This spectacular breakfront bookcase is unique and of utmost rarity. Constructed of solid ebony with a pine and teak carcass, the four upper doors show-off a dazzling display of sixty original Chinese reverse-painted mirrors, separated by moulded glazing bars forming an interlocking pattern of octagons and rectangles, over a continuous band of inlaid satinwood Chinese paling. The lower drawers are lined with camphorwood and adorned with gilt-brass lion mask handles and foliate escutcheons, the whole supported on a confirming plinth.
EBONY: THE WOOD OF EMPERORS, KINGS, AND PRINCES
In his seminal work, Woods in British Furniture-Making, 1400-1900, Adam Bowett writes: ‘Ebony might justifiably be described as the foremost of all cabinet woods…The attraction of ebony was both aesthetic and symbolic. Ebony was the wood of emperors, kings, and princes, and it was imbued with the authority of ancient texts… its heart was jet black, seemingly flawless and imperishable, a kind of vegetable marble. Its working qualities were also somewhat like stone, not only because of its hardness, but from its very fine texture. Ebony possessed a degree of perfection in surface, form, and colour not achievable in any other wood, while still being susceptible to established woodworking techniques’ (2012, p. 70). While highly desirable, ebony was also enormously expensive, which is probably why it was seldom used in mid-18th century English cabinet-making, except on rare occasions for decorative details. In addition to high shipping costs from Asia, ebony was subject to import duties roughly equivalent to £2,000 per ton (ibid., p. 72). Its use in this bookcase indicates supreme extravagance.
A UNIQUE DESIGN
There is no known precedent for this bookcase, other than a smaller padouk wood two-door cabinet, previously with Ronald Phillips, London, which shares a similar broken pediment with dentil molding. It also has Chinese reverse-painted mirrors with a comparable glazing bar pattern. The use of exotic timbers in both cabinets is notable, and the thematic similarities between the glass paintings suggests they must come from the same workshop, and were possibly even commissioned by the same supercargo.
The overall form of this bookcase is inspired by Chippendale's designs for a ‘Library Bookcase’ published in The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director (1754, pls. XCI and XCV). There are, however, no known comparisons with ebony as the primary wood, likely due to its great expense and difficulty to work as discussed above, and the use of it in this context predates later fashions. The inlaid satinwood band of Chinese paling is identical to that of a frieze molding illustrated in one of Sir William Chambers’s designs for a ‘Chinese Room’ (W. Chambers, Book of Chinese Buildings, Furniture, Dresses, Machines, and Utensils, London, 1757, pl. X, fig. 8). The gilt-brass lion’s mask mounts to which the pulls attach are the same pattern as those seen on the signed George III mahogany cabinet, dated 1763, by William Hallett (d. 1781) sold from The William F. Reilly Collection; Christie’s, New York, 14 October 2009. This cabinet shares the same broken pediment centered by a plinth and the cornice decorated with dentil molding, positing Hallett as a possible maker, though the designs were hardly exclusive to him.
THE CANTONESE WORKSHOP: SIOU-SIN SAANG?
Chinese reverse-painted mirrors are rarely incorporated into furniture of this period, with the Ronald Phillips cabinet being the only other known example. Thus, in this profusion, they are certainly unique. The sixty panels here are symmetrically arranged, following a coherent overall plan. Each section has obviously been made specifically to fit its intended space, thus the drawings or specifications of the glazing bars pattern must have accompanied the glass when it was originally sent from England to China to be painted. The paintings form part of an ordered scheme: each door has at the top a hanging basket with flowers, followed by a still life comprising vases and flowers, a central octagonal panel depicting Chinese figures, a further still life with fruit and flowers, and finally a seascape. The mirror panels surrounding these scenes are also conforming and are decorated with birds, insects, and flowers. Together they form what must be one of the most beautiful collections of 18th century Chinese reverse glass paintings ever assembled.
The mirror paintings can be attributed to a Cantonese workshop in operation from at least c. 1740-1760, based off the very similar depictions of Chinese notables also seen in the overmantel mirror paintings at the Drottningholm Chinese Pavilion in Stockholm, Sweden. As Thierry Audric suggests in Chinese Reverse Glass Painting 1720-1820, the workshop which provided the mirror paintings for the Drottningholm overmantel and also this bookcase, is possibly the same one visited by Sir William Chambers, which he called Siou-Sin Saang (T. Audric, Chinese Reverse Glass Painting 1720-1820 - An Artistic Meeting Between China and the West, Peter Lang, 2020, pp. 120-125). Perhaps best known as architectural advisor to King George III, Sir William Chambers (1722-1796) was born in Gothenberg, Sweden to Scottish parents. He was educated in England before starting a mercantile career and joining the Swedish East India Company. He made three separate voyages to Asia between 1740 and 1749. The first (1740-42) was to Bengal, India, while the second (departing 1743) and third (1748-49) were both to China. On the voyages to China, Chambers acted as an assistant supercargo, and thus was responsible for managing and selling the cargo, as well as buying and receiving goods for the return voyage, hence his familiarity with the Siou-Sin Saang workshop. It was an extremely lucrative position and it was during these trips that he made his first-hand observations that later formed the basis of his drawings published to great renown (see: W. Chambers, Book of Chinese Buildings, Furniture, etc., 1757). While no explicit connection between Chambers and this bookcase can be made yet, it is conceivable that he advised on such a commission. For, whomever commissioned the bookcase circa 1760 would have been exceedingly wealthy, could have their order executed on the spot in Canton, and therefore must have had a strong relationship with the East India Company.
