THE LOAN COLLECTION OF FURNITURE AT BETHNAL GREEN.
AIDED by Mr. Wallis's Essay on "Construction as an Element of Design in Ancient Furniture," which is prefixed to the official catalogue of the Loan Collection on view at the Bethnal Green Museum, the visitor may learn, if so disposed, a good deal about the evolution of comfort and utility, as applied to human habitations, from an hour's wandering among the chairs and tables of the past. If he be not so disposed, but merely likes to look about him in an idle mood, and to take the in- structiveness of the show for granted, he may see a num- ber of curious things, and be a good deal amused. The col- lection, like others, suggests that one of the boons offered by Museums is the opportunity of sending ponderous objects which occupy space and oppress the mind at home into the dignified retirement of the public service,—of getting rid of the things and deserving well of the country simul- taneously. At South Kensington and at Bethnal Green there is a good deal of stabling gratis for white elephants, but the white elephants are interesting objects, for the most part, when contemplated apart from the possession and care of them, even when they are surprisingly ugly, as some of them at Bethnal Green are. Going round methodically with the catalogue, we have our attention directed to eighty-two chairs, at least two- thirds of the number being exquisitely unsuited to the support of the human frame in any posture bordering on the com- fortable, according to the notions of these degenerate days. What backs, what legs, what a "carriage," what elbows that never wanted resting, must the people have had for whom the Italian chairs of the fifteenth century were made !— chairs too shallow to hold a cushion, with nowhere to tuck away one's feet, and carved with consummate art so that the small of the occupant's back came against a " cartouche," and his or her shoulder-blades were congenially rasped by the scales of dolphins or the manes of lions. Several centuries earlier, chairs were much more comfortable ; for instance, here is a copy in electrotype of a chair preserved at the Louvre, and said by Suger, Abbot of St. Denis in the twelfth century, to be the actual chair of le bon roi Dagobert ; and it is deep, roomy, with stout arms, and a merciful support for the back ; while No. 5 is an awful construction, with an octagonal seat, and a back formed by two lions, bearing branches, surmounted by a coronet. The Pompeian chairs in bronze of which there are two in the Museum, are merely backless benches, beautifully ornamented. In one of these the upper compartment is filled with an ornament voluted in the centre, and terminating in the heads of mules, full of life, and with collars of finely-wrought work ; in the other, a similar ornament terminates in horses' heads, with a wonderful force of expression in them ; the eyes fly, the nostrils snort, the snaky manes are tossed with speed and passion. Glancing from these bronze heads all along the projecting row of carvings which lines the left side of the central hall, one sees how tame and dumb the mediteval animals and monsters are in comparison. Several fifteenth-century folding arm-chairs from the Soulages Collection have loose rings, resting in grooves, between the round ter- minal knobs and the bars of the arms, whose use is not discernible, and is not explained in the catalogue. Among the Italian chairs is one of chestnut-wood, the support in front carved with a grotesque mask, flanked by winged harpies, re- markably sharp in outline, and with a baleful expression,—quite the cleverest pieces of carving in the collection.
