AN IRISH MASTERPIECE
By Donald Cameron
This chimneypiece is a superb example of Dublin scagliola inlay work and one of a handful of pieces that may be attributed to Pietro Bossi.
Although the question of attribution to Bossi is still a difficult one - we only know of his work in this field from a contemporary newspaper advertisement (1) - there remains a coherent and brilliant body of work by a single hand produced in Dublin towards the end of the 18th century which may with a reasonable degree of confidence be identified to his hand.
Recent research indicates that this body of work may consist in total of less than fifty chimney pieces and a single pair of tables formerly in Leinster House, Dublin (the tables sold Christies London, 7 July 1988, lot 119 and now in a private collection). The most distinctive pieces within this group are those in the Etruscan manner such as the present example.
This chimneypiece has all the hallmarks of Bossi's work. The Etruscan medallions are oval and inlaid with classical figures in red on a black ground and hung from ribbons. Similar ribbon-hung medallions appear on both the renowned Charlemont House chimneypiece, formerly in St Anne's Clontarf, Dublin (2) and on the Leinster House tables. The leaf work is beautifully drawn and the colours finely graded - another characteristic of Bossi work - and, remarkably, the colours have not faded.
Although many additional pieces have been attributed to Bossi over the years, it is now clear that the majority of such pieces are either eighteenth century work by Robert Adams scagliolist Dominic Bartoli and his partner John Richter or nineteenth century copies by the Dublin firm of Sharpe and Emery (who advertised themselves as producing Dublin Bossi inlay).
Adam also designed documented chimneypieces in the Etruscan style, notably for Home House and Osterley House (see E. Harris, The Genius of Robert Adam - His Interiors, New Haven, 2001, fig. 456, p. 508 and fig. 249, p. 170). Although using the same sources of decorative inspiration, Adams designs as executed by Bartoli and Richter are very different in feel from Bossi's. Of particular relevance, the Osterley medallions are set within carved frames whereas Dublin pieces are invariably uncarved.
In summary, this is an exceedingly rare and attractive example of Dublin inlay work. Only two or three pieces of comparable quality have appeared on the market in recent years.
1) Saunders Newsletter, 22nd March 1786
Peter Bossi, Inlayer of Marble, lately removed to No 38 Fleet Street, has now for sale an elegant pair of statuary marble table tops, also chimney pieces, the whole inlaid scagliola, on an entire new design. He engages the above pieces to be as good workmanship as any done in London
2) D. Cameron, 'Scagliola Inlay work: the problems of attribution', Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies, Irish Georgian Society, 2004, vol. VII, illustrated on p. 140
(For a full discussion on Bossi and the issues of attribution, see D. Cameron, 'Scagliola Inlay work: the problems of attribution', Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies, Irish Georgian Society, 2004, vol. VII and C. O'Neill, 'In Search of Bossi', Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies, Irish Georgian Society, 1998, vol. I.).
Donald Cameron is a researcher and consultant specialising in eighteenth century inlaid chimneypieces. He has contributed articles to the Irish Georgian Society and the Irish Antique Dealers Association Yearbook.