This remarkable 'athenienne' displays an almost archaeological approach to furniture design. It is directly inspired by the tripod stand discovered in the Temple of Isis at Pompeii, which was displayed in the Museum of Antiquities at Portici which John, 1st Earl Spencer and his wife, Georgiana visited whilst on their Grand Tour in 1763-64. Their love of Italy - and of classical antiquity - is well documented, not only in portraiture - Pompei Batoni's portrait of Countess Spencer, painted in Rome in 1764, presenting her against a backdrop of the Roman Coliseum - but also in her own words, declaring 'Rome & Rome only is the place to see and admire the perfection to which painting, sculpture and architecture have been carried'. However, to commission furniture directly inspired by antique prototypes was revolutionary for its time.
Friedman suggests that this 'athenienne' or torchère may originally have been designed by Stuart for the Painted Room at Spencer House. Arguably the boldest statement of the new Neo-Classical aesthetic and generally considered to be the first fully-integrated Neo-Classical interior in England, the Painted Room's decoration adopted this extreme archaeological approach. It is therefore very much a celebration of the tastes and ambitions of the Society of Antiquararies. Clearly inspired by Roman painted interiors such as those which Stuart himself saw on his visits to Pompeii and Herculaneum in 1748, classical references punctuate every aspect of the Room. Thus the chimneypiece was copied in part from the famous Aldobrandini wedding, the frieze was taken from the Erechtheion in Athens, the doorcases on the East wall taken from the Incantada at Salonnika and the columnar screen from the Temple of Fortuna Virilia in Rome. Stuart himself was responsible for both devising the iconography and executing much of the painting, begun in 1759, which embraced a wide range of classical and mythological subjects but with a dominant theme of Marriage. Indeed, the whole room was surely intended as a celebration of the union of John and Georgiana Spencer - seen through the eyes of classical antiquity.
Intended as a Withdrawing Room for 'sitting out' during balls in the adjoining Great Room, Stuart's original furnishing scheme comprised a suite of two sofas and six armchairs with winged lion arms, probably carved by Thomas Vardy and inspired by a Greek Throne from the Arundel Marbles (V & A Museum, currently on loan to Spencer House); a pair of ormolu candelabra by Anderson inspired by the Choaragic Monument of Lysicrates, on painted plinths inspired by tripods in the Capitoline Museum (still at Althorp); a further pair of candelabra by Anderson (lot 3); and a pair of tables, now lost, which may well have corresponded to Stuart's design, with seated torchère lions on the stretchers.
Stuart appears to have reinterpreted this same model - but in compressed form - for another client, Thomas Anson of Shugborough, after 1762. The house inventory made after Anson's death in 1773 records, next to his bedchamber 'Mr Stewart's Painting Room' - but as early as 1764 Stewart wrote in a letter to Anson 'I have got Piranesi's Book at last. they are fine impressions - & contain many curious fragments of Ornament'. Perhaps this same book was the spur for both 'atheniennes' - and each was intended for its respective Painted Room at Spencer House and Shugborough? The Shugborough tripod, now missing, is illustrated in Soros, loc. cit., fig. 10-76; it was photographed in 1961 and so it has not been posible to determine if it is also of carved and gilded wood, as described, or of bronze (as the photograph perhaps suggests).
The original antique prototype for this model is now in the Museo Archeologico, Naples. It was subsequently engraved by Gian Battista Piranesi in his Vasi, Candelabri, Cippe etc of 1778, pl. 44 - and interestingly Piranesi's engraving clearly reiterates the scale and proportion of the Spencer House torchere. Widely copied in bronze in the early 19th Century, the design was popularised in a more compressed and reduced form in C. Percier and P. Fontaine's Recueil de Décorations Intérieures of 1801, pl. 23 and 33. They were almost certainly the designers of a pair of tripod basin stands supplied around 1802/3 for the bedroom of the Emperor Napoleon and Empress Josephine at the château de Saint-Cloud. Not to be outdone, Roman bronziers were still reinterpreting antiquity a decade later, when this model served for the baptismal fonts by Luigi and Francesco Monfradini, one a present to the Empress Marie-Louise by the city of Milan in 1811, the other for the King of Rome in 1813 ('The Age of Neo Classicism', Exhibition Catalogue, London, 1972, pl. XII, no. 1828).