9977 AN EXQUISITE MONUMENTAL GOLD GROUND PAINTED PANEL BY JOHN GREGORY CRACE FOR THE 1851 GREAT EXHIBITION, LONDON English. Circa 1850.   Measurements: Height: 125″ (317.5 cm) Width: 36″ (91.5 cm).

Of oil and gouache on a gilded ground, on canvas. The unframed panel of arched form is centered by a painted Greek key framed roundel of Venus seated in a shell. The gilded ground is overpainted with burnt umber triangles upon which is painted a system of ornament including griffons, birds, putti, fruits and multicolored flowers and foliage. The outer border self-framed within a continuous Vitruvian scroll pattern. Inscription at the bottom added by Emie A. Shields in 1914.

Inscribed at the bottom:
Emie A. Shields. Decorator, London. 1914.

A watercolor elevation of the panel in its setting is published “The industrial arts of the nineteenth century: a series of illustrations of the choicest specimens produced by every nation, at the Great Exhibition of Works of Industry, 1851,” Plate CXLI, by Matthew Digby Wyatt.

This painted arabesque panel was designed by John Gregory Crace and exhibited at the Great Exhibition, London, in 1851. The panel was illustrated by Matthew Digby Wyatt in “The industrial arts of the nineteenth century: a series of illustrations of the choicest specimens produced by every nation, at the Great Exhibition of Works of Industry, 1851,” Plate CXLI (figure 1). Messrs. Jackson and Sons executed the border of composition ornament that surrounded the panel.

John Gregory Crace (1809-1889) was a third-generation member of this prominent family, founders of the most important firm of London interior decorators in the nineteenth century. “They worked for every British monarch from George III to Queen Victoria and on a range of buildings that included royal palaces, Leeds Town Hall and the Great Exhibition building of 1862.”1 John Gregory was the grandson of John C. Crace (1754-1819), who had carried out extensive work at Carlton House, and the son of Frederick Crace (1779-1859), who completed numerous decorative works at the Royal Pavilion and Windsor Castle.

Although John Gregory Crace is well known for designs in the eclectic Gothic taste associated with A.C. Pugin, with whom he worked on the new Palace of Westminster and the Medieval Court at the 1851 Exhibition, he “enthusiastically admired art from all centuries.”2 His tastes were influenced by Classical, Gothic, Renaissance and ‘Old French’ (Louis XIV) styles and he made several trips to the Continent beginning in 1826. Crace visited Paris with his father in 1827, where his life-long admiration of the French decorative arts was kindled, followed by a tour of northern Europe in 1829.3 Upon his return in 1830 he entered into a formal partnership with his father.

The Craces set up a showroom at their premises on Wigmore Street in the French Renaissance style and held receptions for clients and colleagues, which were a great success and “saw a renewal of the firm’s scope and decorative activities.”4 In 1838 an opportune meeting with the 6th Duke of Devonshire at one of the firm’s open houses earned J.G. Crace commissions for both the Duke’s London residence at Devonshire House and his country home at Chatsworth in Derbyshire. It was at Chatsworth that he designed the Lower Library, which “ranks as [his] first masterpiece.”5 The fanciful neoclassical schemes popularized in the 18th century by architects such as Robert Adam had once again become fashionable in the 1860s. However, “at this time a more accurate classical style was created, based on the close study of real ancient Roman interiors.”6 For this project, Crace employed a group of artisans from Paris to complete the ceiling and wall decoration of foliate scrolls in pastel colors, reminiscent of the classical rinceaux of ancient Rome. The present panel is closely related to the those separating the bookshelves of Chatsworth’s Lower Library, which are also on a gold ground (figure 2).

This manner of decor is reminiscent of the wall panels in the eighteenth century Café Véfour in the Palais-Royal, which, in turn, were inspired by Pompeiian frescos. Crace may have seen this interior when he revisited France in 1837. It also recalls the Louis XIV-period wall decoration of the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, built circa 1658 outside Paris for finance minister Nicholas Fouquet. The decoration was carried out by Charles le Brun in the seventeenth century, and is characterized by fanciful grotesques derived from ancient Roman decorations.

