• Focal Point - The Nicholas Gif auction at Christies

    Sale 5975

    Focal Point - The Nicholas Gifford-Mead Collection of Chimneypieces & Ornament

    29 October 2009, London, South Kensington

  • Lot 1


    CIRCA 1800

    Price Realised  


    CIRCA 1800
    Of serpentine outline, the frieze pierced with a central urn issuing foliate tendrils
    7 in. (7.8 cm.) high; 42 in. (106.5 cm.) wide; 6¾ in. (7 cm.) deep

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    Special Notice

    No VAT will be charged on the hammer price, but VAT at 15% will be added to the buyer's premium which is invoiced on a VAT inclusive basis.
    This lot will be removed to an off-site warehouse at the close of business on the day of sale - 2 weeks free storage

    Pre-Lot Text


    I first met Nicholas Gifford-Mead some thirty years ago, shortly after he had opened a shop within The Furniture Cave on Chelsea's King's Road. At that time I was working in the nearby North End Road at my family's business, so had ample opportunity to pay him a visit.
    There, in what was not a very large space, he managed to create a great atmosphere for all the clients and decorators who visited him, as he displayed fine English and European chimneypieces and chimney-furniture, sculpture and works of art.
    It was however only a matter of time before the shop became too small to contain his fast expanding business and its stock; and so in the early 1990's he relocated to the Pimlico Road, from where today, nearly two decades later, he still deals in some of the very best architectural items to be found.
    This was clearly achieved with much industry on his part, as he selectively sought out and acquired some of the best items to be found, both in the British isles and abroad. However, industry is by no means the only asset required or perhaps the most important. It is that sharpness of eye, combined with a certain individual Taste, that separated him from all others in his field of architectural antiques; a fact that was clear to me then, and has become even more evident today. This taste and style is never more closely shown than in the English (Georgian) chimneypieces and their metal furniture that he regularly acquires, truly indicating to me that his depth of understanding, knowledge and interest of them is (though never complete), unsurpassed by any other person in or outside the antiques trade.
    Furthermore, my dealings - and I know I speak for all others who do so - have never been other than straightforward, being open and honest; something which in today's uncertain world, I for one, am truly thankful.
    Add this to his considerable knowledge, and continuing thirst for the subject, his attention to detail through research, a willingness to listen, make him a consummate businessman-antique dealer and a real colleague and friend.
    This sale represents an opportunity for Nicholas to scale down his business activity, however he will continue to trade on a smaller scale from his Pimlico Road premises.

    Richard Crowther, August 2009.


    The chimneypiece has for many centuries played an important role in providing the focal point for a room. This particularly applied to the eighteenth century fashionable parlour or apartment, whose furniture was generally ranged out of the way and against the wall when not in use. The chimneypiece ornament was often designed to harmonise with the rooms architecture and stuccoed decoration on ceiling or wall cornice, while its sculpted tablet could serve as a label to indicate the room's use.
    Today the introduction of a handsome chimneypiece, especially if sculpted in marble, still provides a sense of style and character to the plainest of modern living rooms.
    The composition of the Georgian chimneypiece involved the combination of the 'Cardinal Arts of Architecture and Sculpture', so past architects and sculptors, especially amongst those who boasted training in Rome or Florence, were in competition to have their inventions adopted. It was classical architecture that dominated eighteenth century fashion, and its form evolved over the decades from fat classic through thin classic to the massy fat classic of the nineteenth century.
    The historical importance of the fireplace in England was stressed by the architect Sir William Chambers in his Treatise on Civil Architecture, 1759 . He pointed out that the warmer climates enjoyed by the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans had caused them to make little contribution to the chimneypiece as a branch of Architecture, so it was the seventeenth century English court architect Inigo Jones (d.1652), who was the first to arrive at any degree of perfection in this material branch of the art. It was Jones's robust Roman style, with its columns, pilasters and rectilinear tablets, that was popularised by a number of the early eighteenth century pattern books. Of these, the most celebrated was John Vardy's, Some Designs of Mr. Inigo Jones and Mr. William Kent, 1744. The designs provided inspiration for chimneypieces executed for Holkham Hall, Norfolk and they were later illustrated in Matthew Brettinghams, Plans, Elevations and Sections of Holkham in Norfolk, 1761. During the 1760s a revolution was being brought about in the English interior by architects such as Robert Adam (d.1792), who introduced a lighter and more graceful antique style based on studies of Roman interior decoration combined with Grecian elements.
    Throughout the century there was also strong competition from other styles such as those introduced from France, or the romantic old English gothic or 'gothick', favoured by antiquarians such as the Langley brothers or the bibliophile Horace Walpole, and the whimsical and novel styles of the Chinese held sway in the richly flowered bedroom apartments.
    By the start of George III's reign (1760-1820), connoisseurs considered that the English were surpassing the Italians in the execution of chimneypieces. When the Florence-trained sculptor Joseph Wilton went to study the work of the sculptors in Rome in the 1750s, he reported it to be 'vastly defective', so was not surprised that a dozen chimneypieces that had recently been sent over from Italy by the architect Matthew Brettingham Junior (d.1803) had had to be corrected by the London sculptors Michael Rysbrack (d.1770) and Louis Francois Roubiliac (d.1762). Wilton was to become a leading sculptor of chimneypieces in succession to John Cheere (d.1787) and his brother Sir Henry Cheere (d.1781). The latter's 1770 sale of stock catalogue included a wide range of reliefs in marble and stone, as well as tablets for chimneypieces. It should also be remembered that in addition to the architects and sculpture, there were many eighteenth century firms of cabinet-makers and upholsterers involved in the design and manufacture of chimneypieces, such as the Chippendales of St. Martins Lane and the Linnells of Berkeley. Their inventions were assisted by publications such as Designs for Chimney-Pieces printed for I. & J.Taylor at the High Holburn Architectural Library.
    L.A. Shuffrey published a book entitled, The English Fireplace, 1912: and this was followed in 1968 by Alison Kelly's, The Book of English Fireplaces. However the wider study of the history of the chimneypiece was encouraged by an exhibition held in 1985 at Temple Newsam House, Leeds and by its accompanying catalogue entitled The Fashionable Fire Place 1660-1840.

    John Hardy