THE POWNOLL 'SHELL TEMPLE' BANQUETING CENTREPIECE
Captain Pownoll's temple centrepiece and its mahogany stand, which may once have contained a 'lustral' basin and ewer, is a tour de force of the decorative arts, is likely to have been executed under the guidance of the architect Sir Robert Taylor (d. 1788).
Providing the centrepiece of a banqueting-table 'dessert', it is likely to have been commissioned in 1762 as part of the festivities celebrating the marriage of Captain Philemon Pownoll (d. 1780) to Jane (d. 1778), daughter of Lewis Arnold Majendie of Exeter.
The golden urn-capped 'Venus' temple, with its rose-coloured dome and floral festoons of never-fading 'fruits-of-the-sea' evoking a ver perpetuum of everlasting Spring, honours the Pownoll family who later settled at Sharpham, Devon. Rome's Temple of Piety is recalled by the sparkling mica-clad Tuscan pillars of the gazebo, which is embellished in the rustic manner of a Roman water-cave grotto; while an Apollonian sunburst labels the mosaiced pavement of its Grecian-stepped 'crepidoma' plinth, beneath Venus' sacred roses, passion flowers etc., that garland its wave-scrolled cornice.
Its reeded and wave-voluted 'altar-tripod' water-stand recalls the nature-deity's triumphal water-birth as well as the 'lustral' ceremonies associated with sacrifices at love's altar in antiquity. The romantic pearl-jewelled crown of its ogival and gothic-cusped dome is fretted in the mid-18th century 'Modern' fashion; its basin-ring is supported on lambrequin-draped, trussed, and antique-fluted pilasters; while its 'claw' is draped with scale-imbrications in honour of Venus' dolphin-drawn 'shell' chariot.
SIR ROBERT TAYLOR AND MESSRS MAYHEW AND INCE
Taylor, celebrated for his building of the Bank of England, was a master of the Italian 'picturesque' style, which was due in part to his training, under his father, Master of the London Mason's Company, and to his tutelage by the sculptor Sir Henry Cheere (d. 1781). Not only had he designed the Westminster house in Great George Street that Captain Pownoll leased in 1761, but Jane Pownoll and Lady Taylor had previously belonged to the English wine-trading community in Lisbon, Portugal. Taylor also contributed designs for the cabinet-maker John Mayhew's Soho shop premises in Golden Square, and may even have been involved with the furniture designs, including related stands, issued in Messrs William Ince and John Mayhew's famed Universal System of Household Furniture (1762) that advertised taste and fashions at the start of George III's reign. A related mahogany stand, with four column supports and scrolled legs, was sold by the late Anne, Lady Hollenden, Christie's, London, 23 November 2006, lot 20 (£232,000).
The richly polychromed temple is likely to have been crafted from rare shells acquired by the naval officer Captain Pownall, during operations in the West Indies. Its stand is a masterpiece of Messrs Ince and Mayhew's work, in the 'Modern' fashion that is also associated with Thomas Chippendale's Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director, 1754-1762.
Captain Philemon Pownoll's sudden rise to wealth came when promoted to commander of the sloop Favourite in 1759. Three years later, the Favourite was patrolling Cape St Vincent with several other cruisers and on 15 May 1762, the Favourite, in company with frigate Active under the command of Captain Herbert Sawyer, captured a Spanish register ship, the Hermione, off Cape St Mary. The Hermione had set sail from Peru and was carrying a valuable cargo of dollars, gold coins, ingots of gold and silver, cocoa and blocks of tin. When the vessel was condemned as a prize, her contents, hull and fittings were sold for £519,705 10s.0d., whilst Pownoll's own share amounted to £64,872, one of the largest prizes of that era. Pownoll and Sawyer became rich and married two sisters, Pownoll purchasing the Sharpham estate in Devon. Pownoll continued in the Navy and in 1780, whilst Captain of the Apollo engaged the French privateer Stanislaus off Ostend, was killed by a cannon ball in the action. He was deeply mourned by his fellow officers, his first lieutenant on the Apollo, Edward Pellew, wrote to the Earl of Sandwich, first lord of the Admiralty: 'The loss of Captain Pownoll will be severely felt. [...] Never, my lord, was grief more poignant than that we all feel for an adored commander. Mine is inexpressible' (T. Wareham, 'Pownoll, Philemon', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford, 2004, article 64864).
(We are very grateful to be allowed use of the unpublished research on Sir Robert Taylor, the Pownalls and the links between their architect and the cabinetmakers Mayhew and Ince in relation to this stand by Richard Garnier, author of 'Grafton Street, Mayfair', Georgian Group Journal, XIII, 2003, pp. 201-72).