Among the German furniture of the sixteenth century there is one chair, brought from Cologne (date 1580), which is a curiosity of ugliness ; the seat is a square panel, with four turned legs morticed into it ; and the misshapen back is all in one piece, intri- cately inlaid. The first really beautiful objects that catch the eye are a pair of massive oak benches, English, of the sixteenth century, their backs carved in high relief, with recessed arches, demi-figures, and monsters, and curved arms with grotesque heads at the ends. There are a few very ugly objects belonging to various epochs of English Art, but many are exceedingly beauti- ful, especially among the specimens of what may be called the sentimental school in furniture. The Dutch and German chairs are all ugly, without exception ; there's nothing to be made of
them, though one fancies them placed upon a polished floor, with silken cushions for the feet of their occupants in brocade, and it is not until we come to the Venetian and Florentine work, to the ebony and silver, to the ivory and velvet, the richly carved and gilded wood, and the slim, graceful forms, that wonder at the ponderous gives way to admiration of the beautiful. When we reach the age of mahogany, we find a few specimens of such especial ugliness, that we can understand Dr. Johnson's wrath against that foreigneering wood, for as Mr. Wallis reminds us, the Doctor stood by English oak, as your only wood worth having. The Queen has sent a combination of chair and library steps, in solid mahogany, with leather seat, back, and sides, which could hardly be surpassed for clumsy hideousness ; but close to it stands a second contribution from her Majesty, a fauteuil— the short sofa, not the arm-chair to which the name has been popularly misapplied—in white and gold carved wood, that takes us back to Fontainebleau in a moment, and conjures up a picture of sprightly elegance by the beauty of its form—well be- fore the frightful bandy-legged period—and the harmony, vivid- ness, and graceful design of the Beauvais tapestry with which the seat and back are covered. The Duke of Westminster's carved ebony chairs, the birds and flowers of extraordinary beauty, are among the gems of the collection. They are probably Cingalese work. Chippendale is but slightly represented,—he is too fashionable to be spared for the public good at present,— but there are a few specimens of his simple, delicate, yet solidly constructed work ; and in the same ease are some beautiful spinning-wheels, reminding us of Lady Teazle and her linen gown. A little farther on we come upon the senti- mental, heart-and-dart, the posy-and-true-lovers'-knot style ; a period which was sacred to bergers and bergeres in France, but here was more floral and allegorical in its flights of fancy. Who was the original owner, we wonder, of that dainty satin-wood cabinet, which in the catalogue is merely "141," but has a whole history, to our fancy, as we inspect it in detail, its fine inlaying of rose-wood, bright as glass ; its bow-shaped front, with three drawers and two cupboards, where, no doubt, many a packet of love-letters tied with lute-string or silver-cord has lain, and many a love-token and " posy " too ; its delicate, painted bouquets of pinks, tulips, anemones, and other sweet garden flowers that are old-fashioned now, and its border of painted peacock feathers, with lustrous eyes and purple sheen. At the dressing-table bard by, Mrs. Siddons used to sit, perhaps with her " lines " beside her, and her thoughts divided between tragedy and the washing-bill, studying her awful frown, or swift, irre- sistible smile, in the shield-shaped, swinging mirror, with its saucy Cupid at the top of the frame, and its enclosing borders of jessamine and roses and silvery doves. The table is satin-wood, set with grisaille medallions, and its pedestal cup- boards bear graceful, feeble allegories of Day and Night ; its slender legs are connected by curved rods, which sup- port a jewel-box, of the same order of art, and its nest of drawers have silver handles,—a goodly and elegant piece of cabinet-makers' work. We wonder whether it was a gift to the great, practical-minded actress from Siddons, bought with her own bard-earned money ?
Among tables, there is an electrotype reproduction of one in solid silver, covered with foliage in repousse work, bearing the monogram of Charles H. It is equally useless and ugly. The original belongs to the Queen. Another is in ebony, with silver mounts, very funereal, as is a huge mirror which matches it ; the the originals of both are at Knole Park. There are wonderful Boule tables, cabinets, and nests of drawers, delicate little work-tables, card-tables with dainty designs, Chinese, Japanese, and Persian tables, and two of Arabian work, like big drums on perforated legs ; and console-tables of the florid, over-decorated, Louis Seize style. A few of the articles exhibited have historical interest ; such are the beautiful ebony chair which was Wolsey's, with its carved birds that spring into the air, and its flowers that stand out, each one an individual ; and the drawing- room suite in ivory, presented to Warren Hastings by Tippoo. A sofa, a card-table, two small tables, and four arm-chairs com- pose the costly gift, which must have been a strange mystery to its artificers, and is beautifully carved and gilt ; but absurd, too, for the sofa and chair seats are adorned with wreaths of flowers in painted rice-paper, which were originally stuffed and raised with cotton, butare now burst and frayed. Among the ponderous cabinets and elaborate caskets, one slim, elegant little writing-deak,which has evidently seen service, takes our fancy, by its grace and by the human interest that lingers about it. It is a sloping desk, of the ordinary school shape, and of shining satin-wood, with an inlaid design, a crayon-holder, and a feathery pen, crossed, upon its lid, —a girl's desk, no doubt, the delight of its owner, in 1790. The quaint coffers and caskets are perhaps th.e most interesting objects in the collection. Here is a coffret in wood, covered with crimson velvet, with gilded copper ornaments, which was a mar- riage present to some one by Cardinal de Rohan ; here a splendid carved chest, with interior fittings, and the sacred monogram inside the lid, that has doubtless held precious vessels and vestments in safe keeping in old times. Here is the grand, gorgeous, gaudy casket, with Sévres porcelain lid, repre- senting Rubens painting Marie de Medici, in the midst of an impossibly sprawling Court, which the French National Assembly presented to Earl Granville in 1851; and here, a funny little coffer, probably Norwegian, with coarse, stunted, gaudily-painted figures in relief, under low arches, and among them a jocund little devil with fat legs, running off with a church bell under each arm. A reliquary coffer, in form of a hexagonal tower with spire, of the sixteenth century, comes from St. Mary's College, Oscott ; and hard by is a splendid " cassone," or marriage coffer, Italian, of the fifteenth century, with three processions—those of Love, Charity, and Death—upon the front, the colours and the gold as fresh as when they were laid on, and it may be, the bridegroom watched the artist as he worked, while the bride was busy with the stately garments, the cunning embroidery, and the rich lace which were to be thus magnificently housed.