The central roundel of the present panel depicts a classical scene of Venus seated in a shell, wrapping a strand of pearls (one of her attributes) about her neck and brow, while fabric billows around her. A pelta-shaped reserve at the top of the panel depicts a putto riding a dolphin. Both of these subjects are pictured in a fresco on the rear wall at the House of Venus in a Shell in Pompeii (figure 3), providing another connection between Crace’s work and the ancient motifs adopted in the decorative arts of later centuries.

The 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations was conceived of by Prince Albert as the first international exposition, intended to celebrate “the material progress humankind had made and [to] coordinate those advances in order that the world could work together.”7 The exhibition also served as a testament to Britain’s position as a political and industrial leader on the global stage; the nation was at peace and the manufacturing industries were thriving. It was held in the Crystal Palace, a monumental building of glass and iron created specifically for the exhibition to the designs of Joseph Paxton, another employee of the Duke of Devonshire, who won the commission out of 248 proposed plans. The innovative technology required for the building’s construction used “many industrial skills and inventions of the time,”8 a reflection of the exhibition itself.

The Crystal Palace held over 100,000 objects displayed by more than 15,000 contributors.9 These were divided into four sections comprising raw materials, machinery, manufactures (to which the present panel belonged), and fine art. In the nearly seven months the Great Exhibition was open, it was visited by 6 million spectators from across Britain and the rest of the world, who represented all walks of life from the working classes to Queen Victoria, herself a frequent visitor. It was exceedingly influential as it paved the way for the numerous international exhibitions that followed in the later-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, which promoted both a transfer of artistic and industrial ideas between nations, and enthusiasm for the technology, resources, and goods produced at home.

The 1851 Great Exhibition catalog entry for the present arabesque panel praises the Crace dynasty, ranking them among the few “remarkable” contemporary architects and designers of “considerable intelligence.”10 John Gregory Crace himself is described as having “devoted considerable personal study to the history and practice of his art, with a degree of success which is attested not only by the works he has executed, but by his contributions to the transactions of the scientific societies of the metropolis.”11 Messrs. Jackson and Sons, of Rathbone Place, are equally complimented on their extensive engagements “in fitting up the principal theatres, public rooms, and mansions of the country.”12

As seen in the Wyatt’s catalog illustration (see figure 1), the cartouche at the bottom of the panel is painted with a faux purple marbleized decoration, but left blank. On the present panel that same plaque reads Emie A. Shields. Decorator, London. 1914. While no record has yet been found of this decorator, it is certain that Shields acquired the panel and found the space too tempting to leave blank, adapting it for their own advertising purposes.


  1. “Drawing.” Victoria and Albert Museum, n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2013. <http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O548837/drawing-crace-john-gregory/>.
  2. Megan B. Aldrich, The Craces: Royal Decorators 1768-1899 (London: Murray, 1990) 54.
  3. Ibid., 53.
  4. Ibid., 59.
  5. Ibid., 63.
  6. “Design for the Library in the Pompeian Style, at Grosvenor House, for the Duke of Westminster.” Victoria and Albert Museum, n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2013.
  7. Jeffrey A. Auerbach and Peter H. Hoffenberg, Britain, the Empire, and the World at the Great Exhibition of 1851, (Aldershot, England: Ashgate Pub. Co, 2008) Internet resource. 4.
  8. “The Crystal Palace.” Victoria and Albert Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.
  9. “The Great Exhibition.” British Library Learning: Victorians. The British Library Board, n.d.
  10. M.D. Wyatt and Eliza P. K. Gurney, The Industrial Arts of the Nineteenth Century: A Series of Illustrations of the Choicest Specimens Produced by Every Nation, at the Great Exhibition of Works of Industry, 1851, (London: Day and Son, 1851) Plate CXLI.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.

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