January 21 2014, 11:43am

Carlton Hobbs LLC This monumental cabinet bears the signature of Charles Toft (1832–1909), Chief Modeler at the Wedgwood ceramics manufactory from 1877 to 1888. Born in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, Toft was the son of an engraver and began his career as a modeler for Minton in the 1850s and later studied at Stoke Art School 1860-64. He taught modeling at Birmingham School of Art between about 1868-1873 and was appointed chief modeler at Wedgwood’s from 1877 to 1888.

Figure 1

The cabinet was the focal point of the company’s installation at the extraordinary Paris Exposition Universelle of 1878 and Figure 1 shows a sketch in ink preserved at the Wedgwood Museum archives showing how the piece was to be dressed and positioned for this event. “Wedgwood enjoyed considerable success at the exhibition, reflected by the company being awarded a gold medal by judges” and the present cabinet was mentioned in a number of reviews of the exhibition, both in the Illustrated Guide to the British Section and the Reports of the United States Commissioners, with almost identical wording, as “a cabinet, decorated with jasper plaques, illustrative of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, modeled and designed by C. Toft.” The piece incorporates Toft’s recently created range of plaques depicting subjects from English literature. The theme of this cabinet would have chimed perfectly with the taste of the period; the arches of the upper section of the cabinet are topped by bas-reliefs of leading figures from the canon of English literature. In the center is a bust of William Shakespeare in (1564-1616), flanked by figures of fame.  On the right-hand side is a profile of John Milton (1608-1674), on the left is one of Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400). Profile of Geoffrey Chaucer. Carlton Hobbs LLC Profile of John Milton. Carlton Hobbs LLC Bust of William Shakespeare. Carlton Hobbs LLC Beneath each writer, on the upper face of the protruding lower tier, is a larger plaque showing a scene from his work. Beneath Shakespeare, as confirmed by the notes on the line drawing, is the famous “play within a play” scene in Hamlet. Toft’s composition has many notable similarities to a picture of this scene painted by Daniel Maclise and shown at the Royal Academy in 1842 (figure 2) and it appears to show identical same composition, but from a different angle. This painting was engraved and distributed by the Art Union in 1868, and would have been a recognizable image amongst the contemporary public. Figure 2 Carlton Hobbs LLC

Beneath Chaucer is the scene at the beginning of the Canterbury Tales when all the protagonists from different sections of medieval society gather at the Tabard Tavern in London prior to setting off on their pilgrimage to Canterbury. The Tavern’s sign is clear to see in the upper right corner. Below Milton is a scene that is likely to be referring to his 1634 masque Comus, a tale of resilient virtuousness that was immensely popular during the Victorian period. It shows Sabrina rising from the water accompanied by water nymphs, a popular subject in contemporary painting. The other figures shown on the rectangular plaques set vertically into the four columns are all taken from the works of these three writers, and some of them are instantly recognizable. We can see Adam and Eve from Milton’s Paradise Lost, Macbeth posed to strike with his two daggers, the Knight from Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, one of the animal-headed torch-bearing revelers from Milton’s Comus and the figure resembling Bacchus is probably intended to represent Comus himself.

Carlton Hobbs LLC Numerous examples of pieces of furniture with integral Wedgwood plaques were created throughout the history of the factory’s existence. However, these were usually designed and constructed by external makers and the present cabinet appears to be the only example of a piece of furniture made by the Wedgewood company itself. Considering the cabinet was made at the height of the florid and fanciful Victorian era, its singular design is a remarkable exercise in bold rectilinear design, eschewing any use of inlay, carved ornament, or shaped surfaces. Its dramatic angular, geometric format was clearly calculated to serve three functions; that of displaying Toft’s brilliant literary-themed plaques, to show off the free-standing Wedgwood objects inside, and as a tour de force that would earn admiration of informed visitors to the Exposition.

This cabinet will be featured on our booth at TEFAF Maastricht 2014 and included in our forthcoming catalog.