A Very Rare Breakfront Cabinet Retaining Its Original Etruscan-Style Painted Decoration

September 30 2013, 12:46pm

This elegant cabinet, which retains its original painted decoration, is a rare survival of the Etruscan taste introduced into England in the late 1760s. The black and terracotta decoration to the ovals and the stylized frieze, set against a light-blue ground, are much in the manner of the Etruscan style of Robert Adam (1728-1792), the most celebrated architect and designer of the day. Carlton Hobbs LLC Adam used decoration in classical forms rendered in black and terracotta, “evidently imitated”, as Adam said, “from vases and urns of the Etruscans,” to create rooms of daring originality and high fashion. In The Works of Robert and James Adam, Adam wrote “persons of taste will no doubt observe, that a mode of Decoration has been here attempted, which differs from any thing hitherto practised in Europe.”  Adam’s first exercise in the Etruscan style of interior decoration was undertaken at Derby House, where he worked for Lord Stanley, later 12th Earl of Derby, in 1773. Adam created three further rooms, all designed before 1775, at Home House, where he was employed by Elizabeth, Countess of Home; at Apsley House, where he worked for the 2nd Earl Bathurst, and at Osterley Park, Middlesex, when the house was remodelled for Robert Child between 1762-80.

Figure 1 The magnificent ‘Etruscan Dressing Room’ at Osterley (figure 1) is the only one of these interiors to remain substantially in its original condition. At Osterley, the decoration takes the form of arabesque trellis-work, interspersed with representations of classical vases, sphinxes, bucrania, figures and decorative scenes. The novelty of the interior, however, lay not in the form of the decoration but rather in the distinctive black and terracotta colouring. The present cabinet also draws on the conventional classical vocabulary, with a fan motif to the doors and sides and anthemion arcading to the frieze, but renders them in these Etruscan colours. The ‘Etruscan Dressing Room’ was executed by Adam’s decorative artist Pietro Mario Borgnis (1743-1801). The decoration was first painted onto paper that was then pasted onto canvas which was attached to the walls of the room. Much the same technique is employed in the present cabinet, where the black and red Etruscan work is painted onto paper and then laid down onto the painted pale blue ground.

The same blue ground is also found at Osterley where the main scheme of decoration is set above a frieze of stylized decoration set with roundels, whilst the doors and the area below the dado rail is coloured in sky blue. Each of Adam’s Etruscan interiors combined the decorative design with a pale blue or bluish grey ground. The intention seems to have been to create an impression of lightness or transparency. Horace Walpole regarded the effect of the Etruscan Dressing Room as being like the open air, comparing the room to that of a pergola. The present cabinet’s use of this light blue colouring is of considerable significance in that it retains its original paint-work. As such it constitutes a rare survival of the subtlety of eighteenth century coloration. Repeated acts of restoration and repainting of interiors has meant that the quality and effect of the original paint-work has generally been lost. In the case of Robert Adam, Eileen Harris points out that his interiors have “been restored more frequently and diligently than any other architect’s; so much so that not a spot of their original paint work survives untouched.” 

Figure 2 The form of the present cabinet, with its simple but beautiful proportions, was an ideal vehicle on which to create an Etruscan composition. This type of low breakfront cabinet was favoured in England in the 1780s. Another example of this model was formerly at Woodhall Park, Hertfordshire (figure 2). In that instance the cabinet is of more common satinwood but, like the present piece, is painted with neo-classical decoration including oval fan motifs.

The chief source for the use of the Etruscan coloration seen in the Adam interiors and the present cabinet, was the publication in four volumes between 1767-1776 of Pierre Francois d’Hancarville’s Catalogue of the Collection of Etruscan, Greek and Roman antiquities from the cabinet of the Hon. William Hamilton. That work published the red-figure vases acquired by Hamilton whilst British Ambassador at the Court of Naples and given, in 1772, as a gift to the British Museum. Hamilton’s vases were an important addition to the increasing range and volume of antique sources that fed the expanding vocabulary of neo-classicism in the second half of the eighteenth century. At the end of the 1760s Josiah Wedgwood was among the leaders of fashionable taste to take up and experiment with this form of decorative effect. It was a fashion given added impetus among the connoisseurs and collectors of the day by the theory, widely propounded in the period, that in Etruscan culture lay the origin and font of all classical civilization.