As Nerdy History Girls, we're always on the search for historical this-and-that to share with you. Museums, historical societies, and other public collections are our favorite hunting grounds, but auction houses, too, can often provide unique things worth sharing. Auctions often feature fine art and other pieces that are only briefly in the public eye; they're put up for sale by one private collector, then bought by another, then disappear once again.
This fantastic centerpiece for a dining table may soon fall into that category. Currently owned by a private collector, it's part of a large assembled table service from the early 19thc. that will be auctioned this week by Skinner, Incin Boston.
Standing an impressive 32 inches high (without candles!), the centerpiece is made of ormolu, a bronze alloy that was coated with a high-carat gold-mercury amalgam. Also known as gilt bronze, ormolu was popular in the 18th-19thc. for its opulence. It had all the flash of pure gold, but was less costly and substantial than all gold or gold over silver, and could be cast into all kinds of fanciful, showy shapes like this French tureen.
Opulence in dining was definitely on the upswing in the late 18thc. Most modern Americans eat at least one take-out meal a day, usually hastily consumed at the desk or in front of a TV or computer. To affluent Georgians, however, the last meal of the day was meant for lengthy display as well as lavish sustenance. Not only did the number of silver spoons, knives, and forks begin to increase, but decorative table pieces proliferated as well. Everything was calculated to display the wealth and taste of the host and hostess, and impress their guests.
There was even a fashionable change in how food was served, moving away from à la française (similar to modern family style service), where all the meal's dishes appeared on the table at once, to à la russe, where food was brought to the table by servants in courses. Sevice à la russe offered more table-space for decorative pieces like this centerpiece, as well as more wealth on display in the form of additional liveried footmen hurrying back and forth from the kitchen.
The design of this centerpiece is in the latest fashion. Not only are the trio of bacchante with grapes in the best classical tradition, but the three sphinx supporting the base reflect the new popularity of Egyptian motifs, spurred on both by recent archaeological discoveries and by Napoleon's Egyptian campaigns.
This centerpiece has several important names associated to it that many Regency fans will recognize. The centerpiece was made by the London firm of Rundell, Bridge & Rundell, the most celebrated jewelers and goldsmiths of the era. It's also inscribed with the Royal coat of arms. The provenance provided to the current owner states in part that the centerpiece was "formerly the property of a Nobleman; given by George IV to Mrs. Fitzherbert." It's easy to imagine Prinny approving those three half-clad female figures holding the grapevine wreath and glass dish.
In addition to this centerpiece, the auction will include a pair of six-light candelabra, a pair of three-tier etageres, a pair of brûle-parfums (incense burners), and a surtout de table, a long mirrored centerpiece to reflect everything else. But you'll need deep pockets to dine like Regency royalty: the total pre-sale estimates for these pieces is about $42,000, and they will likely go for much more.
Update: The centerpiece did in fact go for more than the starting estimate of $8,000 - much more. At auction on July 18, it fetched an impressive $38,130. Prinny would be proud.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.