The stories behind 5 exceptional lots offered in Christie’s sales online and across the world, from a portrait of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, to a set of extraordinary metal insects
Shortlisted for Britain’s Turner Prize in 2011, artist George Shaw is celebrated for his gritty depictions of suburban British culture. The Land of Nod drawings were executed in 1999-2000, shortly after his graduation from the Royal College of Art in London, and relate to an exhibition of the same title conceived for the Lift Gallery in collaboration with fellow artist and then-flatmate John Strutton.
The duo spent a number of days living in the gallery, creating an installation that reflected their memories of their childhood bedrooms. The Elephant Man is a study of an 1889 photograph of Joseph Merrick, whose story became the subject of David Lynch’s classic film in 1980, and bears witness to the meticulous, hyper-realist draughtsmanship that would go on to define Shaw’s practice.
Those wishing to drink in a measured fashion should avoid this 17th-century ‘windmill’ cup — designed so that it cannot be put down until the contents have beeb emptied.
Made from the late 16th to the 17th century, windmill cups became a must-have accessory in drinking games across the Netherlands and Germany. Members of an assembled party would blow through the tube to turn the windmill blades and clock hand. Where the clock hand stopped indicated the amount to be drunk.
The mill, clock dial, revolving sail, and cylindrical stem on this example are all engraved to imitate wood, tile work and brick, and the ladder is set with figures. The cone-shaped colourless glass cup has a wheel-engraved border of birds and foliage.
The motif of the smoker recurs frequently throughout David Teniers the Younger’s genre scenes, with the habit popular among all classes of Dutch society. Domestically harvested tobacco was grown in large quantities, and a tobacco processing industry emerged to cure, spin, and cut the weed, alongside an industry to manufacture clay pipes, which were first introduced into the Netherlands by English soldiers.
Members of the lower class could usually only afford the shorter-stemmed pipes like the one shown here, which did not moderate the acrid taste that gave early strains of tobacco their power to stupefy and nauseate the smoker.
Sébastien Érard made his first piano in 1777, pioneering an action still in use today. His instruments were the first in Paris to be fitted with pedals, and pianos made by the Érard brand became the choice of composers including Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Verdi and Ravel.
Érard was also the preferred brand of piano mechanism for cabinetmaker François Linke (1855-1946), who charged 3,000 francs to fit one of his elegant piano shells with Érard movements. This grand is in the distinctive fin-de-siècle style of high-rococo which became synonymous with Linke from 1900 through to the end of his career. The piano appears in the company ledger in December 1901 and was shipped to London to Mrs. S. and P. Érard, either for the piano-maker’s private residence or the company’s showroom.
Metal artist Tanaka Tadayoshi is known for his articulated iron figures of the Taisho (1912-26) and early Showa (1926-1989) periods. Each insect here is constructed of numerous hammered parts jointed together with movable wings, limbs or antennae, finely detailed and patinated in silver, gold, shibuichi (a low silver alloy), shakudo (an alloy of copper and gold) and/or copper.
Tadayoshi apprenticed in the Kyoto workshop of Takase Kozan (1869-1934), who directed the mass-production of ornamental iron pieces — most famously sea life and insects — for domestic and international markets. Kozan’s models were intricately detailed and articulated. In 1910 Kozan received the ultimate honour when the Crown Prince, later Emperor Taisho, purchased a collection of his insects.