This magnificent cabinet is stamped with a brand composed of the letters MH surmounted by the Royal crown of England, indicating that it was once part of an important collection of Royal furniture at Marlborough House. This palatial London mansion stands immediately east of St. James's palace, between The Mall and Pall Mall and was built by Sir Christopher Wren at the turn of the 18th century for the first Duke of Marlborough, at the behest of his Duchess, Sarah. Their descendents continued to maintain Marlborough House until it passed to the Crown around 1817 and became the London home of Princess Charlotte, heir presumptive of the future King George IV, and her husband Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, who kept it after the Princess' death until he was crowned King of the Belgians in 1831. After some years as the home of the dowager Queen Adelaide and briefly being put to various public uses, including hosting the Vernon and Turner collections of pictures, Marlborough House was settled on Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII. He assumed occupancy following his marriage to Alexandra of Denmark in 1863.
HOLLAND & SONS
In anticipation of the Prince and Princess' arrival, architect Sir James Pennethorn oversaw an extensive remodelling of Marlborough House that included the creation of a series of sumptuous state rooms, the addition of an extension and the heightening of the building. These alterations were accompanied by a suitably grand refurbishment, much of which was undertaken by Holland & Sons. A well-known London firm of cabinet-makers and interior decorators, Holland & Sons is first recorded in 1815 and fast established a reputation at numerous international exhibitions, including Paris in 1855 and London in 1862, and by 1852 employed over three-hundred-and-fifty staff at three London premises. Commissions from various members of the Royal family included work at Buckingham Palace, Osbourne House, Balmoral, Sandringham and Windsor Castle, and their records from 1864 to 1872 devote some eighty-eight double-pages exclusively to Marlborough House. All manner of works are listed including commissions for furniture, soft furnishings, onsite carpentry, preparations for balls and dinner parties and subsequent cleaning and repairs. Although no specific mention is made of the present lot, it bears the marker's plaque and stamp of Holland & Sons and was almost certainly the principal piece of a suite of furniture commissioned for the white and gold stuccoed 'Great Drawing Room' at Marlborough House. Indeed, a contemporary photograph taken in 1896 'by king permission of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales', reproduced above, shows a smaller companion cabinet with identical central roundel amidst arabesque inlay.
The present lot is characteristic of the exceptional capabilities of Holland & Sons during the 1860s and 1870s of which a contemporary commentator described as being able to 'more than hold its own with anything made aboard', going on to describe the suite as 'quite the most beautiful objects' in the 'Great Drawing Room' (A.H. Beavan, Marlborough House and its Occupants Present and Past, London, 1896, p.28 & p.56). Conceived in the 'Louis Seize' manner, with all the opulence of Marie Antoinette's celebrated èbèniste Riesener, this richly-mounted side-cabinet is a celebration of Edward's role as patron of the arts. Although fashionably French in inspiration, the central medallions of Shakespeare and Chaucer confronting a porcelain roundel evocative of Summer, in allusion to James Thomson's poems The Seasons (1727), are clearly intended to showcase a very British brand of artistic excellence.
The fashion for porcelain mounted furniture was also of French inspiration, having been pioneered at Sèvres in the mid-18th century. The porcelain roundel to the front of the cabinet is decorated in a technique known as en camaieu which was a 19th century development of the pâte-sur-pâte process. Involving the layering of tints of a single colour to create an illusion of a higher relief that there is in reality, the process was developed by Louis Marc Solon who defected from Sèvres to Minton at Stoke-On-Trent during the Franco-Prussian war. Modeling maidens and cherubs on plaques and vases, Solon and his apprentices soon perfected the process and Minton became the unrivalled leader in the field.
Holland & Sons also exhibited at the 1878 Paris International Exhibition, for which The Prince of Wales Pavilion was constructed and devoted to English art manufacturers. Furthermore, the commissioning of this cabinet is consistent with the patriotic responsibilities of the Prince and Princess of Wales in the decoration of their official London residence:
'In connection with furniture, it has been said with truth that both the Prince and Princess have ever since their marriage done their utmost to encourage home manufacture in every department and everything in Marlborough House may, broadly speaking, be said to be of British make.' (Bevan, op. cit., p.55)
THE MARLBOROUGH HOUSE SET
Following Prince Albert's death, Queen Victoria completely withdrew from public life into mourning and London society looked to the Prince and Princess of Wales for leadership. Edward, known for his libidinous appetites and for nearly bankrupting a number of his old friends in his insistence on their lavishly entertaining him, took to the role with enthusiasm. Hosting legendary balls, for which as many as fourteen-hundred invitations were issued, Edward, somewhat to his mother's dismay, established Marlborough House at the centre of fashionable society. Adapting to the changing spirit of the age, he counted among his circle - a group which came to be known as 'The Marlborough House Set' - not just landed English aristocrats but, for the first time, a new moneyed international class of industrialists and financiers, who welcomed a Royal association and devoted generous funds to maintain it.
'The Prince would have his army friends There would be the racing folk, represented by the big owners, and the financiers, the Sassoons, the Rothschilds, Baron Hirsch, and the rest. The Princess would be seen with her great friend Lady de Grey, and the music lovers. Under the Marlborough House roof, and in the gardens, all these diverse types mixed quite happily' (Frances Countess of Warwick, Afterthoughts, London, 1931, p.54).
Among such illustrious company, in the principal entertaining room of the sumptuous London palace of the heir apparent of, what was then, the most powerful nation on earth, stood this magnificent side cabinet - a celebration of artistic triumph and stately opulence.