Confession time. I’m not a rusted-on fan of period furniture and certainly not an aficionado of the intricacies of style, taste and technologies that so fascinate devotees and collectors. But, give me a good back story, and I’m on board. Behind the elegance and exquisite workmanship must lie a trove of stories – the scuttlebutt, entreaties, political and business intrigue these items must have overheard in boudoirs, games rooms and salons across several lifetimes. That’s the point. These not-quite-so-humble objects were all servants to folk of wealth and discernment who, in the end, had to bid them goodbye and consign them to others. On this basis there is probably a novel in any one of them.
If I were a historical novelist, I would start with the Pembroke table (c. 1775). This delicate little item’s most interesting function was to act as a table for solitary dining for someone who either missed dinner or who didn’t want to sit with anyone else in the family (my italics). What a wonderful social device. “Sorry, too late for tea. Take the Pembroke in the corner. The tripe will be with you shortly.” Or, “I hate all of you. I choose to dine alone this evening.” Any table that incorporates West Indian satinwood, rosewood, Hollywood, boxwood and tulipwood timbers in its superb patterning, as does the Pembroke in The Pursuit of Pattern, deserves to be simply looked at and adored. As a footnote, it was designed and constructed by Ince and Mayhew, a partnership of furniture designers, upholsterers and cabinet makers in London (1759–1803), among the first London furniture makers to exploit marquetry decoration when it came back into fashion in the 1760s.
These London furniture designers were an enterprising lot. There is a card table in The Pursuit… by William Wilkinson (1764–1833). In partnership with his cousin, Thomas Wilkinson, he advertised as a furniture maker and also “appraisers, auctioneers and undertakers”. They also dealt in real estate. Imagine their lines in coffins. “Now will that be with the ormolu inlays – or not?” The partners had an interest in patent furniture. One 1812 advertisement promoting Wilkinson bedsteads stated that “they effectually exclude vermin, and may be fixed and unfixed in five minutes”. No, Virginia, Ikea wasn’t the first.
This principle of envisaging interior design manufacture within module templates extends to another innovation, the furniture catalogue, which made its appearance in the 18th century. Ince and Mayhew published The Universal System of Household Furniture in 1762 – all no doubt in the interests of helping discerning clients to make up their minds – and throw last year’s sticks of furniture out. Something to think about when responding to clickbait on interior décor sites. Your ancestors have been here before.
There are two other big stories in The Pursuit. One is the Grand Tour and the magnetic tug that the Italianate/Classical world had on 18th/19th century taste. Start with the very spectacular Bacchus centre table. It’s a superb example of the work of master mosaicist Clemente Ciuli. It depicts an androgynous Bacchant gazing dreamily beneath a crown of grapes, like a wellness product ad extolling the virtues of grapeseed oil. Pope Pius VII took one of Ciuli’s mosaics of Bacchus as a gift for the coronation of Napoleon in 1804. The real back story is that the imagery was based on a print by Antonio Lorenzini after a painting by Guido Reni who, incidentally, was responsible for the smallest penis ever painted on a full figure Bacchus. Mosaics discovered at Pompeii and Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli stimulated great interest in (and fashionable taste for) the medium.
Among the ‘must sees’ for the gentry on the Grand Tour was ‘The Unswept Floor’ discovered at Hadrian’s Villa. It’s central image of doves drinking from a bowl surrounded by trompe l’oeil scraps of food is believed to be a copy of an even earlier, lost mosaic by the Greek master Sosus, a work famously described by Pliny the Elder. There’s a ‘Doves of Pliny’ table in the exhibition. That’s the pulse beat of this elegant exhibition. The stories keep cascading. Nearby is a cabinet of ‘mini mosaics’ high-end souvenirs for the GT set to take home and show off. Keep the optics on close focus setting because the extraordinary facture involved in using tiny chips of coloured glass to ‘paint’ miniatures of the Colosseum Tivoli vistas and the like is awesome.
The Pursuit is enlivened by the inclusion of work by two contemporary Australian artists, Adrian Potter and Arthur Seigneur. Potter’s Punk (2009) is a virtual honour roll of fabulous Australian timbers including white stringybark, red box, grey box, messmate stringybark, pink gum, black box and so on. The fact that Godzilla emerges from this orderly assemblage of beautiful colours and textures adds to its enigmatic appeal. The visual seductions of Seigneur’s straw marquetry stools are enhanced by the knowledge that it’s partly due, along with the artist’s skills, to the simplest of materials – straw, flattened, cut and glued, to essentially delight the eye. And that’s The Pursuit of Pattern in a nutshell.
The Pursuit of Pattern
David Roche Foundation
Until Saturday, June 29
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