PATRONAGE: GEORGE WATSON TAYLOR
In the pantheon of early 19th Century connoisseur-collectors, George Watson Taylor (1771-1841) remains a comparatively little known figure. His collecting and patronage was of a similar quality, if not scale, to that of the 10th Duke of Hamilton but yet little is known of what inspired his collecting. It is too simple to suggest that he was simply a very rich man furnishing in the most dramatic nouveau riche French style of the period. The evidence of George IV's collecting shows how much effort was required both as a patron and buyer of ancien régime furniture at the top level. The objects that are known to have been owned by Watson Taylor are quite simply too good to be dismissed as just the furniture of a rich man.
Born into a West Indian plantation family, he had a conventional early career in government service. The scope of his life changed completely in 1815 when he inherited control of his wife's vastly larger plantation fortune. After 1815 and until an indeterminate point in the mid-1820s he was one of the leading patrons and collectors in London. His house in Cavendish Square and his country house at Erlestoke Park in Wiltshire were decorated in the most splendid French style fashionable at that period.
The furniture at Erlestoke combined the best of contemporary patronage, such as this commode, with masterpieces of French ancien régime furniture. Among the latter were a commode and secretaire now identifed as being from Marie Antoinette's Cabinet Intérieur at St Cloud, now in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and an upright secretaire of black and gold lacquer now in The J. Paul Getty Museum.
The period of Watson Taylor's ascendancy was extremely short. By the early 1820s he had suffered a decline in his fortunes, probably as a result of a depressed sugar market and possibly also legislative restrictions on the slave trade. In 1823 his library was sold and shortly afterwards part of his picture collection was sold at Christie's. This included the Madonna and Child with St John the Baptist and St Jerome by Parmigianino, bought at Christie's sale for the fledgling National Gallery in London, where it remains. In 1825 Christie's sold the furniture from his London house in Cavendish Square, a sale at which King George IV was a major purchaser, including the Comtesse de Provence's jewel cabinet by Riesener, still in The Royal Collection.
In 1832 Watson Taylor's fall became complete and he was declared bankrupt with debts of some £450,000. His downfall was swiftly followed by the sale of the magnificent contents of Erlestoke Park by George Robins, comprising some 3572 lots in twenty-one sessions.
This commode and its pair were in the Grand North Drawing Room at Erlestoke and it was described as follows:
A very MAGNIFICENT EBONY CABINET, of splendid classic design, the centre door representing one of the finest specimens of bold Florentine Mosaic, displaying a vase filled with fruit, flowers, and birds, the centre compartments of wings composed of Mosaics equally fine, on a smaller scale, with lapis lazuli borders, the upper and lower panels and entablatures formed of choise specimens of Oriental agates and lapis-lazuli, beautiful Italian rosso antico marble slab, supported by 4 very fine sienna marble fluted Corinthian columns, the whole most splendidly mounted with ormolu, chased shell, gadroon, and scroll mouldings, capitals and bases, 5 feet 6 wide and 3 feet 7 high
The Companion Cabinet is inlaid, mounted and fitted up in every respect similar to the preceding
PATRONAGE: THE ROLE OF ROBERT HUME
An added twist to the story of the creation and early history of this magnificent cabinet is the role of the London maker and marchand-mercier Robert Hume, the cabinet-maker who is almost certain to have made it.
Surviving evidence of the relationship between Hume and the 10th Duke of Hamilton, the other patron for whom he made comparable pietre-dure mounted furniture, suggests that Hume was not merely the manufacturer but had a key role in the design of the cabinets themselves. In the case of Hamilton, Hume took this relationship even further and acted as his architect and designer for the magnifcent imperial interiors created in the 1830s at Hamilton Palace (A.A. Tait, 'The Duke of Hamilton's Palace', The Burlington Magazine, July 1983, pp. 395-6). There is the strongest possible evidence that Hume made this cabinet, including newspaper reports of the house sale itself, but nothing is known of Hume's relationship with Watson Taylor.
