The Tradition of the Torchere

Paulus Bor

Paulus Bor, The Disillusioned Medea 
Metropolitan Museum of Art

The term torchère comes to us from France and translates to ‘torch lamp.’  Its purpose is simple (to hold a lamp or light), yet its form is often elaborate and highly decorative.  This painting of Medea, the granddaughter of the sun god Helios in Greek mythology, by the Dutch artist Paulus Bor in the 1640s places her in a room with classical sculptures and a carved torchère.  Incense burns atop the torchère, which is elaborately decorated. These stands first appeared in France in the 17th century and subsequently became popular in England, Italy, and Holland.

Versailles

View of the torchères in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles

Torchères were most commonly found en suite with a side table and a mirror to form a pier set.  An early record of this type of display is mentioned by Mary Verney in 1664, when she requests ‘a table and stands of the same coler [sic].’  While these torchères could be made in plain wood, such as walnut or elm, more extravagant versions were made with ebony, silver, and gold.

We currently have two pairs of gilt gesso torchères that date to the early 18th century during the reign of George I.  Both pairs would have formed part of a pier set, supplied en suite with gilt gesso tables and mirrors, by a cabinet-maker such as James Moore (d. 1726).  The ‘Roman’ pattern for these tripod torchères, which could be used to hold a vase or candelabra, was invented at the French court in the late 17th century and popularized by William III’s ‘architect’ and ornamentalist Daniel Marot (d. 1752) in his Oeuvres, 1703.

James Moore specialized in finely carved gilt-gesso work embellished with strapwork and scrolling foliage in a rich baroque manner.  Little is known of Moore’s early life and apprenticeship, however, from 1714 he worked in partnership with London’s most prominent glass-maker John Gumley, and in 1715 they succeeded Gerrit Jensen as Royal cabinet-makers. Aside from his Royal commission with Gumley, Moore was also independently employed by Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, eventually supervising the building work at Blenheim Palace after Vanbrugh’s dismissal in 1716. She later referred to Moore as her ‘Oracle’. Moore’s other distinguished private clients included the Earl of Burlington and the Duke of Montagu.

G10-108

A Pair of George I Gilt Gesso Torchères in the manner of James Moore 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection 

The first pair of torchères features panelled faceted shafts with foliage, strap work, and husk swags on double S-scroll supports.

G10-108 copy

Detail of the base of a George I Gilt Gesso Torchère in the manner of James Moore 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection 

Certain design elements in these torchères, such as similar Roman tripod claw-inspired scrolled feet, have marked affinities with a torchere in the Royal Collection at Hampton Court supplied by Moore (R. Edwards and M. Jourdain, Georgian Cabinet-Makers, London, 1955, p.135, fig. 30).

AD.68d

A Pair of George I Gilt Gesso Torchères in the manner of James Moore 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection 

The second pair of torchères features a turned conical stem with decorative husks and foliage, standing on a tripartite base with acanthus leaves on a punched ground on oval pad feet.

AD.68d

Detail of the top of a George I Gilt Gesso Torchère in the manner of James Moore 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection 

This pair features wonderful carved gesso work to the circular dished tops with stylised trefoils of acanthus with accompanying strap work.

Torchères remained a popular part of the Georgian interior, and we will continue to look at history of their design throughout the century in a later post.

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