These superb ormolu-draped porphyry vases are one of only three known pairs of this sumptuous design that so exquisitely reflect the early neo-classical movement of the 1760s, one of the most intriguing episodes in the history of the French decorative arts. This particular pair furthermore once formed part of the celebrated collections of the Marquesses of Cholmondeley at Houghton Hall, Norfolk, and was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the landmark sale of Works of Art from Houghton at Christie's in December 1994. Of the other two known pairs of this type one, with a reputed Demidoff provenance, was sold from a Greek collection at Christie's, London, 5 July 2007, while the other is in The J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, and illustrated in G. Wilson, 'Acquisitions made by the Department of Decorative Arts in 1983', The J. Paul Getty Museum Journal, 1984, no 9, p. 201.
SYBILL SASSOON AND HOUGHTON HALL
The marriage of Sybil Sassoon (1894-1989), daughter of Sir Edward Albert Sassoon (1856-1912), 2nd Bt., and Baroness Aline de Rothschild (1856-1909), in 1913 to George Cholmondeley, 5th Marquess of Cholmondeley (1883-1968), greatly enhanced the wealth of the Cholmondeley family. Sybil was not only a member of two of the most influential banking families, the Sassoons, who have their origins in Baghdad, and the French branch of the Rothschilds, but also inherited the wealth of her brother Sir Philip Sassoon, 3rd Bt.. This prosperity is reflected in the collections of the various Cholmondeley houses, particularly Houghton Hall in Norfolk, which was built in the 1720s for Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745), Britain's first Prime Minister and later Earl of Orford. Building on the magnificent house commenced in 1722 to designs by James Gibbs and William Kent. Sir Robert Walpole's collections of fine and decorative arts were the cause of much acclaim as well as envy. His collection of Old Masters was certainly one of the finest of its generation and now forms the core of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
PETITOT AND PARMA
The vases consist of a central core of porphyry cut to fit the exuberant mounts of lions, drapery and serpents. The source of porphyry from the 16th century onwards was almost invariably antique vessels or columns. Close examination by Christie's specialists and the leading bronzier Fernando Moreira of the casting, assembly, chasing and gilding of these mounts has established that they are of French manufacture and date from the second half of the 18th century. However, the uncompromisingly bold, neo-classical design is based on a vase pattern included in the celebrated series of designs by the French architect Ennemond-Alexandre Petitot (1727-1801), which were published by Benigo Bossi (1727-1792) in Parma in 1764. These designs were available in Paris and it is interesting to note that Jean-Claude Duplessis' 1774 probate inventory lists engravings by Petitot (J. Whitehead, The French Interior in the Eighteenth Century, Rayleigh, 1992, p. 65) and that a series of Suite de Vases was already auctioned in Paris in 1775 (G. Cirillo, Ennemond-Alexandre Petitot, Parma, 2002, p. 124).
Petitot was trained in Lyon, Paris and Rome, and became Court Architect in Parma in 1753 through the intermediary of the celebrated amateur and author Anne-Claude-Philippe, comte de Caylus (1692-1765). Parma was one of the most francophile courts of Europe, where Louis XV's eldest daughter, Madame Louise-Elisabeth, Madame Infante, reigned from 1748 until her death in 1759 with her Spanish cousin Philip of Bourbon, whom she had married in 1739. Cultural exchange between Paris and Parma was on a grand and ambitious scale and numerous important purchases of furniture and bronzes d'ameublement were made for the court at Parma, largely through their agents in Paris, Claude Bonnet, Jean-Gaspard Testard and Francisco de Llovera (A. González-Palacios, Il Patrimonio artistico del Quirinale, Gli Arredi Francesi, Milan, 1995, p. 24). The collections at Parma were also enriched by gifts from the King, such as the two superb ormolu chandeliers executed by Jacques Caffiéri circa 1751, now in the Wallace Collection. These were probably given to the Duchess during the second visit back to France from September 1753, when she left with 'une grande quantité de chariots de toutes sortes de nippes que le roi lui donne'. (P.Hughes, The Wallace Collection, Catalogue of Furniture, London, 1996, vol.III, nos.265-266, pp.1310-1320).
Petitot's dedication to the Duke of Parma in the first pages of his Suite de Vases mentions that the first three plates depict vases which were placed in the Duke's garden at Parma. This would suggest that the engravings, or at least some of them, were based on items actually in existence in the Duke's collection rather than preparatory designs. Bossi's dedication on the following page 'Monsieur, La Permission que vous m'aves donne de graver cette suite de Vases dont les Originaux vous appartiennent....' could again refer to 'original' or existing vases but arguably also to the original drawings.
