This beautiful mantelpiece garniture of festive satyr-headed ewers reflects the vase-columbarium style of interior decoration popularised by George III's Rome-trained architect Robert Adam (d. 1792) with encouragement from the Italian antiquarian, author and architect G. B. Piranesi (d. 1778). Water-ewers generally featured as 'toilette' display-plate in fashionable reception dressing-rooms; and Adam followed the lead set by the artist architect James 'Athenian' Stuart (d. 1788), when he introduced ewer-vases as ornamental 'furniture' evoking 'sacrifices at love's altar in antiquity' in his 1760 design for Lady Scarsdale's ewer-decked bookcase ('The Kedleston Bookcase', sold by the late Viscount Scarsdale and The Curzon Family, in these Rooms, 9 June 2005, lot 292).
Enthusiasm for decorative ewers was also encouraged by Josiah Wedgwood's late 1760s establishment of his Etruria Works, where he manufactured Grecian ewers following baron d'Hancarville's publication of Sir William Hamilton's collection of vases in A Catalogue of Etruscan, Greek and Roman Antiquities, 1766-7). However, it was not until 1772 that the Birmingham industrialist Matthew Boulton (d. 1809) decided to follow suit in the manufacture of 'blue john' ewers. It was during his successful London adventure sales held at James Christie's Great Rooms in that year that he received a request from Sir Harbord Harbord, later Baron Suffield for 'I pair of ures such as are proper for the gods to drink nectar'. Such a ewer garniture accompanied his purchase of one of Boulton's French-fashioned 'Venus' clocks (N. Goodison, Matthew Boulton: Ormolu, London, 2002, p. 415). The latter figured the goddess of love attending the urn-capped 'altar' commemorating her love Adonis, and derived from Sayer's Compleat Drawing Book, which featured a French engraving illustrating a scene from the ancient poets' History of Venus and Adonis. While the clock provided an appropriate Vanitas adornment for Lady Harbord's Dressing apartment, the pattern for the accompanying ewers appears to have derived from an engraving of a Renaissance bronze ewer such as that displayed in Venice's Museo (now Palazzo) Grimani (W. Rieder & S. Walker (eds.), Vasemania: Neoclassical Form and Ornament in Europe, New Haven and London, 2005, p.89). Boulton's design for a ewer is in his Pattern Book, I, p. 83. This design is virtually identical to the ewers except for the foliage at the top of the socle and a band of guilloche running across the centre of the vase: neither of these design elements are found on the other known ewers.
A pair of ewers of this exact model was supplied to the 1st Earl of Sefton by Boulton in 1772, at a cost of £14 14d 0d. The Earl also ordered a Venus clock from Boulton. The ewers were sold by his descendent, The late Earl of Sefton, Croxteth Hall, Christie's house sale, 17-21 September 1973, lot 115. They are now in The Gerstenfeld Collection (E. Lennox-Boyd (ed.), Masterpieces of English Furniture: the Gerstenfeld Collection, London, 1998, p. 254, no. 123, pls. 128-9 and N. Goodison, op. cit., pp. 243-246).
Seven ewers of this model are known:
1 & 2: the present lot.
3 & 4: The Earl of Sefton's ewers, now in The Gerstenfeld Collection.
5 & 6: Ewers in The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Soho House.
7: A single ewer in an English historic private collection [illustrated in N. Goodison, 'Matthew Boulton's Ornamental Ormolu', Discovering Antiques, no. 48, September 1971, p. 1136, fig. 6].