The Mirror Image

March 28 2014, 12:48pm

The present superbly carved convex mirror, circa 1810, was created very much in the taste of the Anglo-Dutch banker, collector, and theorist, Thomas Hope (1769-1831). Because of the presence of the surmounting mask formed as bearded male with bound hair and flower head clasps we are able to state that the mirror is in all likelihood the product of the master carver Peter Bogaert.

Carlton Hobbs LLC

This can be deduced by virtue of the fact that there exists the identical mask on a table from Thomas Hope’s picture gallery at Duchess Street and again on a pair of giltwood torchères in the Royal Collection. All three masks are drawn from a unique reverse carved boxwood mold in which composition1 is poured, thus creating a consistently identical sculpted image.  Reverse carved molds demand the highest level of skill a carver can attain whereby he is required to create the desired subject in the negative. Peter Bogaert is one of only two craftsmen singled out for praise by Thomas Hope in his seminal work Household Furniture and Interior Decoration: I have, after the most laborious search, only been able to find two men, to the whole industry and takent I could in some measure confide the execution of the more complicate [sic] and more enriched portion of my designs; namely, Decaix and Bogaert: the first a bronzist, and a native of France; the other a carver and born in the low countries.2

Therefore, a strong likelihood also exists that he was the maker of Hope’s aforementioned table, one of the largest and most important items in the collection.  Further confirming this likelihood, are the two pairs of giltwood torchères in the Royal Collection, which, because of recently discovered invoicing, can be attributed to Bogaert at the time of his partnership with silversmith Paul Storr (from 1809).  As mentioned above, one of these pairs bears the identical mask.

Detail. Carlton Hobbs LLC.

The design of the present mirror, which draws down on Egyptian, Greek and Roman iconography, is emblematic of Hope’s style and his belief that “Antiquity was to be imitated but that it was not to be copied.”3 The frame is surmounted by a plinth that recalls ancient Egyptian stepped pyramids, as well as the primordial mound, the source of life in Egyptian mythology. This form was used by Hope in Plate X of Household Furniture to support “Egyptian, Hindoo and Chinese idols and curiosities.”4 The two figures on the left and right tiers of the plinth take the form of stylized Egyptian anthropoid (human-shaped) coffins. These types of funerary caskets became standard beginning in the Second Intermediate Period (1650–1550 BC) and were decorated with a representation of the deceased, along with symbols and depictions of objects that would be of use in the afterlife. The present models are adorned with fictive hieroglyphs, though some derive from authentic ancient symbols. The topmost glyph of a circle surmounting a cross most closely resembles the Greek symbol for Venus, which also relates to the Egyptian ankh, signifying life. Each figure wears a nemes, the striped head-cloth worn by the pharaohs with two flaps hanging by the ears and shoulders, and is backed by a rippled acanthus leaf.

Figure 1

The cavity beneath the plinth contains a mask of a crowned and bearded male figure. An identical mask can be seen in Plate XX, No. 2 of Household Furniture, which illustrates the decoration adorning the end of table (figure 1) designed by Hope for his Picture Gallery at Duchess Street. He executed further illustrations of the “comic and tragic masks of Silenus, of Bacchante, of Juno and of Hercules” in plate XXXVII. Hope used masks in a number of his decorative schemes, basing them on ancient comic and tragic prototypes used by Greek and Roman actors, such as those depicted in the mosaic of “Choregos and actors” found in the House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii (figure 2). Hope also drew upon the various 18th-century publications whose collections of classical designs comprised such masks, including Tischbein’s Illustrations of Homer from ancient monuments (1801-1823) and Baron d’Hancarville’s Antiquités Étrusques, Grecques et Romaines (1766-67) for Sir William Hamilton.

Figure 2 Further allusions to the ancient world can be found in the carved laurel wreath of the frame, a reference to victory and the ancient Roman Empire, as well as the crown of the god Apollo. The two pearl-string borders recall Venus, the goddess of love. The scrolled lion motif on either side of the mirror crest is clearly related to gold Cypriot spirals of the 5th century BC worn as jewelry by Grecian men and women, an example of which in the Metropolitan Museum can be seen in figure 3.

Figure 3 Thomas Hope was born in Amsterdam to a Scots family of court and government bankers living in Holland since the 17th century. The family had amassed a significant fortune and exercised it to influence both cultural and political arenas. Thomas’ father, John Hope, was a celebrated connoisseur of art and antiquities, with an extensive collection of Dutch and Flemish works. They participated financially in “the rise and fall of empires,”5 including the expansionism of Gustavus III of Sweden and Catherine the Great of Russia, support of Louis XVI in 1789, and completion of the Louisiana purchase by American Republic in 1803. Although prominent Dutch citizens, the Hopes’ lived according to Gallic tradition, mirroring the ancien regime, and “prided themselves on being Frenchified, spoke only French and lived entirely à la Française.”6

In 1787, at the age of eighteen, Thomas Hope embarked on his Grand Tour, which took a decade to complete and brought him to Greece, Italy, France, Spain, Germany, the Ottoman Empire and North Africa. While in Rome he enjoyed the company of fellow connoisseurs Sir William Hamilton, the Earl of Carlisle and the Earl-Bishop of Derry, as well as artist and architects such as Angelica Kauffman, Antonio Canova and Charles Heathcoate Tatham, whom Hope would later employ in England.7

Upon returning to London, Hope established himself at the corner of Mansfield Street and Duchess Street, expanding and remodeling his house between 1799 and 1802 with the help of Tatham. Determined to improve the standards of design and craftsmanship in London, the neoclassical and neo-Egyptian interiors were filled with ancient sculpture he acquired in Italy, neoclassical sculpture by contemporary artists such as Bertel Thorvaldsen and John Flaxman, a portion of Sir William Hamilton’s collection of Greek and Roman vases, as well as furniture designed by Hope himself. The house in Duchess Street “[rivaled] in splendor and originality the other ‘lions’ of Regency taste: The Prince of Wales’s London residence and Carlton House and ‘Chinese’ pavilion at Brighton; Beckford’s neo-Gothic abbey at Fonthill; and John Soane’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields,” with the distinction that Hope’s house was  “more modern and more public.”8 Hope entertained regularly and his lavish receptions, or ‘routs,’ were attended in large numbers by the upper echelons of Regency society, not least of all the Prince of Wales.

Detail. Carlton Hobbs LLC.

No records as to who made Hope’s furniture have yet come to light. In his introduction to Household Furniture he bemoans the difficulty in finding in London craftsmen with adequate abilities both in their level of skill in designing furniture and familiarity with the ancient world, and was thus compelled to take upon himself “the laborious task of composing and of designing every different article of furniture” he wanted produced.13

The present mirror is a beautifully conceived and well-informed example of the British regency’s taste for Egyptian style This taste for Egyptian motifs achieved the momentum of a mania following Nelson’s destruction of Napoleon’s fleet at Aboukir Bay in 1798. In the aftermath of Nelson’s victory the use of such motifs became a statement of patriotism and high fashion as well as conveying the impression of learned sophistication and a familiarity with the history of the ancient past.