Boulton's French fashioned 'chimneypiece-garniture' candlesticks of ormolu-enriched marble, are designed in the 'antique' or 'Etruscan' fashion promoted by Robert Adam (d. 1792), architect to George III; and conceived as sacred urn-capped altars evoking lyric poetry and sacrifices at Love's altar. Bacchic vine-wreathed and laurel-festooned satyr masks are tied by flowered ribbon-guilloches to the wine-krater vases, whose Grecian-stepped pedestals display bas-relief medallions suspended from bacchic and laurel-festooned ram-heads.
The eight pearl-wreathed bas-relief medallions depict four scenes of love's triumph inspired by Ovid's Metamorphoses or 'Loves of the Gods', and relate to the cameo gems manufactured by James Tassie (1735-99) and used by Wedgwood from whom Boulton is likely to have sourced the designs (N. Goodison, Matthew Boulton: Ormolu, London, 2002, p. 109, pl. 78.3 & p. 113). The medallions feature on a pair of white marble and loop-handled vases (ibid., pls. 76 & 302). All are derived from Tassie (cf. ibid., pl. 78): one depicts 'Venus Victorious', which was adapted by Wedgwood and Bentley and features in their 1774 Catalogue as 'Venus Victrix'. It depicts Callipygia & Cupid with Mars' weapons for presentation to Venus (ibid., p. 107 & pl. 76.3). Its parallel medallion is that of the seated Mars (ibid., p. 110 & pl. 76.6). The second pairing is that of a gem of Hygieia, the personification of health, who features alongside one of her father, Aesculapius (ibid., p. 112 & pls. 76.7 & 76.8).
Their pedestal pattern features in the Boulton Pattern Books, where it supports a krater-vase with looped handles. A number of the latter candlestick vases have been recorded, while the pedestal also appears with Wedgwood's hand-coloured biscuit medallions in place of ormolu ones. This pedestal pattern, with ram's head angle-mounts, also features on Boulton's 'Diana' mantelpiece clock (ibid. pls. 80, 153, 301-303). The form of the present vases relates to the vase candelabra such as those listed in Boulton and Fothergill's sale at Christie and Ansell's on 12th April 1771, lot 46 and described as:
'An altar of statuary marble richly embellished in the antique taste, on which is a vase with 3 branches for candles' (N. Goodison, Ormolu: The Work of Matthew Boulton, London, 1974, p. 253 & Goodison, op. cit., 2002, p. 452).
The unusual use of coloured marble for the vase-bodies is possibly unprecedented. In 1770 Boulton sent vases 'to be japanned of the opaque blew' and also ordered some green china vases from Worcester to be made in candle-vases (ibid., p. 151). Other examples include a pair of ormolu-mounted copper cutlery-urns which were lacquered to simulate porphyry (ibid., pls. 216-217).
The guilloche bands at the top of the urns have circular holes beneath the satyr masks, which are not used for any fixings. Whilst it is possible that the urns were originally designed to have handles (instead of satyr masks) there is no trace of any fixing for handles on the bases of the urns. Matthew Boulton often used the same elements in different combinations.