In these unprecedented times, I find much solace in art and beauty. As many of you know, I am neither Catholic nor a fan of Baroque art, which makes it all the more remarkable that I think Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa to be among the most awe-inspiring things ever created by human hands.
Located in the Cornaro Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome, this white marble sculpture portrays an angel and the Spanish Saint Teresa of Ávila, a 16th century mystical, cloistered Discalced Carmelite reformer and nun. The scene depicts an experience Saint Teresa describes in her autobiography when she was visited by an angel of God:
“I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it.”
The sublimity of this 17th century set piece, generally considered to be one of the masterpieces of High Roman Baroque art, always overwhelms me. I call it a set piece because Bernini designed not just the sculpture, but the explosion of materials and color that surround it, including the hidden yellow stained glass window that naturally illuminates the golden rays that reach down to the angel and Saint Teresa.
Chippendale Hall Chair from Harewood House
August 30, 2020
Neoclassicism brings me immense joy, which is why I am particularly excited to share this painted beechwood hall chair, dripping with Neoclassical elements, that was made by Thomas Chippendale in the 18th century for the entrance hall at Harewood House in Yorkshire. One of a set of eight, this chair remains in the divine Robert Adam room for which it was designed. I should also mention that hall chairs were made to be decorative additions to a hall; they were not meant to be sat upon :-).
Chippendale, of course, is considered the finest English furniture maker of all time. He was born very close to Harewood (in Otley) in 1718 and died in 1779 in London. Besides his scrumptious furniture, his fame rests with his 1754 publication, The Gentleman & Cabinet-Maker’s Director, the first example of a cabinetmaker publishing his designs.
This is what I consider to be one of the most beautiful pieces of silver ever created: a Neoclassical English argyll that has been in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, since 1985.
Argylls are pretty much forgotten today. In the 18th and 19th centuries they were used for keeping gravy warm. This was accomplished by hot water in a self-contained vertical cylindrical tube that was inserted into the gravy. The argyll was invented at the suggestion of John Campbell, 5th Duke of Argyll, who was frequently cranky because the gravy arrived cold at his dinner table at Inveraray Castle in Argyllshire. You won’t be surprised to learn that this all happened in frigid Scotland!
This exceptional piece of silver was made by Louisa Courtauld, a Huguenot refugee who became one of the leading English silversmiths in the 18th century. Her family’s home, on Princelet Street in the Spitalfields section of London, is today a museum of immigration and diversity.
Commissioned by Nathaniel Curzon, 1st Baron Scarsdale (1726-1804), this argyll was designed to complement Curzon’s grand, new Neoclassical house, Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire. Today owned by the National Trust, you can see more photos of this astonishing house on my website.
Phil in Pink
March 9, 2021
I think it’s important to realize that some of the most beautiful things in our lives are people. In fact, they are the MOST beautiful! So, in this issue of One of my favorite things, I’m highlighting one of those people: someone who radiates kindness and joy and who shares a smile, warmth, and good humor wherever he is.
I’m talking about Phil (pictured above, relaxing on a piece of modern sculpture in the garden of Lismore Castle that professes to be a bench), who made our September 2019 tour, The Great Country Houses of Ireland, one of the best trips we’ve ever done.
In the ugly the world in which we currently live, people like Phil make all the difference. They remind us that life can be kind and good and filled with people who shine with inner beauty and make other people’s lives better. I have had the privilege to know many people like Phil throughout my life. They give me hope that enlightenment, toleration, acceptance, and forgiveness can prevail in these dark times.
You can see some lovely photographic highlights of our 2019 Irish tour by clicking here.
August 25, 2021
Since my teens I have been gripped by a passion for Blue John, a semi precious stone found in only one place* on the planet: the county of Derbyshire in the English Midlands. Blue John is a form of fluorite noted for its bands of purple-blue and yellow (though it also contains other colors), which is probably where it gets its name: a corruption of the French bleu-jaune (blue-yellow). In this issue of One of my favorite things I’m going to share with you two examples of this luscious stone, also known as Derbyshire Spar (the first example, above, is a Blue John casket in the collection of Newby Hall in Yorkshire).
