Matthew Boulton's Egyptian sphinx-supported ormolu urns reflect the George III French antique fashion for decorating interiors with garnitures of vases of Love's sacred urns evoking the Roman columbarium and Homeric concepts of Love's sacred urns.
James Stuart (d.1788), the Rome-trained artist and protégé of the Dilettanti Society was foremost in promoting the popularity of such festive altar-tripods as garnitures for chimneypieces, tables etc., both through his publication of the Dionysiac temple or Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in his Antiquities of Athens (1762) and his 1759 painted apartment at Spencer House, London (see Susan Weber Soros ed., James 'Athenian' Stuart, New York 2006, p.220 fig. 5-46).
Boulton's urns are guarded by the herm busts of addorned and pearl-decked sphinx that are raised on antique fluted pilasters terminating in 'Jupiter' eagle-claws; and their pattern largely derives from marble antiquites, such as a griffin-guarded tazza illustrated in G.B. Piranesi, Vasi, candelabri, cippi, sacrofagi, tripodi, lucerne, ed ornamenti antichiti, Rome, 1778.
In particular they relate to a tripodic and sphinx-supported Grecian perfume-burner (cassolette), which was illustrated in Joseph-Marie Vien's, Suite de vases composé dans le Goût antique, 1760, and provided a source for potpourri urns executed at the Chelsea porcelain factory, and then by Wedgwood and Bentley for basalt candle-vases. The tripods for the palm-flowered urns relate to a tripod pattern, which Boulton received from the architect James Wyatt (d.1813), a cousin of Boulton's London agent John Wyatt, (N. Goodison, Ormolu, London, 2002, p.87, fig. 53). Unlike the latter figures, which lacked wings, Boulton did introduce wings on his related silver perfume-burners (see one bearing the date-letter 1778-9 at Temple Newsam, Leeds, which is illustrated Goodison, ibid fig. 94). Such French-fashioned cassolettes were noted in a letter to Boulton, written by Mrs. Montagu (d.1800) at the time of the completion of Stuart's decoration of her London house in Hill Street'...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: the work of Matthew Boulton, London, 1974, p. 25). It would appear that Mrs Montagu lent Boulton her Parisian cassolettes, as mentioned in a letter of January 1772, 'I hope you will not imagine I pretend to give Mr Boulton a pattern, an Athenian in the best age of the arts could only be worthy to furnish him with a model, but there is a prettiness of fancy in the cassolettes which improved into grace and good taste w'd render the sort of thing a beautiful addition to a table'. Boulton replied 'Ye present age distinguishes itself by adopting the most Elegant ornaments of the most refined Grecian artists, I am satisfy'd in conforming thereto, and humbly copying their style, and making into new combinations of old ornaments without presuming to invent new ones.
Boulton and Fothergill's 'Ormolu Manufactory at Soho in Staffordshire' entered pairs of this pattern of 'wing figured cassolettes' in the April 1772 sale of their 'Superb and elegant produce' held at James Christie's Great Room. Two of which were raised on taller pedestals enriched with figurative bas-reliefs were bought by Robert Child (d. 1782) for Osterley Park, Middlesex (and sold by his descendant in these rooms, 17 November 1994, lot 26, £276,500).