'ELEGANT SIMPLICITY THE LEADING PRINCIPLE'
These elegant 'candle vases' by Matthew Boulton were made in his Soho workshop probably in the early 1770s. Elements of the design can be found on similar pieces and can be traced to a variety of contemporary and antique sources.
The scrolling foliate branches with acanthus paterae relate to a design for an escutcheon or 'door furniture' published in the Adam brothers' The Works in architecture of Robert and James Adam, vol. II, no. IV, plate VIII (N. Goodison, Matthew Boulton: Ormolu, London, 2002, p. 70, pl. 20). From the 1760s, the vogue in Great Britain for the 'antique taste' was encouraged in various forms by architects and designers such as James and Robert Adam, Sir William Chambers, and James 'Athenian' Stuart. On the advice of Lord Shelburne, Boulton purchased a copy of Adam's Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro in Dalmatia in 1765 (ibid., p. 70). Adam and Boulton never met, but Adam's work must have had some effect in training his eye in the classical repertory.
Furthermore, the design of the base can be linked to sketches made by
his friend, the architect Sir William Chambers in his 'Franco-Italian
Album' during a sketching tour of Italy from 1749-55. Chambers'
sketches for clock cases in particular show the similar application of the ram's head and swags united by medallions (ibid., p. 79, pl.
36). The drip-pan and candle-holders of these candelabra also relate to a design for the 'Kings vase' by Chambers' assistant John Yenn (pl. 42, p. 80). In a letter to his wife in March 1770, Boulton relayed how he
and Chambers had breakfasted together and enjoyed a mutual exchange of ideas (ibid., p. 79).
Josiah Wedgwood was another close friend of Boulton's and his patterns are thought to be the source for the medallions found on the pedestals. Boulton's medallions of classical figures are almost identical to the cameos and intaglios made by Wedgwood and his partner James Tassie. All derive from the same classical source of Renaissance gems: many gem collections in Europe were widely published at this time and Boulton's library is recorded to contain A.F. Gori's Museum Florentinum (1731-1766), in which gems from the Medici collection were engraved.
The subjects of the medallions are: Pomona, a 'Roman goddess for fruits', depicted carrying a basket on her head overloaded with fruit, tumbling to the ground (ibid., p. 107). She was also reproduced by Tassie in a set of cameos now at the Ashmolean Museum (ibid., p. 109, pl. 78.1-9). Hygieia, with an olive branch in her right hand, as seen in Tassie's reproduction of Valerio Belli's gem, and holding a snake in her left hand over an altar, missing from Belli's original gem. This was produced by Wedgwood both as an intaglio and as a cameo (ibid., pl. 76.7, p. 112). The figure of Achilles Victorious can also be traced to Wedgwood's collection of cameo moulds, now at the Wedgwood Museum. He is the seated figure holding a statue of Victory before a spear and decorated shield. (ibid., pl. 76.5, p. 108 and 79.5, p. 111). This medallion also appears on a similar clock base supporting a statue of Diana, at Schloss Fasanerie, Fulda, Hesse. (pl. 153, p. 199). The last medallion is identified by Goodison as an 'Heroic Figure', and there are two gems in Tassie's collection at the Ashmolean that are close to this medallion (ibid., pl. 78.6-7, p. 109). Wedgwood and Bentley called the gem 'A Conquering Hero, probably
Perseus' or 'Diomedes or Perseus' in their 1773 catalogue. (ibdi., p. 110).
Boulton asked patrons to choose from a limited repertoire of motifs, and therefore each vase or pair of vases is adorned with their own combination. Boulton used nine medallions on recorded vases of this type. The ninth, Filial Piety, is included among the medallions on the pair of candelabra at Weston Park, Staffordshire.
PATTERNS OF THE PERIOD
Many components of the design of these candle-branches can be traced to Boulton's pattern books that were produced for use in his factory at Soho. The division of labour across specialized workshops within Boulton's factory meant that these pattern books were essential to the manufacturing process. For instance, the oval frames of the medallions can be found in the Soho Pattern Book, I, p. 74 , while the branches relate to a pattern numbered '125' in the same book, p. 11, and the vases themselves relate, with variations, to vase candlesticks in the same Pattern Book, p. 171 (ibid., figs. 227; 312.1-2; 303).
There are also several elements that help date these candelabra to the early 1770s. The middle section of the vase with its white marble body is a relatively common form used for perfume-burners produced by Boulton from 1770 onwards. Examples with identical handles and garlands can be found on a pair of perfume-burners (ibid., fig. 268, p. 302.), sold Christie's, London, 6 July 1995, lot 27; a pair of white marble vase perfume-burners at Harewood House (fig. 269. pg. 303), and a candle-vase with identical braches and body sold Christie's, London, 28 June 1984, lot 2 (pl. 270, p. 303). Goodison states that the quality of the metalwork of these vases dates them to 1770 onwards, when Boulton made significant attempts to improve production methods and techniques at Soho.
