6. Coffer on Stand

The Boulle Coffer on Stand in the Collection of the Lewis Walpole Library

by Susan Walker, Head of Public Services

The coffer on stand by André Charles Boulle, now in the collection of the Lewis Walpole Library, first appeared in Horace Walpole’s 1774 A Description of the Villa in the Round Drawing Room as “A trunk of tortoiseshell and bronze; by Boul, on a frame of the same; a small jar of Seve china under it.”

It is possible that Walpole saw and purchased the piece during one of his trips to Paris. In the list of his shipments of 1766 are “Two large cases H.W. from Poirier’s with clock, secrétaire, coffre and table. Two red leather chairs.”  The LWL’s Boulle coffer on stand is a very tempting candidate for that “coffre and table.”

By the time it appeared as lot 25 on day 23 of the Strawberry Hill sale in 1842, the piece was described with a bit more detail and enthusiasm by the auctioneer George Robins as “A remarkably fine Old Boule Coffer, a splendid specimen of this work, at an early period, the front elaborately finished with tortoiseshell ground work, massive or-molu mountings, masque handles, chased rosette corners, and lined with blue silk, on a pedestal en-suite, with richly worked boule back and stand for porcelain.”

It was bought by the dealer Owen of New Bond Street for £44.2.0. Was he buying for a collector? The piece reappeared as the Property of Sir Herbert Ogilvy, Baldovan House, Dundee, at a Sotheby’s auction on 9-10 November 1922 for £100. By the time it came to auction, its association with Walpole, Strawberry Hill, and the display of porcelain had transformed into a thing of family legend: “This coffer, with its stand, was Lot 25 in the Twenty-third Day’s sale of the contents of Strawberry Hill (May 20, 1842, Catalogue, p. 230). It was purchased at the sale by the present owner’s great-grandfather, the first Baron de Mauley; there has always been a tradition in the family that on the stand below the coffer reposed the famous bowl of goldfish in which Horace Walpole’s cat was drowned—a melancholy event commemorated by Thomas Gray in his poem ‘On the Death of a Favourite Cat.’” (Sotheby, 1922). The coffer on stand was bought in, so Ogilvy tried again through Sotheby’s on 6 December 1935, when it was bought by a purchaser named Seymour for £15. It has been suggested that “Seymour” may have been a dealer operating at auction under the assumed name of a famous family of collectors of French furniture at the time.

In January 1939, just shy of a century after the 1842 Strawberry Hill sale, W.S. Lewis purchased the coffer on stand from owner W.P. Wilson of Sennicots, Chichester, through the London dealer Ifan Kyrle Fletcher. Lewis, in his quest for Walpole correspondence for his Yale Edition, placed ads in the Times (London) personal column. He received an answer to one from Wilson in January of 1937, informing him of his ownership of the Boulle coffer on stand. Mr. Wilson had the piece photographed in May of that year, and in December 1938, Fletcher wrote to Lewis to say he had been in touch with the owner who was willing to sell it for £160. The deal was done, and the piece shipped to Farmington. The piece was bequeathed along with the collection, buildings, and property to Yale University on Lewis’s death in 1979.

The Lewis Walpole Library’s piece is thought to date from the first quarter of the eighteenth century and have been made by master ébéniste André-Charles Boulle or one of his sons. Boulle popularized this use of foliate and arabesque tortoiseshell and brass marquetry which came to be named after him (Boulle, boullework, or buhl). Most of the surface decoration on the LWL’s coffer is brass, with the tortoiseshell inlaid into it, a combination referred to as contre partie marquetry. Each such piece has a mate with the opposite treatment of the veneers. Thus, the mate to the LWL’s coffer, displaying première partie marquetry of tortoiseshell with inlaid brass, is in the Art Institute of Chicago’s collection.

The ormolu or gilt bronze mounts bear the crown c stamp (or poinçon c coronné), a tax stamp used from 1745-1749 that indicates the piece was either on the market or having such work done as having the mounts regilded during those years.

