzo reale Caserta. “Devonshire Tazza.” Email to Mr. Alexander di Carcaci. 17 January 2012.
15. Newton, Diana and Jonathan Lumby. The Grosvenors of Eaton. Eccleston, Cheshire: Jennet Publications, 2002.
16. ‘Old Grosvenor House’, Survey of London: volume 40: The Grosvenor Estate in Mayfair, Part 2 (The Buildings) (1980), pp. 239-250. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=42145& strquery=”eaton hall” Date accessed: 05 June 2012.