The closest comparable is the pair at Weston Park, which have no date of recorded purchase, but Lady Bridgman visited Soho in 1770 and Goodison has suggested that they were probably bought shortly after (ibid., p. 315). Lord Digby is also recorded to have bought a pair of related candle-vases for Sherborne Castle in 1775 (pl. 296, p. 312, ref. p. 313).
THE FRENCH CONNECTION
Books from French designers illustrating classical sources sold readily in Britain, and in particular the splendid prints in the highly influential publication by Pierre-François Hugues ('Baron d'Hancarville'), Collection of Etruscan, Greek and Roman Antiquities from the Cabinet of the Honble William Hamilton, 1766-67. Hamilton was the English diplomatic representative at Naples, and this book had a strong influence on Boulton's design (ibid., p. 42). Boulton used this book as a direct source for designs for vases. While it was the observation of French work during a visit to Paris in 1765 that gave Boulton the very idea of making vases serve as candelabra, he was never a slavish imitator of French designs, and his work is thoroughly British. He wrote in a letter to the Earl of Findlater, 20 January 1776, 'whether it be French, Roman, Anthenian, Egyptian, Arabesk, Etruscan or any other...I would have elegant simplicity the leading principle, wheras in my opinion such of the orfèvre of the French as I have generally seen is trop chargé' (N. Goodison, Ormolu: Matthew Boulton, London, 1974, p. 48). He won the encouragement of his English patrons and the praise of the Empress Catherine of Russia, who in 1772 noted that his ormolu vases were 'superior in every respect to the French' (ibid., p. 48). Clearly, Boulton was an innovator who drew upon a variety of sources to produce elegant, high quality luxury goods that reflected latest manufacturing practices and artistic trends.
MATTHEW BOULTON AND THE SOHO FACTORY: 'A MECHANICS PARADISE'
Born in Birmingham in September 1728 to a buckle, button and 'toy' maker, Matthew Boulton was an 18th century Renaissance man: an artisan, designer, scientific inventor, entrepreneur, philanthropist and a great British innovator. The Birmingham of Boulton's day was an environment in which scientific enquiry was encouraged and inventiveness prospered (Goodison, 2002, p. 16). After his father's death in 1759, Boulton went into partnership with John Fothergill, and in 1762 they established the Soho Manufactory, two miles north of Birmingham. The aims of Soho were to enlarge manufactures, to improve the process of production without sacrificing quality but always with an aim to save costs. In the era of Joseph Wright of Derby's An Experiment on a Bird with and Air Pump (1768) and the climate of the early Industrial Revolution, the Soho Manufactory was a melting pot of scientific endeavour and artistic creativity on a wide scale. The factory manufactured a wide variety of luxury objects; from small steel buckles, gilded chatelaines, to ormolu and silver, as well as reproducing oil paintings using a mechanical process. Within the factory, there were workshops specializing in each aspect of the mechanical process, such as burnishing, chasing, gilding, drawing, cementing, etc... Objects and their components, were taken from one workshop to another and men and women in each shop contributed their part to the whole.
Soho 'seemed a mechanics' paradise, a promised land, a wonder of modernity with Boulton its chief sorcerer. This was just the impression that Boulton wanted to create' (J. Uglow, The Lunar Men, London, 2002, p. 132). With its wares exported all over the world, the factory attracted an international clientele. Boulton boasted in 1767, 'Last week we had Prince Poniatowski, nephew of the King of Poland, and the French, Danish and Dutch ambassadors; this week we have the Count Orloff and five celebrated brothers who are such favourites with the Empress of Russia; and only yesterday I had the Viceroy of Ireland who dined with me. Scarcely a day passes without a visit from some distinguished personage' (Matthew Boulton Bicentenary Celebrations, Birmingham City Council, 2008, p. 1).
By 1771, the improved method of ormolu vase production and the quality of his metalwork, along with the encouragement of patrons, including the Earls of Warwick and Shelburne, Boulton held an exhibition and sale at James Christie's in London, 11-13 April 1770, which consisted of 265 lots of his latest vases and ormolu works of art. He also staged another sale a year later in 1771 (N. Goodison, op. cit., 2002, p. 51). By late 1770, silver had replaced ormolu as the most popular and profitable manufacture at Soho.
Boulton's later partnership with James Watt and their promotion of the steam engine is his greatest lasting accomplishment legacy, however, Boulton's partnership with Fothergill is a testament to his commercial entrepreneurship and the importance of the decorative arts in England.
An almost identical pair of candelabra sold by the late Major A.W. Foster, M.C., Apley Park, Bridnorth, Shropshire, Christie's, London, 28 May 1964, lot 120, and acquired from Norman
Adams at the Antique Dealer's Fair, Grosvenor House, 29 June 1964, was sold anonymously, '50 Years of Collecting: The Decorative Arts of
Georgian England', Christie's, London, 14 May 2003, lot 103 (£201,250 including premium).