A remarkable survival of Boulle’s production, the LWL’s Boulle coffer on stand, unlike so many pieces made of oak with ebony, tortoiseshell, and metal marquetry veneers, had undergone very little intervention in the twentieth century. Only once sent to the Yale University Art Gallery for structural stabilization, the piece retained original materials and thus was an important document with evidence of the practices of the eighteenth-century French workshop. In 2006, the Library was awarded a generous grant from The Getty Foundation for treatment and research related to the conservation of the piece.

A team composed of Head of Public Services Susan Walker, then-Head of Research at the Victoria & Albert Museum Carolyn Sargentson, and conservator Yannick Chastang, collaborated on decisions involving all aspects of the piece’s treatment. Through face-to-face meetings and email correspondence, the trio reached agreement on the work to be performed. They agreed that the piece should be taken back to its appearance in the earliest image found—the photograph taken in Chichester in 1937.

One question that arose was whether to re-engrave the early replacement brass in the center front.

The decision was made not to attempt any engraving as it appeared without it in the early photo and there was a risk of damage to the piece if attempted.

Another question was whether to reproduce an escutcheon on the drawer that appeared in the 1937 photo but had subsequently been lost.

A replica was made based on the design shown in the photo, but it is not consistent with any known Boulle mount.

Finally, a long debate centered on whether to install any decorative element on the top of the plinth on the stand. There were many different examples found on similar pieces, but no description or any surviving evidence in the photo or on the plinth itself led to a convincing solution, nor would any have allowed for the display of a piece of porcelain, so the decision was made to leave the plinth unadorned.

 

 

 

Arlen Heginbotham, Assistant Conservator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the J. Paul Getty Museum, led the examination and research carried out at the Getty Museum and the Getty Research Institute where the piece underwent scientific analysis for materials identification. The red marquetry at the back panel of the stand revealed vermilion, red lead, and lead white, while the surprising discovery of the use of carbon black and natural vermilion pigments under the tortoise shell on the front of the coffer indicated the shell there would appear nearly black. The coffer on stand’s appearance now reflects the period materials discovered during its examination and, with the use of appropriate black coloring under the shell, the black and gold Walpole favored for frames and other furniture at Strawberry Hill. During treatment, tucked underneath the later red silk fabric lining the coffer, a small fragment of the early blue silk lining was discovered, consistent with the 1842 Sale description, and confirming the link to Walpole.

The Boulle coffer on stand from Horace Walpole’s collection at Strawberry Hill is now on view in the Lewis Walpole Library’s Reading Room.

Bibliography

Robins, George, A Catalogue of the Classic Contents of Strawberry Hill Collected by Horace Walpole, April 25th 1842 and 23 following days. (London: Smith and Robins, 1842)

Walpole, Horace. A Description of the Villa of Horace Walpole, Youngest Son of
Sir Robert Walpole Earl of Orford, at Strawberry-Hill Near Twickenham, Middlesex. With an Inventory of the Furniture, Pictures, Curiosities, &c (Strawberry-Hill: Printed by Thomas Kirgate, 1774).

Walpole, Horace. The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence, edited by W.S. Lewis et al. 48 vols. London: Oxford University Press, 1937–83.

5. Portrait of Sir Robert Walpole and Catherine Shorter

Choice 2: Sir Robert and Lady Walpole by Eccardt and Wootton in a Grinling Gibbons Frame

Double portrait of Sir Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford, and Lady Walpole

