These stunning tables, with their exceptionally precise paintings, perfectly illustrate the elegant classical designs of pre-eminent designer/architect Robert Adam. Their likely origins to one of Adam’s most important London commissions brings further intrigue to these spectacular objects.
SIR WATKIN WILLIAMS-WYNN, 4th BARONET AND 20 ST. JAMES’S SQUARE
Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn (d. 1789) came into a rich inheritance with his succession to the title and family estates in North Wales and England at the age of five months – his annual income from rents alone totalled over £27,000. When nineteen, he embarked on his Grand Tour, exposing him to the classical arts to which he would become devoted. It was on this trip in 1768 that he commissioned a pair of scagliola table tops by Lamberto Cristiano Gori which featured similar framed central classical tablets. The tops, with frames to be designed by Robert Adam, were intended for his house at 2 Grosvenor Square. The 5th Duke of Beaufort, brother to his first wife, Lady Henrietta Somerset (she died in 1769), lived at neighboring 5 Grosvenor Square and presumably introduced Sir Watkin to Adam then the most fashionable architect of his day (E. Harris, 'A tale of two tables’, The Burlington Magazine, June 2013, pp. 391 and 393, figs. 36-37). Sir Watkin himself engaged Adam to design and outfit a town house at 20 St. James’s Square, designed for grand entertainment within a pure classical backdrop. An extensive collection of Adam’s designs for the architecture, decoration, furniture, and fittings are at the Sir John Soane Museum, London. While there is no corresponding design for these tables, their top decoration relates closely to Adam's design executed for Sir Abraham Hume dated 1779 and illustrated in C. Musgrave, Adam and Hepplewhite Furniture, 1966, fig. 25.
Sir Watkin was a celebrated patron of arts in a larger sense – embracing painting, theatre and music in addition to architecture. Known as the ‘Welsh Maecenas’, it was Sir Watkin who presented Josiah Wedgwood with a copy of d'Hancarville's Collection of Etruscan, Greek and Roman antiquities from the collection of the Honble William Hamilton, 1766, from which the latter would produce his ceramic wares. And his introduction of Sir William Hamilton to the Society of Dilettanti was commemorated in celebrated paintings executed by Sir Joshua Reynolds. These paintings were completed in 1779, in the same year that the plans and elevations of 20 St. James's Square were issued in The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam, 1779 (E. Harris, The Genius of Robert Adam, London, 2001, pp. 256-277).
The tables are thought to have come from 20 St. James’s Square, based on a cabinet of matching design and decoration which was almost certainly supplied en suite. The cabinet was sold in 1935 at Christie's, at which time the catalogue entry cited: 'From the Collection of Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn, Bart.' The Williams-Wynn family sold 20 St. James’s Square and most of the Adam furniture in 1920. While no auction has been traced, the aforementioned scagliola tables, as well as a pair of giltwood torcheres, were bought privately by the dealer Charles Kindermann (who then sold them to Sir Leicester Harmsworth MP). Given the rarity of such provenance references at that time, there seems no reason to doubt that the cabinet (and this pair of tables) could have similarly been sold privately to the trade. In fact, the present tables would have come onto the market at a similar time when they came into the collection of Robert Livingston Gerry, horse breeder and a descendent of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and his wife, the daughter of the railroad tycoon E. H. Harriman. They were likely placed in their 65-room Georgian mansion Aknusti which was built in 1912 (the tables were later sold to French and Company in 1953).
Sir Watkin favoured apsidal-ended rooms at Wynnstay in Wales and 20 St. James’s Square. The richly decorated ceiling ornament of the Second Withdrawing Room in London – the grandest in the suite of rooms - with its figural scenes, lunette panels and draped urns corresponds to the table decoration. Adam’s signature designs, where architecture, furniture and fittings all exhibited the same language, could very well be on display here. Given the shape of the room, the only possible arrangement would be for the tables to sit within the slightly recessed panels flanking the chimneypiece and with the matching cabinet centering the opposite wall. That said, Adam's carpet design for the room had notations regarding the perimeter which was left uncovered ‘where chairs and Sophas are placed’; the walls were covered in a pea-green silk (Harris, The Genius of Robert Adam, p. 263, figs. 390-391). It is also conceivable that the suite might have been placed in Lady William-Wynn’s private apartments, particularly given the painted tablets featuring the female protagonist Penelope. A pair of green-ground cabinets from Lady Williams-Wynn’s dressing room, designed by Adam and now in the Carnegie Institute of Art, Pittsburgh (1998.2.1), are similarly delicate in their decoration and feature a frieze of classical figures depicting the Triumph of Love after Ovid’s Metamorphoses. These cabinets were supplied by the cabinet-maker Richard Collins and the decoration attributed to Antonio Zucchi.
There is also the chance that the suite may have been supplied to Wynnstay and later transferred to London, however none of these pieces appear in the Wynnstay inventory of household furniture of 1790 (Wynnstay,EH5/4).
THE PAINTED TABLETS
The classical ‘Roman history’ tablets direct copy paintings by Rome-trained artist Angelica Kauffmann, R.A. (d. 1807), a founder of London’s Royal Academy of Arts in 1768. Each depicts a scene from Homer’s The Odyssey and the life of Odysseus’s wife Penelope. The first, The Return of Telemachus (collection of the Mead Art Museum, Amherst College), depicts the moment when Odysseus’ son returns to the family home in Ithaca after having searched for news of his father to find suitors seeking the hand of Penelope. The second, Telemachus at the Court of Sparta (1773) sold Christie’s, New York, 26 January 2012, lot 220 and now in the Hood Museum, Dartmouth College, depicts an emotional moment when Telemachus is comforted by Helen after having learned that his father is alive. Both paintings were reproduced in stipple engravings by William Wynne Ryland of 1777. The matching cabinet similarly depicts Penelope awaked by Euryclea with the News of Ulysses's Return after Kaufman’s painting of 1772 (in the collection of Voralberger Landesmuseum, Bregenz). The subject had been popularized by the poet Alexander Pope's 1715 translation of The Odyssey.
Kauffmann’s husband, the artisan Antonio Zucchi was recorded carrying out many of Adam’s designs at St. James’s Square. An expense dated 15 June 1776 lists ‘Paid Mr Zucchi the balance of his bill for painting pictures in ceilings, ornamenting doors, girandoles etc. £484. His Bill came to £634 14s 0d’ (Wynnstay records, EH4/8).
Adam worked with all the leading London cabinet-makers of the day, including Thomas Chippendale, Mayhew and Ince, Samuel Norman and others. And Sir Watkin was a patron of the highest caliber and would have been anxious to work with leading talent. The matching cabinet, when offered at Christie’s in 2006, was suggested to have been the hand of Mayhew and Ince, largely based on the similar format of the famous Kimbolton example at the Victoria and Albert Museum (M. Tomlin, Catalogue of Adam Period Furniture, London, 1982, no. N4). At St. James’s Square, documented cabinet-makers included Richard Collins, author of the painted dressing room cabinets, Robert Ansell, and a Mr. Ward who supplied a painted table.
A pair of tables with similarly decorated tops and friezes formerly in the collection of Mrs. John E. Rovensky was sold by Walter P. Chrysler, Jr. Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, 6-7 May 1960, lots 507 and 508. Another virtually identical to the Chrysler pair was sold Christie's London, 17 November 1983, lot 97.