Own a classic — for less than you might think
A selection of 12 captivating pieces, from a Samurai suit of armour to a papal emissary’s ring, with unique stories to tell. All offered during Classic Week in London from 6 to 15 December
Following centuries of bitter civil war, the superb craftsmanship of 17th and 18th-century Japanese armour reflected technical developments in warfare. Full-body armour suits of cast-iron scales, covering the front, back, arms and thighs, not only protected the wearer from the blows of battle, but also served as an intimidating expression of the warrior’s individuality. The cast-iron face mask, complete with detachable nose and bristle moustache, attest to this, with the leaping lion dog on the kabuto helmet making him clearly identifiable during the heat of battle.
Portraits of Moors and African figures were scarce in the Dutch Golden Age, a time when trade in the Dutch Republic and its outposts was flourishing. When they did feature in the art of the period, it was in the most part as servants or slave labourers. This portrait, however, shows an African man of elevated rank, in a stylish pose. His wealth and status are displayed in his rich dress, a kaftan of possibly Turkish origin, and the fashionable accoutrements of the time: namely the expensive, long clay pipe and his prominent pearl earring.
Column kraters were used by the ancient Greeks to mix wine with water for their banquets. As luxury goods, they were often skilfully decorated with scenes from Greek mythology. In this example, which has been attributed to the Boreas Painter, Eos, the goddess of Dawn (always represented with large feathered wings), is shown abducting the young Cephalos. According to legend, Eos was cursed by Aphrodite with an insatiable sexual appetite as a punishment for the liaison she had with the war god, Ares. From then on she was destined to carry off handsome young men, the Athenian hero Cephalos among them. Depictions of Cephalos on Attic vases were popular for the home and export market because he was married to Procris, daughter of Erectheus, the founding figure of Athens.
By the early 20th century many European artists had begun travelling through China, painting landscapes, cities and scenes of everyday life as they went. Dutch artist Ernest Agerbeek, based in Indonesia between 1920 and 1930, was one such traveller to China, and captured this everyday scene of a Chinese barber’s shop. In a time before widespread photography, paintings such as this served as an important historical record, capturing details of daily life — clothing, furniture, footwear, architecture, tea and even musical instruments — that would otherwise have been lost to posterity.
This 19th-century silver-mounted ostrich is reminiscent of the kunstkammer, or ‘cabinet of curiosities’, which was once popular among aristocrats, merchants and scientists. Elaborately decorated with foliage and animal designs, the hinged silver wings of this bird open to reveal an ostrich egg inside. The fascination with nature and the exotic in centuries past was exploited by goldsmiths who mounted diverse organic objects such as coconuts, ostrich eggs, coral, nautiluses and turbo shells. Such objects decorated the kunstkammern of houses throughout Europe, demonstrating the intellectual prowess and collecting vision of their owners.
Johan Erdmann Hummel was known as ‘Perspektiv-Hummel’ due to his profound interest in architecture and perspective. He taught these subjects at the Berliner Akademie from 1809 and published his theories about them in Die Freie Perspektive, from 1824/25. At the Fortune Teller’s, like many of the artist’s paintings and drawings, demonstrates his fascination with describing space in two dimensions; it shows many detailed perspective lines which give the drawing its striking sense of depth.
This gilt-bronze ring bears several papal emblems, including a tiara, cross keys and those of the four Evangelists: the winged man, winged lion, winged ox and the eagle. While debate still surrounds the exact function of Papal rings such as these, it is believed that they may have been bestowed on Papal representatives to the king, to wear as a mark of authentication. At more than 5 cm high, this ring could be worn over a pair of riding gloves and, despite the importance of the wearer’s mission, is inlaid with a rock-crystal rather than a precious gem, as insurance against highway robbery.
This late 18th-century bronze statue is modelled on Italian-based Flemish sculptor Giambologna’s work, Venus Drying Herself. Giambologna established a model for the portrayal of Venus, his depictions later influencing generations of Italian sculptors. The beauty of this figure lies in a composition that can be admired in three dimensions, with no single dominant viewpoint. It is related to a marble figure modelled by Giambologna, completed in 1583 and installed in the Villa Ludovisi, Rome, where it has remained ever since.
During his time in prison in 1871, the French artist Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) turned to still life painting, taking the apples, flowers and other fruits brought to him by his sister Zoé as his subjects. In a letter to his lawyer, dated 25 October 1871, Courbet complained, ‘I am in every kind of pain: all the guards are preventing me from working at Sainte-Pélagie and from carrying out here what I had planned. They just authorized me to paint in my cell without leaving it, without any kind of light or model.' Courbet’s paintings demonstrate a purity that is immensely powerful and resonates in similar still life works by Manet and Cézanne.
This blue faience statue depicts Egyptian Queen Henuttawy of the Third Intermediate Period of Egypt, circa 1070-1032 BC. Pharaonic burials of Ancient Egypt frequently include shabti such as these, crafted to accompany the dead as servants in the afterlife. With a basket on her back and a hoe in each hand, this shabti would carry out any labour required of Queen Henuttawy. Hieroglyphs on the lower body read, ‘Illuminate the Osiris, the Royal wife Henuttawy’.
John Ruskin was heavily influenced by his great friend J. M. W. Turner, whose work he collected extensively. Like Turner, Ruskin made rapid outdoor sketches of atmospheric effects throughout his lifetime, which have an almost Impressionist spontaneity. Art historian Stephen Wildman has said that although these studies are difficult to date, the combination of the sea in the foreground and mountains in the distance may suggest a connection with his travel from mainland Italy to Sicily in late April 1874.
Anna Alma-Tadema was the younger daughter of the Dutch painter Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) and his first wife, Marie-Pauline Gressin de Boisgirard. Heavily influenced by her father’s painting, Anna concentrated on the elaborate interiors of the family homes, as seen in this depiction of an upstairs room in the Alma-Tademas’ St John’s Wood residence in London. The intricate detail in The Closing Door ranges from the delicate flowers and inkwell on the bureau to the necklace being tugged upon by the central figure, scattering beads to the floor. Only on second glance might you notice the hand of an unseen figure pulling the door shut, perhaps also cutting off a passionate love affair.