9889 AN EXQUISITE PAIR OF NEOCLASSICAL MARQUETRY AND STEEL MOUNTED PETIT COMMODES Probably Naples. Circa 1780.   Measurements: 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.

In their marquetry decoration, the present cabinets represent the vogue in European decorative arts in the last decades of the eighteenth century to use elements taken from antique vases, which was prompted by the publication of Hamilton’s Collection of Etruscan, Greek and Roman Antiquities in four volumes between 1766 and 1776 by the French Antiquarian, Art Historian and Entrepreneur Pierre-François Hugues, Baron d’Hancarville. In particular one of the dancing female figures on the cabinets appears to be directly derived from Volume IV of Hamilton’s collection (figure 1). Additionally, when examining the prints from Antiquities it becomes clear how many other remarkable decorative elements on these pieces are also taken from Hamilton’s publication, including the mode of depicting the female figures presented against a dark background, and the elaborate decorative geometrical and patterned framing design.

The celebrated German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann recognized that a collection of these vases was “a real treasure of drawings,”4 and it was hugely popular with many of the leading manufacturers of the period, including the industrial entrepreneur Matthew Boulton, who integrated the patterns and shapes offered by the books into his industrial output of metal vases and other decorative objects. Most famously of all, the books would influence the design repertoire of Josiah Wedgwood, who was in direct correspondence with Hamilton from the early 1770s until Wedgwood’s death in 1795. This closeness between the two men allowed Wedgwood extra access to sources in Hamilton’s collection, and in return it enabled Hamilton to influence Wedgwood’s output, a situation that helped him to “superintend” fashions in the decorative arts in England, as his nephew Charles Greville put it in a letter of December 1775.5

The influence of the designs rapidly spread beyond ceramics and metalwork into furnishings. In 1792 the German artist Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, an acquaintance of Hamilton’s based in Naples, decorated a room with images taken from the prints. The room was seen by the English draftsman and architect Charles Heathcote Tatham, who was on a research trip to Italy in 1769 on behalf of his master Henry Holland, Architect to the Prince of Wales. He wrote to inform Holland:

“A man at Naples of the name Tischbein … has published certain prints, bourdures, hangings and such like, in the Etruscan style, precisely copied from Sir William Hamilton’s Vases and adapted to small Rooms and Cabinets, he has himself fitted up a room as a specimen with which I was so pleased, that I procured specimens of the ornaments with their prices… they are suited as well to the walls of a room as to the whole furniture throughout – figures, ornaments, symbols of every kind are copied from the real vases, representing them in their exact colors – the borders are for paneling etc. and the figures are destined for the center of pannells in wide open fields of dark color.”6

Similar efforts were undertaken across Europe including in England. Some idea of the appearance of Tischbein’s cabinet is perhaps given by the Entrance Hall of Newtimber Place in Sussex, thought to date from the 1790s. The main scene on the wall depicts the upper vignette of the Meidias hydria in plate 130 of Volume 1 in Antiquities (figure 2), and the furniture in the room is similarly decorated. Etruscan rooms in country houses had become fashionable some years before, the first ones executed by James Wyatt and, most famously, Robert Adam at Osterley Park in the late 1760s. The latter room also had matching furniture made for it by the Birmingham manufacturer Henry Clay that borrowed from the designs in Antiquities and which was exquisitely japanned to give a similar finish to the ancient originals.

Inspiration from Hamilton’s publication appeared across Europe, especially as a source for dancing female figures like those seen on the present pair of cabinets, which became a serious vogue.  This fashion was furthered by Sir William’s wife Emma, Lady Hamilton, whose famous “attitudes,” like the decoration of the cabinets, were based on figures to be found on the vases in her husband’s collection. Emma, one of the legendary beauties of the age, was the mistress and later wife of Sir William, as well as the muse of the British painter George Romney and the future mistress of Lord Horatio Nelson. She arrived in Naples in 1786 and while there, developed her “Attitudes,” when she would wear custom-made tunics with only a shawl or veil as a prop, and assume various positions, gestures and expressions in imitation of classical art while her audience, which included the Neapolitan court, guessed at the meaning of each pose (figure 3 available upon request). The “Attitudes” became famous in fashionable circles both in Naples and London. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe met her during a visit to Naples and described her as “a young English girl … with a beautiful face and perfect figure” and her attitudes as “like nothing you ever saw before in your life.”7

Petite commodes like the present pair were sometimes made en suite to one or a pair of full size commodes, to be employed next to a bed. However, given the high degree of finish to the internal drawers, the superbly crafted steel loop handles and the stepped ebonized moldings, it is possible that the present cabinets were made for another specific purpose, such as the storage of prized objects. A clue to this possible function is found in the unusual inlays. Moths and dragonflies are prominent features and may indicate that the drawers were made to contain a collection of naturalia or pertaining drawings. Interestingly, William Hamilton himself, aside from collecting vases, is known to have taken a very serious interest in the field of natural history, communicating with the eminent French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon. He maintained a small rock pool constructed in the grounds of his villa in Posillipo where he kept a collection of sea creatures from which he would occasionally send dried samples back to the British Museum, and collected zoological watercolors of the kind that may have been stored in these cabinets.8

1. Roberto Valeriani and Mario Ciampi, Antiques in Italian Interiors, (London: Verba Volant, 2005) 39.
2. Archives Des Découvertes Et Des Inventions Nouvelles: Faites Dans Les Sciences, Les Arts Et Les Manufactures, Tant En France Que Dans Les Pays Étrangers … 1836-1839; Avec L’indication Succincte Des Principaux Produits De L’industrie Française; La Liste Des Brevets D’invention, De Perfectionnement Et D’importation, Délivrés Par Le Gouvernement … Et Des Notices Sur Les Prix Proposés Ou Décernés Par Différentes Sociétés Savantes, Françaises Et Étrangères, Pour L’ Encouragement Des Sciences Et Des Arts. (Paris [etc.: Treuttel et Würtz, 1800) 497.
3. Louis Costaz, Rapport Du Jury Central Sur Les Produits De L’industrie Française. (Paris: Imp. royale, 1819) 216.
4. Baron d’Hancarville Ed., Collection of Etruscan, Greek and Roman Antiquities, vol. I, p. xvi, (London and Paris 1766-1776).
5. Viccy Coltman, “Sir William Hamilton’s Vase Publications (1766-1776), A Case Study in the Reproduction and Dissemination of Antiquity.” Journal of Design History, Vol. 14, No. 1 (2001), pp. 1-16.
6. Ibid., 9.
7. Tom Pocock, “Hamilton, Emma, Lady Hamilton (bap. 1765, d. 1815),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition, Oct 2007)
8. Ian Jenkins and Kim Sloan, Vases & Volcanoes: Sir William Hamilton and His Collection, (London: Published for the Trustees of the British Museum by the British Museum Press, 1996) 71.

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