by Wilmarth S. Lewis

“This frame hung in the Blue Bedchamber, as we learn from Walpole’s Description of Strawberry Hill: ‘In a frame of black and gold carved by Gibbons, Sir Robert Walpole and Catherine Shorter; small whole lengths; by Eccardt, after Zinke: the hounds and view of Houghton by Wootton. Sir Robert is sitting; by him, on a table, is the purse of the chancellor of the exchequer, leaning against busts of George 1st and 2d to denote his being first minister to those kings: by Lady Walpole are flowers, shells, a pallet and pencils, to mark her lover of the arts.’ William Cole, Horace Walpole’s contemporary at Eton and Cambridge and his chief antiquarian correspondent, noted in his ‘Account of Some Pictures at Strawberry Hill’ now in the British Library, ‘under the table stands a flower pot, and by Lady Walpole a grotto of shells. I remember when I was a school-boy at Eton, calling on Mr. Walpole at Chelsea, where Sir Robert, his father, then lived, I found him learning to draw, with Mr Lens the painter with him; and he then showed me a most beautiful grotto of shell work in the garden, on the banks of the Thames, designed by his mother: probably this alludes to that grotto. The frame of this picture cost £30, being most exquisitely carved, painted black, and gilt, having all sorts of flowers, fruits, birds, and at top figures of boys.’

“In his Anecdotes of Painting in England Walpole calls Gibbons (1648-1721) ‘An original genius’ who was ‘a citizen of nature….There is no instance of a man before Gibbons who gave to wood the loose and airy lightness of flowers, and chained together the various productions of the elements with a free disorder natural to each species.’ How did the frame get to Strawberry Hill? I have been saying for years that it was originally around a mirror at Houghton, Sir Robert’s house in Norfolk, and that Walpole admired it so much his father gave it to him, a plausible explanation, but I can’t prove it. In Aedes Walpolianae, 1747, Walpole’s catalogue raisonné of his father’s great collection of pictures at Houghton, he speaks of Gibbons’s carvings there, but doesn’t mention the frame. Walpole’s copy at Farmington of A Description of Strawberry Hill ‘with such prices as I can recollect’ says nothing about the £30 or where the frame came from, but we know that it was bought at the Strawberry Hill sale in 1842 by Lord Lansdowne and that it was No. 77 in Lansdowne House, Berkeley Square, until 1930 when it was sold at Christie’s and given me by my wife.”

Lewis continues in the chapter to talk about Walpole’s family, including his half-sister Mary, whose portrait also now hangs at the Lewis Walpole Library. He concludes with a mention of an illegitimate daughter of Horace’s father’s, Catherine Daye whom Horace brought to live at Strawberry Hill. “I like to think of her and her kindly younger brother visiting the Blue Bedchamber to pay their respects to their father’s portrait in the Grinling Gibbons frame.”

Lewis, Wilmarth S. Rescuing Horace Walpole. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1978.

To see the full chapter from Rescuing Horace Walpole called Choice 2: Sir Robert and Lady Walpole by Eccardt and Wootton in a Grinling Gibbons Frame download or expand the link here:

N.B. A high-quality fascimile of the painting and frame now hangs in the Blue Bedchamber at Strawberry Hill. Please click or tap here for details about the project to create the facsimile and install it at the house.

The original painting in its frame can be found hanging at the west end of the Reading Room at the Lewis Walpole Library in Farmington.

 

4. Fore-Edge Paintings in The Castle of Otranto

Strawberry Hill and The Castle of Otranto: Fore-Edge Paintings at the Lewis Walpole Library

Dale Townshend, Professor of Gothic Literature, Manchester Metropolitan University

One of the greatest privileges of researching at the Lewis Walpole Library must surely be the opportunity to work alongside staff who have such a deep knowledge of, and palpable passion for, the collections that they oversee. Indeed, how thrilled I was when, systematically working my way through the catalogue’s unmatched holdings in eighteenth-century editions of The Castle of Otranto (1765), the obliging and ever-helpful Library Services Assistant Kristen McDonald introduced me to a number of crucial items that would otherwise have escaped my attention: three luxury, apparently unique eighteenth-century editions of Walpole’s fiction that include fore-edge paintings—detailed, decorative scenes painted on the edge of the book opposite to the spine and gilded over so as to render them invisible when the book is closed. Rather like the ghosts that populate the volumes of Gothic fiction that arose in Otranto’s wake, fore-edge paintings are invisible to the uninitiated and unbelieving eye. Instead, they reveal themselves only when they are known to be there, and even then, only when they are looked at awry, the pages of the book bent or folded over by the reader so as to show up their secret, spectral inscriptions. In all likelihood added to bound editions of Otranto subsequent to purchase, these fore-edge paintings were expensive, luxury embellishments to copies of the text that were probably intended as collectors’ items or gifts. Together, all three images have been indispensible to my current research on the relationship between Gothic architecture and Gothic fiction, poetry, and drama in the period 1760 to 1840, particularly for the insight that they yield into the ways in which the late eighteenth century perceived the relationship between Walpole’s fiction and his home at Strawberry Hill: as Walpole in the guise of the translator William Marshal teasingly suggested in the Preface to the first edition of The Castle of Otranto, ‘the scene is undoubtedly laid in some real castle’ (viii), a detail that, following his disclosure of authorship a few months later, pointed readers directly to his own ‘little Gothic castle’ at Twickenham.

