Our February 2023 edition of Five Centuries features an exciting selection of rare and unique furniture, paintings and works of art, including specialist collecting areas encompassing clocks, bronzes, ceramics & glass, rugs & carpets.
Ahead of the sale our team has chosen a few of their favourite things to share as highlights from our auction...
When selecting a favourite lot in the sale, I sometimes opt for something of exceptional quality, other times I go for the piece with a fascinating backstory, and occasionally I pick I lot that I would simply like to own myself. In this outing of Five Centuries I’ve done the latter, and chosen lot 96, the collection of plaster intaglios. They are remainders from the ‘Grand Tour’, the name given to extended Continental travel during the 18th and 19th centuries, when a young man was sent off to finish his education by visiting the ancient sites of Europe and immerse themselves in art, culture and history. A lucrative trade for souvenirs sprung up, and plaster casts of famous works of art or notable personages became a standard for those looking to take home a reminder of what they had seen on their travels. They could be purchased individually, but often they were sold in complete sets, mounted in trays in bespoke boxes, like the current lot. Each tray contains an assortment of famous works in miniature, from Antiquity to the Renaissance and neoclassical subjects from the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s a review of the History of Western Art in miniature, all tidily contained in its own neat little box. I’d be quite happy to find a space for them at home, or even glaze each tray to hang on the wall to show them off to their full advantage.
- Douglas Girton, Head of Fine Furniture and Works of Art
My favourite lot is Lot 320 - the pair of rare Scottish treen bottles. Treen is the term generally used to cover small utensils made out of wood for domestic use, the literal meaning being ‘of a tree’. Often made from tactile timbers where striking grains and contrast colours were exploited by skilled craftsman, popular woods include lignum vitae and fruitwoods. The term covers a wide spectrum of pieces from salt boxes to spice towers, storage containers to drinking vessels.
This pair of bottles is of a sophisticated form and construction, with a staved body, a construction method whereby the contrasting woods were moulded together to make the container watertight, held together by willow bands. In addition, they have the added attraction of being stamped to the underside with both maker and town, revealing more about their history.
- Katie Hannah, Furniture, Clocks & Works of Art
My favourite item in the sale is Lot 348, the taxidermy Aldabra Giant tortoise, as it is so unusual. In over a decade in the auction industry I have never seen another one. It is a species of tortoise endemic to the Seychelles and is one of the largest tortoises in the world. They can live for as long as 120 years, showing that slow and steady does indeed win the race! During the great ages of discovery in the 18th century species of giant tortoise were seen as the embodiment of the exotic island paradises that were being discovered in the Pacific and captivated viewers when they finally reached zoos in Britain in the 19th century. As with so many species, giant tortoises were tragically nearly driven to extinction by over-exploitation by European sailors. Fortunately, this specimen came from a British private zoo so we believe it was very well looked after and allowed to live to a ripe old age. It seems that their power to captivate people has not dimmed over the centuries, as soon as one of our member of staff's three year old granddaughter saw it in the saleroom she sprinted over to it in excitement. For the Natural History collector this is a rare opportunity to own a real showstopper.
- Harry Fletcher, Specialist
I was instantly drawn to this 19th century painted trompe I’oeil chest. I’ve always been fond of rustic, practical antiques, such as a simple pine chest, as they can easily be incorporated into modern daily life and provide a useful purpose. What I love about this particular piece is that someone has chosen to decorate the chest using 'trompe l’oeil' decoration, depicting the façade of an elegant Georgian house, incorporating details such as the interior shutters and curtains, and the steps leading to the front door. The term 'trompe ‘l’oeil' comes from the French and means to ‘deceive or trick the eye’. Painted 'trompe l’oeil' decoration creates a realistic optical illusion of a 3D form on a flat 2D surface. The technique has been used since ancient Greek times, and by the Renaissance 'trompe l’oeil' fresco murals on ceilings and walls transformed the interiors of grand Italian palazzos. More recently fashionable homes were enhanced by the 1960s designs of the Italian Pietro Fornasetti, who challenged the boundaries of what is real and what is imaginary. However, what appeals to me about this pine chest is that 'trompe l’oeil' has been used on this relatively humble, unpretentious, affordable piece, creating an interesting, imaginative and playful item of domestic furniture. I could find many uses for this chest in my home and would have great delight in owning and using it.
- Katherine Wright, Senior Specialist
The intricate carvings on this cupboard are amazing and show great craftmanship. It features very typical motifs for the time and location, like grapes, spirals and thistles; but I especially love the animals that are stylised in a slightly naïve but very humorous way.
Scottish woodcarving has had a long and rich tradition, focussing on local materials and techniques, often featuring distinct regional styles. Especially the east coast with its harbours, where Scottish traditions mixed with continental ones, produced very varied pieces. Unfortunately, the names of the talented wood carvers have been lost.
- Kerstin Schaeffer, Auction Administrator