Messrs Matthew Boulton and John Fothergill's sphinx-supported cassolette urn, conceived in the George III French/antique manner, and was executed at their 'Ormolu Manufactory at Soho in Staffordshire'. Its pattern evolved from the tripod sphinx-supported cassolette such as Joseph-Marie Vien illustrated in his, Suite de vases composé dans le Goût antique, 1760. While such vases served in part to recall the Roman columbarium, they also inspired Homeric concepts of 'sacrifices at love's altar in antiquity'.
The architect Robert Adam (d.1792) played a prominent role in promoting Etruscan vases as an architectural element in Salons or rooms-of-entertainment fashionably dressed à la Français, but an equally important role was played by James 'Athenian' Stuart (d.1788), the Rome-trained artist and protégé of the Dilettanti Society. Stuart had already introduced one such chimneypiece garniture, symbolising 'Eternal Love' with a sphinx-guarded urn, in his 1750s proposal for Kedleston, Derbyshire; while he also produced a related sphinx-supported vase for the dining-room hearth (see Stuart's 'Kedleston' design illustrated Susan Weber Soros ed., James 'Athenian' Stuart, New York, 2006, figs. 6-31).
In the present case, it was the Rome-trained court architect Sir William Chambers (d.1796), who, in 1770, encouraged Boulton in the introduction of this pattern of Eternity cassolette at the Queen's House (now Buckingham Palace), where it provided appropriate accompaniment for Queen Charlotte's mantel-clock. In March that year Boulton recorded his visit to the palace to decide, 'how many vases it would take to furnish' in place of china the chimneypiece in the Queen's Apartment (N. Goodison Ormolu: Matthew Boulton, London, 1974, pp. 31-32, 85, 183-64). Chambers' design for this vase is likely to have been amongst those that he exhibited at the Royal Academy that year as 'to be executed in ormolu, by Mr. Bolton, for their Majesties'. He also at this time produced a design for an urn-capped clock supported by sphinx (see J. Harris and M. Snodin, Sir William Chambers, London, 1997, p.158 and fig 235; and p. 157, fig. 233). The Queen Charlotte's cassolettes or 'sphinx vases' were also intended to stand beside a pair of Boulton's vases, whose pattern was named after King George III as the 'King's' vase (J. Roberts (ed.), George III and Queen Charlotte, London, 2004, p. 269, no. 275).
Two silver cassolettes kept by Mrs. Montagu (d.1800) at her Hill Street house, were lent as models to Mr. Boulton. When requesting their return in 1772, she used the excuse that,'..my friends reproach me that I do not regale their noses with fine odours. The cassolettes used to make their entry with desert..' (N. Goodison, Ormolu: Matthew Boulton, London, 1974, p. 25).
The manufacture of such vases of Derbyshire fluorspar or radix amethysti, known as blue john, was being considered in 1768, when
Boulton recorded in a letter 'I have found a use for Blew John which will consume some quantity of it. I mean that sort which is proper for turning into vases' (ibid., pp. 29-30). Its design is featured in Boulton's surviving Sketch Books (ibid., pls. 161s, and 77).
Robert Bradbury of Castleton, Derbyshire supplied six blue john bodies for sphinx vases in 1770 (no. 45). Boulton included twelve vases of
this pattern in the London sales of his 'Superb and elegant produce' held at Christie and Ansell's, Pall Mall in 1770, 1771 and 1772. They were described as 'in the antique taste radix amethysti and or moulu, lined with silver, and perforated for essence, supported by four sphinxes upon an ornamental base of ebony' (ibid., 1974, pp 34,
A pair of 'sphinx' vases is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (S. Walker ed., Vasemania, New York, 2004, no. 45) and another vase of this pattern is in the Royal Collection (N. Goodison, Ormolu: Matthew Boulton, London, 1974, pp. 163-165, figs. 94, 96-99; and Roberts, op. cit., p. 270, no. 276).
This bacchic palm-flowered and thyrsus-finialed wine-krater urn also serves to recall the history of the satyr Pan and his love Syrinx, as recounted in Ovid's Metamorphoses, since it displays the Arcadian ruler's masks. These masks, derived from an antique urn, emerge through scalloped cartouches of golden Roman foliage that are tied by a flowered ribbon-guilloche to the antique-fluted reeds at the base.
The frieze of the tazza-like pedestal for the floral-scenting urn is labelled in allusion to Apollo's companion, the flower-strewing dawn- goddess Aurora. While Apollonian sunflowers enliven the hollowed corners, Aurora's role in unveiling Night, is symbolised by drapery festooned across heavenly blue tablets flecked in gold aventurine. The reed-gardooned tazza is borne on caryatic pillars of addorsed sphinx in the manner of a celebrated Roman marble antiquity of a griffin- tripod displayed in the Capitoline Museum. Its Grecian-stepped 'altar' plinth of rosy-hued turtle-shell is wreathed in a flowered and ribbon-tied 'rainceau' of Roman foliage; while the antique-flutes of its columnar feet are enriched with Cupids darts.