The earliest of these in the library’s holdings occurs in a copy of the third edition of The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story that was published by John Murray in London in 1769 (LWL Call Number 24 17 769). The image provides a visual interpretation of the dark, labyrinthine recesses beneath the eponymous Castle, the space through which Manfred pursues the imperiled heroine Isabella. With its vaulted ceilings and rounded, heavy columns, the architecture of the scene represents what the eighteenth century designated as ‘Saxon Gothic’, the early Gothic style that Thomas Warton in the second, revised edition of his influential Observations on the Fairy Queen of Spenser (1762) described as consisting of ‘round arches, round-headed windows, and round massy pillars, with a sort of regular capital and base’ (vol. 2, 186). As W. S. Lewis would observe in his seminal article ‘The Genesis of Strawberry Hill’ (1934), however, the subterraneous passages of Walpole’s text remain a ‘fiction’, textual details, that is, that are entirely without precedent or anchorage in the ‘real’ architecture of Strawberry Hill (90).

fore-edge painting with arches

By contrast, the fore-edge painting included in a copy of the fourth edition of The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story that was printed for J. Dodsley in London in 1782 (LWL Call Number: 24 17 782 Copy 3) is somewhat more determined in its attempts at tying the architecture of the fiction back to Walpole’s own home.

Fore-edge painting 3

Though it is not architecturally precise, the image approximates a view of Strawberry Hill as seen from the River Thames. While drawing a clear visual link between Otranto and the famed house of its author, this fore-edge painting also anticipates the claim that Walpole himself would advance in the Preface to the second edition of A Description of the Villa of Mr Horace Walpole (1784), namely that Strawberry Hill was, at once, ‘a very proper habitation of’ and ‘the scene that inspired’ the author of The Castle of Otranto (iv).

The third fore-edge painting in the Library’s holdings is to be found in a copy of the sixth edition of The Castle of Otranto that was published by Bodoni in Parma, Italy, for J. Edwards in 1791 (Call Number 24 17 791P Copy 15). On the one hand, the building depicted here appears not to be Strawberry Hill at all, but rather a whimsical, Revivalist Gothic fusion of ecclesiastical and castellated architectural details that recall a similar mixture of architectural styles and purposes in The Castle of Otranto. On the other, it may represent a version of Strawberry Hill as seen from the South, a building that, itself, was as much ecclesiastical as fortified, but opened up and flattened out, here, into a two-dimensional strip.

fore-edge painting looking like Strawberry Hill

When taken together, these images intensify the ruse with which Walpole in The Castle of Otranto was clearly engaged: not only the mystery concerning the text’s oneiric and purportedly ancient ‘Gothic’ origins, but also, as he put it in that famous letter from Strawberry Hill to William Cole in March 1765, the extent to which the architecture of the fiction included ‘some traits’ that would ‘put you in mind of this place’ (Correspondence, vol. 1, 88).

Bibliography

Lewis, W. S. ‘The Genesis of Strawberry Hill’, Metropolitan Museum Studies vol. 5,
no. 1 (August 1934): 57–92.

