Probably Naples. Circa 1780.


Height: 33 3/4" (86 cm)
Width: 20" (51 cm)
Depth: 15 1/4" (39 cm)


Of satinwood, boxwood, amaranth and ebony with steel mounts. Each with inset white marble top surmounted by a continuous pierced steel gallery above a steel molding and inlaid with dentils. The single door centered by an oval cameo inlaid with a classical female figure within a quarter veneered rectangular panel inlaid to each corner with a dragonfly. The panel edged with a band of stylized leaves and with a flowerhead to each corner, the door flanked by posts inlaid with faux flutes, each centered by a moth. The door opening to reveal an interior fitted with three graduated, paneled drawers, each centered by a key escutcheon and mounted with two oval steel ring handles. The sides decorated with conforming quarter-veneered rectangular panels inlaid with dragonflies. The whole raised on four square tapering legs, each leg edged with ebony, headed with a steel collar and terminating in a square steel foot. Some losses to galleries.

Private Collection, Sussex, UK
An Important American Collection

It seems likely that this pair of petite commodes is a product of the highly fertile and culturally thriving center that was Naples during the latter half of the eighteenth century, and that they represent a late-eighteenth century evolution of the commode, raised on tall tapering legs, with a single door concealing tiers of drawers. A related Neapolitan piece of this form also decorated with classical figures framed within stylized “Etruscan” motifs now forms part of the collection of Villa Cimena, near Turin.1

At this time Naples was the capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and under the rule of the Bourbon Dynasty. As a result, the court looked to France for its artistic inspiration, however, there also remained a desire to assert a distinctive Neapolitan identity and avoid mere slavish imitation, evident in the apparent flair and playfulness of the decoration. There was also a prominent English community present in the city at this time, centered around the British Ambassador Sir William Hamilton (1731-1803) and his wife Emma (1765-1815). This may explain the subtly English appearance of these cabinets, which could well have been made for a member of this community. The antiquarian, archaeological, and scientific activities of Hamilton and his circle may have influenced the cabinets’ decorative scheme as well as their exquisite steel mounts. The inlaid decoration throughout these pieces is of exceptionally high quality, and we know of no finer example of Neapolitan marquetry of the period. This very precise quality is much in line with that found on English late-eighteenth century furniture of highest level, produced by such makers as Mayhew and Ince and John Linnell. This further supports the possibility that these items could have been specific commissions for an English “Milord.”

The use of finely cast steel mounts, as can be seen here in the gallery, the leg collars and feet, and the handles, is apparently unique in eighteenth century Italian furniture. Several centers are known where steel was worked to the fineness of jewelry, including Tula, Vienna, Birmingham and Paris. The relationship between Paris and Naples was close in the late-eighteenth century due to its shared Bourbon rulership, and because no steel production is known in Naples it is possible that the mounts were a special order from the French capital. Recent research has shown that a dynasty of steel workers was active in Paris who performed work to rival the quality of other great production centers. The Schey family, who had been established there before 1781, worked from the rue de Faubourg Saint-Denis, no. 95, as the only manufacturers of high-quality polished steel, which, at this time, was viewed as a semi-precious material. In 1808 they received a fifteen-year patent, “for processes relating to the manufacture of … objects of steel.”2 Patriarch Reynard Schey presented items of his steel production at the Expositions des Produits de l’Industrie, receiving silver medals in 1801 and 1806 and a gold medal in 1819. The catalog of 1819 says of their work in steel that “all is executed in an accomplished manner and is of the greatest beauty known in this genre.”3 Among Schey’s notable production is a pair of large steel mounted candelabra from the collection of Didier Aaron. A casket produced by the firm Martin-Guillaume Biennais, which bears the monogram of Empress Josephine, circa 1806, today in the Musée National des Châteaux de Malmaison, is decorated with faceted steel mounts supplied by the Schey family, as is a closely related jewelry box on stand also for Empress Josephine sold in the Paris art trade.

Full research report available on request.

Full research report available on request.