17 January 2018
Exotic animals that were transported to England by boats, were studied and painted by experts employed by institutions like the Natural History Museum. It was thought a helpful idea to integrate never before seen animals like armadillos and tortoises into decorative objects, to introduce them to the public. The eagerness of experts to acquaint English society with such animals is evident in the incorporation of animals into everyday objects universally utilised such as inkwells. The popularity of such commodities is evident in the range available..... From Snakes to Dogs, from Tortoises to Ostriches:
Exotic animals were also extremely popular as pets in the late 18th century and Regency period. Josephine Bonaparte’s favoured creatures were an orangutan, which she dressed in a white cotton chemise and her most famous dog, a pug, named Fortune. She also kept a legion of exotic birds and commissioned an explorer to procure wonderful beasts for her collection, including kangaroos, emus and Australian black swans. Consequently, this obsession with animals is reflected in the decorative items of the era. Such decorative items were very en vogue in the Regency period; you could be sure that all the fashionable, wealthy classes were the first to subscribe and see these extraordinary items because they were incredibly novel and collectible. Decorative articles are highly collectible because there are countless variations on a theme such as lions, which are ideal for display purposes. Moreover, they are a remarkable testament to a collector's interest in a topic. Animals were a popular decorative theme and added immense charm and whimsicality to decorative objects and lighting through their light-hearted subject matters. The stylised animals in decorative lighting and objects that will be explored in this blog post are the mythical creatures that are the sphinx and the , dogs, and stylised animals that have allusions to literature and art.
In keeping with the great interest in classical antiquity shown by the educated classes in the 18th and 19th centuries, mythical creatures are fine examples of antiquity that was so beloved in this period. The 1802 publication of Dominique Denon's Voyages Dans la Basse et Haute Egypte, which became the classic work on the forms of Egyptian art and did much to stimulate European interest in them. However, an enthusiasm in the decorative possibilities of Egyptian motifs had prevailed many years before the publication of this work. The articulation of sphinxes were favoured features of the gates, terraces and steps of country houses and gardens in the early 18th century. In the Regency period, a certain amount of fantasy was indulged, in transposing the various zoological features of legendary animals in different ways. And one of these ways was in the use of the sphinx. Egyptian motifs were used in this era with liberal imagination, as with the winged female sphinxes that appeared; the true Egyptian sphinx was male and without wings. Whereas the more popular characterisation of the sphinx in the Regency era was the Greek mythological counterpart, the winged monster of Thebes, with a woman's head and breast and a lion's body. These Regency bronze and ormolu Sphinx candlesticks above epitomise stylised animals in decorative lighting because they are represented with an emphasis on a particular style, this style being the Egyptian taste. They adhere to the traditional Egyptian interpretation of the sphinx, whereas the winged sphinxes lean towards the Greek portrayal.
You will also see stylised animals in decorative objects that have allusions to literature or art. As you will notice in the picture above, the classical motif of the “Doves of Pliny” or the “Capitoline Doves” is the allusion to art referenced here, that is noticeable all over the classical world. They appear frequently as the subject of micromosaics. The image of a dole of doves around a bowl is derived from a Roman mosaic discovered in 1737 at Hadrian's Villa in Tivoli (now in the Capitoline Museums), which in turn is considered to be an impression of a lost ancient Greek mosaic at Pergamon. Pliny the elder in his work “Natural History”, describes the original as one dove is drinking while the others are enjoying the sunshine, which you will observe in the above picture. The above “Doves of Pliny”, as with the original mosaic image portray the doves artistically but realistically, and are a wonderful example of stylised animals in decorative objects.
Dogs were popular in Regency England for a variety of reasons. Greyhounds were appreciated for their ability to course and hunt in the open, where their piercing eyesight was invaluable. Furthermore, to be in the possession of a greyhound in England was a sign of dignity and status. Consequently, they were attractive among the elite classes. Greyhounds are known for being athletic, intelligent, independent, quiet and aloof towards strangers.
English Setters were bred to possess an aptitude for finding, pointing and setting game in open country. These fine bird dogs are noted for being energetic, mischievous and strong willed, which is marvellously embodied in this very playful dog inkwell, particularly through the stance of the setter. Decorative articles of this period clearly also reflected less exotic, more commonly known animals and activities, which provides us with a wonderfully whimsical insight into Regency society's tastes and pursuits.