Among the many benefits which accrue to curators who lend works of art to an outside exhibition for which there is to be a catalogue is the opportunity to look again closely at the works of art which have been summoned for special display. In some cases there is a temptation to think that there is very little more to be said about a particular object, particularly if it has been researched and catalogued by a renowned scholar like the late Christopher Gilbert, author of three magisterial volumes on the furniture at Temple Newsam. For Taking Shape, however, with its emphasis on the links between sculpture and furniture and the breaking down of art-historical hierarchies, it has led to some new thinking and conclusions about a number of the loans, in particular the furniture made for the great Picture Gallery at Temple Newsam, as well as the famous candlestand made as part of a suite for the Gallery at Hagley Hall, Worcestershire.
This paper is concerned with the way in which the furnishings of these two great mid 18th century interiors – with their examples of sculptural furniture par excellence – are the key integral elements of much bigger ideas which transform or ‘metamorphise’ their spaces, defying the limitations of architecture, painting, sculpture, and textiles, and create instead something unique which in each case expressed their owners’ relationship with the world. On the one hand at Temple Newsam we will see how a Palladian Saloon becomes instead an ‘indoor’ Arcadia, in which the gods of mythology are metamorphosed into sculpture or furniture and now co-exist with very identifiable contemporary and near contemporary personalities in the shape of the portraits which clad the walls. At Hagley, on the other hand, we see how the ‘outside’ parkland or Arcadia - which had already been created before the house was built and which lies directly outside the windows of the gallery - is now brought into the house. This time it is achieved by again ‘metamorphising’ the raw materials of nature (the trees of the forest, the streams and cascades, the rocky escarpments) into the classic repertory of grand furnishings (pier glasses, console tables, candlestands, girandoles, even picture frames).
Although the two galleries are barely 15 years apart (1745 and 1760) they are very different in spirit. The earlier one is perhaps looking backwards in time, being maybe a last gasp of the Baroque salone or great room of entertainment, as well as looking metaphorically inwards in space at the events which are taking place here and now within the room. At Hagley this is reversed: the feeling is of looking forward in time towards the picturesque movement and its expressions in architecture and decoration - towards semi-circular bays with floor-length French windows, verandahs, elaborate framing curtains and valances, indoor jardinières etc etc - and outwards in space – to the parkland in which a tamed and benign nature is found and which is seen as a place of repose, poetic inspiration, and symbolic of the good life.
Yet in all this there is a strange irony: it has long been recognised (and now confirmed) that the Temple Newsam girandoles and Hagley candlestands are derived from the printed designs of two 18th century geniuses, Matthias Lock and Thomas Johnson. Both have the same wildly naturalistic features with strong sculptural and figurative elements. But this is where the similarities end, and not just because they were carved by different hands. The Temple Newsam girandoles are entirely gilt; matt and burnished, gleaming and shimmering as if made of gold. And this is the next degree of metamorphosis: in the hands of the genius artist or alchemist James Pascall a base material, wood, has been transformed into ‘gold’, the material of the gods even if it merely resembles ormolu or gilt bronze. Indeed much of the ornament on the whole suite of furniture is quite clearly simulating applied gilt bronze mounts on the chairs as well as on the girandoles: Pascall’s carving even includes faux screw heads so as to complete the illusion. We are indeed in a golden Arcadia – maybe even the foothills of Mount Parnassus itself.