Plate 10 of Petitot's Suite de Vases, the design of the present vases, was perhaps one of his most favoured as it was soon incorporated in a design for a surtout-de-table executed by the Turinese court goldsmith Giovan Battista Boucheron (1742-1815) in 1776. There is no trace of this highly ambitious surtout and it is uncertain as to whether it was actually carried out or what materials were intended to be used. The design demonstrates its grandeur and scale; it was clearly intended for domestic dining-room use in a palatial interior decoration scheme. It may have been an entirely new project or incorporating precious earlier works of art in the Royal collections. In other words, Boucheron may have seen the actual vases or alternatively based his design on Petitot's Plate 10 (M. Chapman, 'A diplomatic gift from Turin', Apollo, January 1998, p. 8 and G.Beretti, et al., Gli Splendori del Bronzo, Turin, 2003, nos. 26-27).
The enduring success of Petitot's series from 1764 into the early 19th century is further demonstrated by a Florentine scagliola table top executed by Carlo Paoletto in 1808. James Methuen-Campbell has very kindly pointed out that this top, which is inset into a table at Corsham Court, Wiltshire, depicts numerous vases from the Suite de Vases, including a variant of Plate 10 but also more fantastical examples such as Plate 7, a slender vase with grasshopper handles, and Plate 11, a low tazza with cockerels seated on the rim. The vases are here depicted together with a sphinx, coral and shells, suitable items for a Kunstkammer or connoisseur's cabinet.
PORPHYRY IN FRANCE
Porphyry was the precious marble quarried by the Romans in Egypt until approximately the 5th century AD (see further under 'The porphyry bowls'). It has since been prized for its hardness but particularly its noble or 'Imperial' purple colour favoured by Royalty as a symbol of regal or Imperial might. An intriguing and tantalisingly early example of Antique porphyry collected in France is the so-called Aigle de Suger, the slender Roman vase fitted with silver-gilt mounts before 1147, which reputedly held the ashes of Abbé Suger, abbot of St. Denis between 1122 and 1151. With its precious Medieval mounts this vase is the earliest known example of mounted porphyry in France and demonstrates that centuries prior to the greater influx of porphyry from Italy, it had already achieved its exalted status in France and was fitted with the most costly and beautifully-chased mounts (P. Malgouyres, Porphyre, Paris, 2003, no. 17, pp. 84-86).
Louis XIV's immense collection of porphyry at Versailles was largely acquired in Rome, where throughout the 17th century most objects of re-shaped ancient porphyry were produced, the majority created from recently excavated columns. Unrivalled both in richness and diversity, his collection consisted mainly of various pairs of monumental vases and busts of Emperors, some of which were acquired from the collections of the cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin (ibid., pp. 106-112).
Towards the mid-18th century, various large 17th century porphyry vases were fitted with fashionable Louis XV ormolu mounts. One of the earliest examples of ormolu-mounted porphyry is the splendid gadrooned vase from the collection of the marquis de Marigny, which was subsequently acquired for the Crown in 1779. The berried foliate mounts of circa 1745-60 were primarily placed to the rims, finial and handles, leaving the bold gadrooning to the lid and main body undisturbed (ibid., p. 158, no. 57). Applying such mounts on to a monumental and boldly-carved earlier vessel of porphyry was not only technically complicated but also a risky and highly costly undertaking and as a result very few of these are known to exist.
Soon after, from circa 1765 to the end of the 18th century, smaller vessels were specifically cut into smooth unadorned classical forms with more emphasis on the intricacy of the mounts. The present vases are superb examples of this phase, whereby the precious porphyry core was used as a sumptuous background for the sculptural and beautifully-chased ormolu mounts. In the late 18th century some porphyry vessels were also made of French porphyry quarried near Belfort in Lorraine, where in 1768 a vein of porphyry was discovered on land belonging to the duc d'Aumont's niece, the duchesse de Mazarin (ibid., p. 160).
TECHNICAL COMPARISONS BETWEEN THE HOUGHTON, GETTY AND GREEK VASES
The three pairs of vases of this model have an identical construction of a central porphyry bowl embellished with the following primary mounts most probably cast from the same master models (chef modèle): square panelled rectangular bases; entwined serpents which form a stem; stiff-leaf cups used as a base for the porphyry bowl; drapery mounts wrapped around the bowl and lion handles which cover the drapery on two sides. However, examination of the three pairs has revealed small differences between the various parts, primarily evident in the thickness of the cast and the chasing, which reflect a marked development in the production of French bronzes within the second half of the 18th century. This leads to a conclusion that the present pair of vases from Houghton date to around 1765, whereas the Greek and Getty pairs were executed shortly after each other in the last two decades of the 18th century; the vases from a Greek collection in circa 1780 and the Getty pair probably shortly after.
THE CAST AND CHASING
One of the main characteristics of this evolution can be seen in the increased thickness and volume of the casting towards the end of the 18th century, evident on the Greek and Getty vases, allowing for increasingly secure assembly points between the parts and consequently more strength and stability. The nature of the chasing also changes in these years and evolves from a more naturalistic, soft and lively 'Louis XV' chasing as visible here on the Houghton vases, to a more precise, regular and small-scale 'Louis XVI' type of chasing, visible on the other two pairs. One consistent factor is the mercury gilding, which remains unchanged throughout these years and is very similar on all pairs.