The Arabian, Persian, and Indian caskets are of great beauty, especially the Persian, with their close tracery and borders of turquoise ; and there are several exquisite trays, notably one in tortoiseshell, an entire carapace mounted in silver, and lacquered with buildings, water, and female figures, with ivory faces, forming a superb specimen of the work of Japanese artists.
The Japanese portion of the collection is doubly interesting, on account of the value and beauty of the objects, and the strange contrast which it offers to the sombre, the elegant, the merely heavy, the simple, the gorgeous, the complicated, to all and every sort of article of use or ornament among its surround- ings. Of all foreign ways of life, to our fancy, that pictorial superficial, sunshiny life of Japan is the least realisable ; and its pictorialistn, superficiality, and sunshininess are illustrated, as indeed they are put into our notions of the people, by their furniture and adornments. Here is a large cabinet, which looks like a whole wall of a gigantic doll's house, all formed of wood.
covered with a beautiful and various mosaic of coloured straws, which represents a cart laden with flowers, male and female figures, quaint foliage, and lovely, vivid, darting birds, on chequered ground. There are drawers, and cupboards, and shelves which descend in zigzag, and are railed at the edges, open recesses filled with dainty bits of porcelain, and a beautiful, carved screen,—there are supports of dragons' heads and feet ; it is all indescribably light, accurate, bright, clean, and unreal-looking.
The Domestic Shrine beside it has all the solidity of metal, and is a wonderful object. The doors are open, and disclose a richly gilt interior, which represents a temple, with pagoda roofs, gilt and lacquered. Underneath this are recesses with crowded carvings, brass things like the internal arrangements of a piano- forte, and and a cupboard, most beautifully decorated in black and gold lacquer, with water-plants, clouds, and birds.
At the top is a flight of storks in bronze lacquer, which we do not think could be exceeded in workmanship. As a whole, however, this domestic shrine is more curious than
beautiful ; not so a large standing screen in a glass-case, near the
centre of the collection. It would be impossible to conceive any- thing more exquisite of its kind than this object. It is of great size, slightly rounded at the top, and the visitor will be equally enchanted with the beauty of the two sides. On one, breaking the expanse of bright, soft, black surface, is a magnificent red- crested cock, life-size, stepping loftily amid scattered corn formed of golden specks, sprinkled with consummate art upon the surface. The bird's feathers are of enamel, every shade and shape represented to absolute perfection. The neck seems to move, the beak to peck, the red, angry eye glances in the round socket, the claws catch the ground; but the great triumph is the tail. The feathers, arched and sweeping, of the most delicate, transparent green, are of mother-o'-pearl. In the rear of the lordly creature comes a humble hen, but fat and well-to-do, with her milder beauties as faithfully produced, and her fine, attentive head bent upon her occupation,—that of eating the golden grain. On the other side are a great spray of camellia japonica, a branch laden with apple-blossom, some graceful trees, tall lilies, bright birds, all exquisitely coloured, and in a corner, a kingfisher, in some transparent stone, perhaps cornelian, which is the most beautiful thing of the kind we have ever seen. There is some valuable Chinese work, too, in the collection, but it is heavy and uninteresting, in comparison with the Japanese, idealess, soul- less, even when most elaborate and costly,—ingenious, but not worth the labour expended on it.