SINGLETON ABBEY, SWANSEA — THE VIVIAN FAMILY
The commissioner of this bookcase remains a mystery for now, as the earliest record of it is from Singleton Abbey, Swansea, Wales. The original structure of Singleton Abbey was an octagonal villa named Marino, which was built in the latter half of the 18th century by Swansea architect William Jernegan for Edward King, Esq. (1750-1819), the Deputy Comptroller of Customs for the Port of Swansea and later the Collector of Customs (S. Littlejohns, Singleton Abbey: The History of the Singleton Estate, Swansea, singletonabbey.co.uk, 2023). In 1816, John Henry Vivian, Esq., FRS, (1785-1855) began leasing the home from King, eventually acquiring it for his family residence. He came from the old Cornish family whose seat was Trelowarren House at Meanage, and had ‘arrived in Swansea on a packet boat from Ilfracombe’ in 1806 to expand the family’s copper-works in the area. John Henry and his wife Sarah were living at Marino in 1817 and began expanding and re-furbishing the house within the year. They eventually hired London based architect Peter Frederick Robinson (1776-1858) to complete the work on the house, which was done in the Tudor Style, and thus the house became known as Singleton Abbey (ibid.). The bookcase was well-suited for such a house, in which ebony furniture would have been seen as the correct choice for a neo-gothic interior, especially by an antiquarian like John Henry. He was an avid collector and amassed a variety of amazing objects for Singleton throughout his life. The Singleton Abbey sale in 1919, as documented in the auction catalogue by Knight, Frank, & Rutley, provides compelling evidence of this. The catalogue lists an abundance of ebony and ebonized furniture, which includes Florentine cabinets inlaid with ivory and tortoiseshell, William and Mary marquetry and parquetry tables, as well as artworks dating back to the Tudor and Elizabethan periods. All in keeping with the taste, it also boasted exceptional Old Master paintings, some of which can now be traced to prestigious institutions including the Louvre.
This bookcase was not included in the 1919 Singleton Abbey sale, as it was kept in the Vivian family and at some point had been taken to Clyne Castle, the neighboring residence of John Henry Vivian’s son, William Graham Vivian. He had no children, and so it ultimately descended to his nephew Algernon Walker Heneage, who was obligated to take the surname Vivian upon inheritance. On his death in 1952 the castle and its surrounding lands were purchased by Swansea Borough Council and its contents sold by auction that same year, with this bookcase as lot 382.
MOYNS PARK, ESSEX — JOSEPHINE HARTFORD BRYCE
In the early 20th century, Josephine Hartford Bryce (1870-1922), known as ‘Jo’ or ‘Jo-Jo’ was a glamor girl and famously part of the much-discussed triumvirate of New York heiresses along with Barbara Hutton and Doris Duke. She was the daughter of Edward V Hartford (1870-1922), the heir to the A&P grocery chain, and nee Henrietta Guerard Pollitzer (1881-1948) of Charleston, who later married Prince Guido Pignatelli (1900-1967). Jo was an accomplished pianist, linguist, equestrienne, and later in life, a pilot. She had an extensive art collection and was a celebrated member of the international jet set. By all accounts she lived nothing short of a momentous life (C. Burns, 'The Life and Times of Josephine Hartford', The New York Social Diary, 8 January 2021 [Part I], and 12 January 2021 [Part II], accessed July 2023).
Jo’s fourth and final marriage was in 1950 to the ‘dashing Englishman’ John Felix Charles Bryce, known as Ivar (1906-1985). Jo acquired Moyns Park, an Elizabethan manor house in Essex, for Ivar, as it had previously belonged to his maternal family, and he had many fond childhood memories there. Together they sympathetically restored the house and furnished it beginning in 1952, hiring the famous decorating firm Colefax and Fowler in what was one of their earliest major commissions. The bookcase was almost certainly acquired through Colefax and Fowler from the Clyne Castle sale for the Drawing Room at Moyns Park, where it was listed in the 1958 inventory.