Indeed there is evidence that Hume was supplying furniture of this type, inset with late 17th century pietre dure panels, to Watson Taylor at precisely the same time as he was doing so to Hamilton. A cabinet in Christie's sale in 1825 is clearly of this group (Lennox-Boyd, op. cit., p. 159) and must have been supplied at the same time as the Hamilton clock cabinet that is now in The Gilbert Collection. (Massinelli, op. cit., no. 9, p. 49)
The Gilbert clock cabinet provides the only surviving written evidence that is currently known, to show the sequence of collaboration between patron and collector in the creation of these cabinets, using 17th century panels reset into early 19th century farmes. Ronald Freyberger (loc. cit.) has shown how the clock cabinet is inset with panels that were earlier intended for a cabinet shown in an unexecuted design of 1784. Crucially other panels in the design are known to have been used elsewhere. There is surviving correspondence in 1822-1825 between Hamilton and Hume about the manufacture of the clock cabinet. Evidence of the 1825 Christie's sale from Watson Taylor's London house proves that he was already the possessor of at least one cabinet from this group. It is therefore impossible to say which of the two patrons was involved first in the creation of this unique group with Robert Hume.
IMPERIAL STYLE: HUME AND THE DUKE OF HAMILTON
Unlike Watson Taylor, it is comparatively simple to trace some of the factors that inspired the collecting of the 10th Duke of Hamilton (d.1852), not least his father-in-law William Beckford, the 'Caliph' of Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire, and author of the Gothic romance Vathek. The Duke's taste for such imperial furnishings as this cabinet would have been encouraged by his service as George III's ambassador to Russia in 1801. Hamilton would have encountered Hume through Beckford, for whom Hume acted as furniture man. Although Hamilton received designs for Hamilton Palace in an Imperial Franco-Romano fashion from Charles Percier (d.1838), author of Receuil de Décorations Intérieures of 1801, it was to Hume himself that he ultimately turned. The Duke was immensely proud both of the French Dukedom of Chatelherault, granted to his 16th century ancester James, Earl of Arran, and of the claim to the Scottish throne that it provided. Indeed the Scottish artist David Wilkie noted that:
'In his own person [Hamilton] represents the noblesse of three great kingdoms - the generous chivalry of France, the baronial aristocracy of England, and the chieftains and thanes of our ancient kingdom...'.
There are obvious parallels between the Duke's aggrandisment of Hamilton Palace and that George IV at Buckingham Palace.
The spectacular central trompe l' oeil tablet, celebrating the triumph of the Arts of Peace and the Science of Agriculture, is conceived in the Roman-Renaissance fashion. It typifies the quality of objets d'art with which Louis XIV furnished the Palais du Louvre in the late 17th Century. Its beautiful everblooming flowers are attended by exotic insect-eating birds. These birds, and the abundance of fruit overflowing a festive 'krater' vase, pay honour to Bacchus and Ceres, the fertility deities. They also recall the presence of Venus as a loving nature deity, and allude to the Arcadian 'Ver Perpetuum' imagined by Roman poets such as Terence and Virgil.
This romantic Louis XIV masterpiece of pietra dura now forms the centrepiece of a Roman style 'antiquarian' cabinet bought by the 10th Duke of Hamilton as part of the embellishment of his Scottish palace in an imperial fashion. The imperial taste was also favoured by George IV, and demonstrated in particular by his embellishment of the environs of Buckingham Palace with a triumphal 'Marble Arch'. Its triumphal architecture is shared by this marble-encrusted ebony cabinet, which is enhanced in the Louis XIV manner with golden composite columns of fluted Siena marble. In addition two 17th Century tablets of tulip-centred vases accompany its monumental fritillary-centred vase, and the latter are displayed in their own triumphal-arched compartments. Their shell-decked trompe l'oeil niches and their blue frames recall the triumph of Venus and of the Element of Water. Together with their fiery red borders, these colours are rebated in the cabinet cornice, which is wreathed by a medallioned 'Louis Quartorze' ribbon-guilloche.