'The Orpheus Cabinet', an Aesthetic Movement ebonized music cabinet, the design attributed to Daniel Cottier

'The Orpheus Cabinet', an Aesthetic Movement ebonized music cabinet, the design attributed to Daniel Cottier
overall with gilt-painted decoration of musical, floral and Greek motifs, rectangular moulded top with shaped galleried back rail, supported on four turned columns and a central single cupboard door, with painted panel of Orpheus and Euridice, flanked on either side by two lyre-shaped dividers, the moulded and panelled base with two short and one long drawer, with brass handles, on bun feet
109cm. wide; 122cm. high; 40.5cm. deep

Lot Essay

Daniel Cottier (1838-1891), to whom the piece is attributed, was an important figure in the international Aesthetic Movement; a disseminator of artistic ideas rather than a startlingly original talent, he played a crucial part in introducing 'aesthetic' values to Amercia. He was born in Glasgow of French descent, and began his career as an apprentice to the local stained-glass artist, David Kier. In the late 1850s we find him in London, where he heard lectures by Ruskin, Rossetti and Madox Brown at the Working Men's College and probably met William Morris; but by 1862 he was back in Scotland, working in Edinburgh for the stained-glass firm of Field and Allan. In 1864 he and another employee, Andrew Wells, set up their own studio at 40 George Street. Several of their windows of the late 1860s adorn St. Michael's Cathedral, Aberdeen.
In 1867 Cottier returned to Glasgow, where he began to specialise in interior decoration as well as stained glass, working in collaboration with the architects William Leiper and Alexander Thomson. Two years later he left Glasgow again for London, where he established the firm of Cottier & Co., Art Furniture Makers, Glass and Tile Painters. Several fellow Scots were briefly involved as partners, including the influential designer and decorator Bruce Talbert and the architect John McKean Brydon, who had previously worked with Norman Shaw and W. Eden Nesfield. Cottier also extended his activity to picture dealing, forming connections with Goupil, Durand-Ruel and other Paris firms. By 1873 the business was flourishing to such an extent that he opened branches in New York (144 Fifth Avenue) and Sydney. These involved him in extensive travelling although he relied heavily on partners, particularly in Australia where a further branch was opened in Melbourne.

In New York Cottier & Co. quickly became trendsetting arbiters of taste and style, popularising the latest ideas of the English designers with which Cottier was so well acquainted. Their products were praised by the influential critic Clarence Cook, whose popular book The House Beautiful (1878) had a cover designed by Cottier and featured many of his furnishings among its illustrations. Cottier was responsible for numerous stained-glass windows in America, both ecclesiastical and secular, as well as for many New York interiors. Never robust in health, he died prematurely at Jacksonville, Florida, in 1891, although the firm survived under his partner James Inglis until 1915. (For a fuller account, see In Pursuit of Beauty: Amercians and the Aesthetic Movement, exh. Metropolitan Museum, New York, 1986-7, cat. pp.414-5).
Cottier was an eclectic artist, open to the influence of the more original minds with which he came in touch. His early contact with the Pre-Raphaelites had a profound and lasting impact on his work. His stained glass was in the 'aesthetic' style of Morris's own work in this field, particularly that of the 1860s in which the 'gothic' manner of Morris's early glass was tempered by classical influences. Cottier sold and published Morris furnishings in America; his fabrics were renowned (as Cook put it) for 'colours whose delightfulness we all recognise in the pictures of ... the English poet-artists'; and more than once he found himself contributing to schemes with which the Morris circle was involved. He and Burne-Jones both designed windows for H.H. Richardson's Trinity Church, Boston; and he supplied furniture for 'Vinland', Catharine Lorillard Wolfe's summer retreat at Newport, Rhode Island, which also boasted glass by Morris and Burne-Jones and murals by Walter Crane.