The earliest ornamental use of Blue John in England was in the 1760s, when the stone was used in fire surrounds. The great architect Robert Adam was one of the first to seize upon the decorative possibilities of Blue John, as evidenced by the fire surround he designed for the music room at Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, below. However, the man most identified today with the semi precious stone is Matthew Boulton, the Birmingham metal manufacturer who used Blue John prolifically in objects of luxury. A number of exceptional pieces were created by Boulton for George III and Queen Charlotte and remain in the Royal Collection today. Click here to see one of the most famous royal pieces—a candle and perfume vase.
Objects that incorporate Blue John are found in the collections of virtually every major museum in the world. In my opinion, they are all objects of astounding and unique beauty. And goodness knows we need all the beauty we can get these days.
*In the early 21st century deposits of fluorite with slightly different coloring and banding were discovered in China.
Issue 6 Herm of Bacchus
June 25, 2022
Many of you know that Neoclassicism is the very beat of my heart, which is why it gives me such great pleasure to highlight one of the most underappreciated practitioners of this style: Luigi Valadier, an Italian silversmith who lived from 1726 until 1785.
Born in Rome to French parents, this amazingly talented man became a star in 18th century Europe, where he created extraordinary works in silver and bronze complemented by an astonishing array of colored marbles and precious stones.
Though he also designed in Baroque and Rococo styles, it is Valadier’s Neoclassical works that are most arresting to us today, and it was these pieces that were so assiduously collected by royalty and aristocrats throughout Europe. His most astonishing works were his full table centerpieces that featured triumphal arches, temples, columns, and other ancient Roman monuments created in ormolu, silver, bronze, and precious stones.
Between October 31, 2018 and January 20, 2019, over 60 of his greatest creations were exhibited in a jaw-dropping exhibition at The Frick Collection in New York entitled Luigi Valadier: Splendor in Eighteenth-Century Rome. The piece you see above, the bronze and marble Herm of Bacchus, was used as the signature image of the show. Its permanent home is in the Galleria Borghese in Rome, one of the world’s great small museums, which is where I snapped the photo above. But, for me, nothing can compare to seeing the herm with so many other pieces of Valadier’s masterworks at the Frick in January of 2019.
It’s so important that we appreciate and embrace beauty in all its forms, now, more than ever.
Wedgwood Jasperware & The Marriage of Cupid and Psyche
August 17, 2023
For anyone who, like me, professes to be a devotee of Neoclassicism, the word Wedgwood can cause a shiver of excitement. I am specifically talking about jasperware, a type of unglazed matte biscuit finish pottery first developed by Josiah Wedgwood in the 1770s. Named after the mineral jasper, a favorite type of quartz gem in the ancient world, jasperware has remained a popular Wedgwood product for over 250 years.
Manufactured in several different background colors, jasperware is most noted for its relief decoration, usually in white, which often gives a cameo effect. The most famous configuration is a pale blue background color, now known as Wedgwood Blue, with raised classical Greek or Roman figures. As the company continued to develop jasperware, they experimented with different color combinations, including the relatively rare tri-color jasperware, a late 19th century example of which you see above. This vase, which I purchased a few years ago on Etsy, gives me pleasure every time I look at its heavenly workmanship.
One of the very first designs Josiah Wedgwood produced in jasperware was The Marriage of Cupid and Psyche, a design from antiquity today called The Marlborough Gem. That’s because the 4th Duke of Marlborough, who formed the most important collection of ancient gems in Europe in the 18th century, lent one of the stars of his collection—a 1st century BC onyx cameo—to Josiah Wedgwood to use as a model for the creation of jasperware. This gem, very unusually, is signed by its maker: minutely incised into the black background of the stone are the words “Tryphon made it” in ancient Greek. Tryphon was a carver to the imperial family, so it’s possible that this gem was once held by Augustus, the first Roman emperor.
And this hugely important piece of art is right here in Boston at the Museum of Fine Arts, which means that you can come today and see an inspiration for the creation of jasperware! In fact, the MFA currently has on view a special exhibition on The Marlborough Gem in its jewelry gallery!