Lewis, W. S. (ed.). The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence, 48 vols
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1937–83).

Walpole, Horace. A Description of the Villa of Mr Horace Walpole, Youngest Son of
Sir Robert Walpole Earl of Orford, at Strawberry-Hill Near Twickenham, Middlesex. With an Inventory of the Furniture, Pictures, Curiosities, &c (Strawberry-Hill: Printed by Thomas Kirgate, 1784).

Walpole, Horace. The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story (London: Thomas Lowndes, 1765).

Warton, Thomas. Observations on the Fairy Queen of Spenser, 2nd edition, 2 vols
(London: Printed for R. and J. Dodsley; and J. Fletcher, Oxford).

1. Drawings and designs by Richd. Bentley, only son of Dr. Bentley, Master of Trinity-College, Cambridge

Choice 5*: Richard Bentley’s Drawings for Strawberry Hill

by Wilmarth S. Lewis

W.S. Lewis wrote Rescuing Horace Walpole in 1978, the result of a fantasy he described in the beginning of that book:

The Fantasy

Two years ago the Almighty called me into His office and said, ‘I am going to destroy every object in your house except one, and you have twenty minutes to choose it.”

I replied, “Lord, I don’t need twenty seconds. I’ll take Bentley’s Drawings and Designs for Strawberry Hill.”

The Almighty nodded solemnly. “For that answer you may save twenty-five more objects.” After a pause He added, “You seem a little dazed, but I know you’re not very good at arithmetic.” In a louder voice He explained, “Twenty-five and one make twenty-six, and what I’m telling you is you may save twenty-six objects.” He paused to see if I understood. Then he continued, “I don’t care what they are–books, manuscripts, pictures, furniture–anything you like.”

I managed to say, “Sir, I hope I may have more time to choose them.”

“How much time do you want?”

“At least a year.”

“A year!” His voice was terrible.

“I think, Sir, I can make the choices fairly quickly, but I would like to write them up as I go along.”

And that’s the end of the fantasy and the beginning of this book.

___________________

Lewis began his chapter on Richard Bentley’s Drawings for Strawberry Hill by reminding us that “This is the book that the Almighty agreed is the most important object in my house.” Lewis purchased the album of drawings in May,1926.

“The drawings are pasted in a calf-bound folio scrapbook with gray leaves. Walpole probably did the pasting himself; certainly he had the title-page printed at the Strawberry Hill Press, the sole copy known.”

“It is mentioned in the first Common Place Book…’I have a large book of [Bentley’s] drawings,’ Walpole wrote, ‘and his original designs for Mr Gray’s poems…. He drew the ceiling of the Library at Strawberry Hill, designed the lanthorn, staircase, north front, and most of the chimney-pieces there; and other ornaments.” Walpole annotated many of the drawings, stating if they were not executed; Bentley initialed a few and gave some dimensions. Thirty of the drawings are for Strawberry Hill, fifty are for other buildings and objects.” (p.53)

“Why do I value Bentley’s drawings and designs for Strawberry Hill so highly? It is because of their primary importance in the Gothic Revival and the light they throw on Walpole himself.” (p. 57)

Click here to read Lewis’s entire chapter on Richard Bentley’s Drawings for Strawberry Hill.

Mentioned in: first Common Place Book(49 2616 I)

Bibliography:

Bentley, Richard. Drawings and designs by Richd. Bentley, only son of Dr. Bentley, Master of Trinity-College, Cambridge. [Strawberry Hill, ca. 1760]

Lewis, Wilmarth S. Rescuing Horace Walpole. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1978.

To see the cover, title page, “Fantasy” and “Problem” from Rescuing Horace Walpole, download or expand the link here: 

To see the full chapter from Rescuing Horace Walpole called “Choice 5*: Richard Bentley’s Drawings for Strawberry Hill,” download or expand the link here: 

*Lewis explains in his preface, “The order in which the Choices of Rescuing Horace Walpole will appear follows Walpole’s life more or less chronologically and is not the order of my preference for them.” (p. 11)