In the field of furniture design, the chief influence on Cottier was E.W. Godwin. Several of the Cottier pieces featured in the The House Beautiful are versions of Godwin's Anglo-Japanese designs, and Cottier's New York factory unashamedly made copies of Godwin models. It is not therefore surprising that their furniture is often confused; as Jeremy Cooper has observed, despite Cottier's international activity 'very little documented furniture by him has been discovered' and 'unmarked pieces attributed to Godwin may actually be by Cottier' (Victorian and Edwardian Furniture and Interiors, 1987, p.152). Cooper also reproduces an Angle-Greek cabinet 'designed either by E.W. Godwin or Daniel Cottier' (ibid., pl.291), which is not unlike our 'Orpheus' cabinet in style.

The panel of Orpheus and Euridice which gives our cabinet its name and is obivously appropriate to its connection with music, is in the generalised 'aesthetic' style that characterises so much of Cottier's stained glass (for examples, see In Pursuit of Beauty, pp.178-9). The names of Simeon Solomon and Albert Moore come to mind, but although both were known to Cottier, an attribution to neither seems convincing. It is interesting to note in passing that Albert Pinkham Ryder worked as a decorative artist for Cottier in the 1870s and early 1880s, but the panel can hardly be by him either (for a mirror-frame he painted for Cottier, see In Pursuit of Beauty, p.311). A more likely possibility is that the panel is by Francis Lathrop (1849-1909), an American artist who acted as an assistant to Burne-Jones in the early 1870s, as well as working for Morris and Spencer Stanhope, and who later went on to do decorative painting in New York interiors, and to be involved with the production of Cook's House Beautiful. Lathrop certainly collaborated with Cottier on furniture production since one of Cook's plates reproduces a corner-cupboard 'made by Cottier & Co. after their own design, mainly to serve as a frame to the two painted panels in the doors with which Mr Lathrop enriched it' (see In Pursuit of Beauty, pp.150-1, and fig 5.8). The reproduction is too small to tell us much about the style of the paintings, but this does not seem incompatible with that of the 'Orpheus' panel.

As Marilynn Johnson has noted, the 'Lathrop' corner-cupboard has much in common with the so-called 'Lucretia' cabinet, also made for a corner position, which Godwin designed in 1873 for the London art-furnishers Collinson and Lock, and which takes its name from a panel depicting the heroine by Charles Fairfax Murray (Detroit Institute of Arts; repr. In Pursuit of Beauty, p.151, fig.5.9, and Cooper, op.cit. pl.330). If our cabinet is indeed by Cottier and its panel by Lathrop, it can be linked to both these pieces, in terms of Godwin's influence on Cottier, the references to Collinson and Lock in The House Beautiful, and the fact that both Murray and Lathrop were studio assistants of Burne-Jones. As Cottier would have known, Morris himself made use of painted panels to decorate furniture and enrich decorative schemes. It is interesting, for instance, to compare the 'Orpheus' panel with those designed by Burne-Jones and executed by Murray for Morris's decoration of the West Dining Room in the South Kensington (Victoria & Albert) Museum, 1866-7. The figure of Day offers a particularly close parallel, the sun-rays on the gold ground behind the figure creating a similar effect to those behind Orpheus and Euridice in our panel.

In the 1860s the subject of Orpheus and Euridice was painted by Poynter, Leighton and Watts, all artists with 'aesthetic' credentials. A little later it enjoyed a certain vogue as decoration for art furniture, particularly pieces with musical associations. It was used again by Burne-Jones for the famous 'Graham' piano (1879-80), and W.A.S. Benson's 'Charm of Orpheus' cabinet was shown by the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in 1889 (see Cooper, op.cit., p.164, pl.411). No doubt there are echoes here of the 'aesthetic' principle that 'all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music', enunciated by Walter Pater and perhaps expressed most memorably by Whistler (another of Cottier's friends) when he called his pictures 'symphonies', 'harmonies' or 'nocturnes' to emphasise their lack of narrative content.

More from Decorative Arts

View All
View All