Unearthing an Etruscan Mystery: A Penwork Pembroke Table Attributed to Henry Clay

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Today’s post focuses on the above Pembroke table, which is a highly unusual and rare survival of a specific type of furniture made in England in the late eighteenth century.

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Carl Wilhelm Götzloff, Antiquities by a Balcony Overlooking the Gulf of Naples, 1826
Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington

Goethe, a poet and philosopher, once wrote, ‘Naples is a paradise’ (Italian Journey, 1787).  During the second half of the eighteenth century, when Goethe was writing, Naples had become the preeminent place in Italy for Grand Tour visitors to explore the newly discovered towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

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Léon-François-Antoine Fleury, On the Bay of Naples, c. 1830
Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington

Antique vases, which were often used as grave gifts, were being unearthed frequently during excavations throughout the eighteenth century.  These vases, which were treated as everyday objects in ancient times, were elevated within artistic circles as highly valued items equal in status with classical paintings.

One of the greatest collectors of ancient vases was Sir William Hamilton, a Scottish diplomat and antiquarian.  He served as the British ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples from 1764 to 1800, and during this time he amassed a great collection of antiquities.  Hamilton’s collection of Greek vases came from numerous excavations, and at the time they were thought to have come from the Etruscans.  Although the vases have now been reattributed, contemporaries regarded the vases to be Etruscan throughout Hamilton’s lifetime.

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The frontispiece of the publication of Hamilton’s collection by  Pierre-François Hugues d’Hancarville

Hamilton collaborated with Pierre-François Hugues d’Hancarville to publish his collection, with the aim of sharing and disseminating the designs to the broader public.  This four volume publication became one of the most influential sources of antique art in the eighteenth century, and it was widely used by contemporary artists, designers, and craftsmen.  Hamilton’s collection and the publication became synonymous with Etruscan design.

The publication cleverly took the three-dimensional scenes and decorative schemes on the vases and simplified them into two-dimensional designs confined to clear rectangular and circular tableaus.  The simple graphic and linear nature of these designs were easy to copy and apply to a wide range of artistic styles, whether it be for ceramics, paintings, wall decoration, or furnishings.

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Illustration of three vases in jasper invented and produced by Josiah Wedgwood at Etruria
Image from the New York Public Library

Josiah Wedgwood was one such designer who relied on Hamilton’s collection for inspiration for his contemporary porcelain wares, and he was one of the first to receive prints from the publication.  As an homage to the collection, Wedgwood named his workshop ‘Etruria’ as a reference to the Etruscan culture that produced the vases in Hamilton’s collection.  Along with the artist John Flaxman, Wedgwood’s workshop created innumerable vases and ceramic pieces that featured designs drawn from the publication.  Painters were also influenced by the publication, both in England and abroad.  French painters Jacques Louis David and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres were both strongly influenced by the designers along with English artist William Blake.

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Osterley Park, London 
Photograph courtesy of Jim Linwood

Our focus is the way Etruscan decoration, through the interpretation of Hamilton’s collection, emerged as a popular style of decoration in English interiors.  Robert Adam is responsible for bringing the taste for Etruscan styles to England, and he was particularly successful in designing entire room schemes based on the ancient civilisation’s artistic output.  The most notable example of this style is at Osterley Park, the home of Robert Child, which he designed in 1773-74.  This room features wall paintings that depict a variety of figural scenes drawn from antique vases that are embellished with additional decorative motifs also found on antique ceramics.  The colour scheme used for the walls evokes the traditional red and black colouring of the vases.  The furniture in the room complements the wall decoration, both in the colour scheme and decoration.

There is a Pembroke table in the Etruscan Room by Henry Clay, who was celebrated for his japanning technique on a papier maché surface.  The Pembroke table is described in an 1782 inventory as ‘a Pembroke table richly Japanned by Clay.’  Like Adam, Clay drew inspiration for his furniture and decorative objects from Etruscan designs depicted in d’Hancarville’s publication.  The decorations on the table feature figural scenes in cream tones drawn from antique vases on a black japanned background.

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Livermere Park, Suffolk from Humphry Repton’s Red Books

The Pembroke table is one of very few pieces of furniture decorated in the Etruscan style.  Another rare survival is a corner cupboard at the Victoria & Albert Museum, which bears great resemblance in its design with the Pembroke table at Osterley, and it has been attributed to Henry Clay.  The cupboard was likely commissioned by Nathaniel Acton (d. 1795) for his residence in London or Livermere Park, Suffolk.  The table features figural scenes, which the museum have linked to plates from the publication of Hamilton’s vases.

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A George III penwork Pembroke table attributed to Henry Clay 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

We are delighted to have a Pembroke table attributed to Henry Clay in the Etruscan style in our collection, pictured above.  This piece features marked similarities to both the Pembroke table at Osterley Park as well as the corner cupboard at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

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A George III penwork Pembroke table attributed to Henry Clay 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

The rectangular form of the Pembroke table relates closely to the Osterley Park example, while the use of the striped decoration surrounding the figural and decorative motifs is almost identical to the Victoria & Albert Museum’s corner cupboard.

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The top  of a George III penwork Pembroke table attributed to Henry Clay 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

The table top features two figural scenes within a rectangular frame.  These scenes relate closely to several designs in d’Hancarville’s publication.  The scene depicting two figures with a shield featuring a snake on it could relate to the story of Thetis bringing armour to Achilles as shown in Vol III, plate 60.

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Detail showing Thetis handing armour to Achilles, including a helmet and shield with snake from Plate 60 in Volume III from D’Hancarville’s publication of Hamilton’s vases

This table is a rare example of Georgian furniture decorated in the Etruscan manner.  The elaborate decorative detailing throughout the table make it an exceptional example of penwork and Henry Clay’s signature style.

Detail Pembroke Table

Detail showing the Etruscan red decoration on the leading edge of the George III penwork Pembroke table attributed to Henry Clay 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

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