A magnificent Regency gilt bronze and cut glass six-light centrepiece by Rundell, Bridge and Rundell, stamped Rundell, Bridge & Rundell, the circular diamond-cut dish above a circlet supported by three flower-filled cornucopia-shaped pilasters issuing double leaf-wrapped candle branches, held aloft by three diaphanous draped female figures representing the Three Graces, standing on a concave sided tripartite platform resting upon three crouching winged sphinxes on a concave sided tripartite base supported on winged lion claw feet
London, date circa 1815
Height 72 cm.
This wonderful centrepiece, made by the royal goldsmiths Rundell, Bridge & Rundell typifies the fashion in Regency England for combing ancient Egyptian and Classical Roman elements within a single design; the winged sphinxes and lion paw feet being inspired by the former and the Three Graces and cornucopia by the latter. However the influences were not as direct as this since ancient Egyptian motifs inspired a number of Roman artefacts and as a result of the Antique revival during the late eighteenth century reappeared in European Neo-classical design. Egyptomania, that proliferated in France from the latter half of the eighteenth century onward was fuelled by Napoleon's expedition to Egypt, became popular in England after Nelson defeated Bonaparte at the Battle of the Nile, 1798 and was subsequently adopted by Rundell & Bridge during the early years of the 1800's. Many other factors contributed toward the vogue, not least the eighteenth century engravings of Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-78) and the publication of Napoleon's North African campaign in "Description de l'Egypte", 1809-28. Napoleon's architects Percier and Fontaine included many Egyptian revival objects in their "Recueil de Décorations Intérieures" of 1801-12. Another key source was Baron Denon's "Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte pendant les capagnes du Général Bonaparte", 1802. In that same year the British Museum, London exhibited a number of sculptures captured from Napoleon's army at Alexandria, which contributed toward the vogue in England.
The tripartite base with sphinxes and winged lion paw feet are almost identical to that on a silver gilt candelabrum (made for the Duke of Cumberland, George III's youngest son now in the Colonial Williamsburg Collection, Virginia) bearing the stamp of Digby Scott and Benjamin Smith II, 1805-6. Scott and Smith were among a number of leading makers for Rundell & Bridge and from 1802-7 managed the firm's Greenwich workshop. Sphinxes combined with classical female masks also appeared of a number of works by Rundell & Bridge including a pair of silver-gilt fruit and wine coolers again marked Digby Scott & Benjamin Smith II, 1805-6 (private collection).
While the base of the present piece reflected the current vogue for Egypt and specifically the designs of Piranesi, the sensuous figures of the Three Graces in diaphanous dress holding flower filled cornucopia appear to have been inspired by more recent Neo-classical designs, comparing for instance with gilt bronze models by the Parisian fondeur François Vion (maître 1764, fl. 1764-c.1800). They also relate to other Rundell & Bridge pieces such as "The Apple of Hesperides Candelabrum" (British Royal Collection) of 1810-11 and 1816-17 by the great silversmith Paul Storr. The sinuous forms of the female figures and cornucopia also reflects Rundell & Bridge's increasing interest in Rococo silver, much of which was taken to London by the refuges of the French Revolution.
While Rundell, Bridge & Rundell were heralded as the greatest gold and silversmiths of Regency England the firm also produced outstanding works in gilt bronze. Included amongst this category are the fruit and wine coolers mentioned above as well as a magnificent pair of Egyptian style six-light candelabra of 1802-6 for Charles Gordon 3rd Duke of Richmond and Lennox and an equestrian statue of George IV, of 1820-30 which was commissioned by the king and presented to him by Henry 1st Marquess Conyngham (both recently included in the exhibition "Royal Goldsmiths: The Art of Rundell & Bridge 1797-1843", Koopman Rare Art London, 2005, nos. 87 and 88). As would befit work made by silversmiths, the present centrepieces are constructed in a similar manner to items of gold and silver in that the various detachable elements fit carefully into sockets rather than being fixed by screws as typical of Parisian made gilt bronze pieces.
Rundell, Bridge & Rundell became one of Britain's most important and successful silver manufacturing businesses, employing some of the most eminent craftsmen of the day, notably John Flaxman, Paul Storr, Benjamin Smith I and II, Digby Scott and Jean-Jacques Boileau whose Egyptian styled designs were some of the finest of the period. Both new and old silver, jewellery, medals, objects of virtue and watches made up their vast stock at their London showroom at 32 Ludgate Hill. By the 1820's the firm had become a vast enterprise with agencies in Paris, Vienna, St. Petersburg, Baghdad, Constantinople, Bombay, Calcutta and various cities in South America. It began with Philip Rundell (1746-1827) who in about 1767 arrived in London where he was employed by Theed and Pickett, a firm of jewellers and goldsmiths at Ludgate Hill. Rundell was made a partner in 1772 and then following the death of Theed's daughter, took the opportunity to purchase the sole ownership of the business, 1785-86. Soon after he took his fellow colleague, John Bridge (1755-1834) into partnership and through the latter's contacts, the newly styled firm of Rundell & Bridge was appointed as 'Jewellers and Goldsmiths to the King'. The Prince of Wales, the Duke of York and other members of the royal family also granted the firm with a warrant. In 1804/5 Rundell took his nephew, Edmund Waller Rundell into partnership, whereupon the business was restyled Rundell, Bridge & Rundell. By this time they were one of the main manufacturers of quality silver plate, not only retailing their own wares but also pieces by other leading craftsmen.
Philip Rundell finally persuaded the master silversmith, Paul Storr (1771-1844) to join the firm in 1807. The following year he took on the sculptor William Theed (d. 1817) who had previously worked as a modeller for Wedgwood. When Theed died, Rundell took on another leading sculptor, John Flaxman (1755-1826), who as the firm's artistic advisor designed and made models for the most important pieces. Of note was his celebrated "Shield of Achilles', (British Royal Collection), made for the Prince Regent in 1821.
Following Rundell's retirement in 1823 business continued up until the death of John Bridge in 1834. Thereafter the firm continued to commission silver from other manufacturers until it finally closed in 1843.