In the Empire period of the early 19th century new chasing styles were developed, some of which differed fundamentally from those used in the mid- and late 18th century. 'Empire' chasing is characterised by a completely matt, regular and even finish called mat sablé, which could be enhanced at gilding stage by the application of salts to the object and subsequent heating. The individual grains or punch marks of this extremely fine Empire chasing are barely distinguishable from one another, only the overall effect being apparent. Tools for chasing were now being used very differently which achieved this finish so characteristic for the Empire period. None of these early 19th century chasing techniques are apparent on any parts of the three pairs of vases further confirming their conception well before these new 'Empire' chasing techniques were developed.
The square bases with recessed panels to all sides are virtually identical on all pairs of vases. The only difference between them is, as already outlined above, the chasing, which is open and granular on the Houghton vases and more small-scale and finished on the Greek pair, the result of two layers of superimposed chasing, while the chasing of the Getty vases has a slightly more geometric pattern which was produced in one layer. The base of one of the present vases has had the central fixing hole for the threaded core re-adjusted at the time of its realisation. While the filled initial perforation is in the exact measured centre, the current hole has been drilled slightly over-lapping right next to it, when on final assembly the craftsmen realised that the elements did not line up entirely due to the slightly off-centre core-drilling in the porphyry of the vase. Similar readjustments were found to the bases of the Greek vases.
The bases are surmounted by entwined serpents consisting of two pieces. This is similar on all pairs of vases, although the serpents on the Greek vases have four assembly points to the stiff-leaf cup, as opposed to only two on the present pair from Houghton. The increase of assembly points, which was undoubtedly an intended improvement, has given the slightly later Greek vases a more solid alignment. The chasing on the serpent mount is similar on all pairs, with intricately-chased scales; however, while the snakes on the Houghton pair show the same scaling all around, the bellies of the snakes on the Greek and the Getty vases are chased with lines across the bellies.
THE STIFF-LEAF CUPS
Surmounting the entwined serpents and forming the base of the porphyry bowl is a cup cast and chased with overlapping leaves. These are again identical on all three pairs of vases with minor differences only in the chasing. The cups of the present vases also have to the insides of the central perforations short tube-like 'guides' cast to give extra stability to the connecting threaded core.
THE DRAPERY AND LIONS
The porphyry bowls are wrapped in drapery, which on all pairs of vases consists of two large and two small sections, with the two main large sections joined on all vases. The two small sections hidden beneath the bodies of the lions are soldered to the main drapery mounts on the Greek vases while they remain separate pieces on the present pair from Houghton. These have the same chasing typical for this kind of mount which consists of small lines or scratches. This chasing of lines was only applied to the recessed areas in the shadowed folds of the drapery, thereby optically creating extra depth. The drapery is flanked and secured by lions to either side, which function as handles and while all lions were again cast from the same master model there are some differences to the thicknesses of the casts. While the extremities of the lions of the Houghton vases are hollow they are solid on the slightly later casts of the Greek vases. The assembly screws in the latter go directly into the solid legs whereas in the present pair small sections were soldered into the hollow crevices of the body to take the assembling screw. Differences in chasing between the three pairs are also apparent to the lions. On the Houghton lions the chasing beautifully contrasts with the ring which is brilliantly burnished, while the chasing of the lion skin is the same as that of the ring on the other two pairs, creating a more uniform effect.
THE PORPHYRY BOWLS
The porphyry bowls themselves, which form the core of the vases, are similarly cut on all pairs. Earlier antique vessels may have been used and re-cut, most probably a column core-drilled and subsequently cut into sections, leaving the individual sections/vases with flat bottoms. On the Houghton vases the bottoms of the bowls are filled with scagliola imitating porphyry in the section that is just visible beneath the leaf-tip cup and a grey cement to the centre. On the Getty vases the bases are cut from a veined reddish marble; while on the Greek vases they are assembled using a separate section of porphyry. One of the present porphyry vases shows some restored damages to the rim with some of the cracks filled with a pigmented reddish scagliola.
While the liners are part of the construction of the vases on the pair from Houghton, with the bases taking one end of the main threaded bolt, they had been changed on the Greek vases. The liners of the present vases are traditionally constructed, in a manner consistent with 18th century practice, shaping cast panels around a wooden cylinder and with a shaped rim and a circular base plate attached with brass solder. There are small repairs to the rims of both liners which have been attached with silver solder. Both liners have been electro-gilt following the repairs of these small fractures.
All the technical and artistic aspects of the present vases, including the cast, the chasing, the assembly and the gilding, which have been verified and discussed above, are typical for the production of ormolu-mounted objects made in Paris in the second half of the 18th Century.
We are grateful to Fernando Moreira for his help in preparing the technical aspect of this catalogue entry. Fernando Moreira is an international consultant for French 17th and 18th century gilt bronze and a restorer and conservator to the French National Museums. He was the leading expert witness at the legal trial when these vases were subjected to the most rigorous and extensive examination.