A pair of George III turned wood and japanned niche Urns
Lot 71
A pair of George III turned wood and japanned niche Urns
Sold for £ 13,200 (US$ 17,488) inc. premium


Lot Details
A pair of George III turned wood and japanned niche Urns
possiby attributable to Henry Clay, circa 1775,
of slender ovoid vase form with waisted shallow domed tops and ball finials, the bodies painted in terracotta and heightened in white with part friezes of classical Etruscan figures below a band of stylised elongated anthemion ornament, the upper sections with husk pendants within repeatetive heart and undulating ribbon borders, on elongated circular pedestals and shallow square plinths bases, somes losses to paint and white gesso primer to finials and lower boides and pedestal bases, 43cm high.



    Provenance: Herbert Hall Mulliner (1861-1924) of Clifton Court, Rugby and Albany, London
    by descent to his daughter Mary Evelyn Muriel Saville.

    The colouring and decoration of these beautifully painted urns reflects the fashion which developed in England in the 1760’s and 1770’s for the so-called 'Etruscan' style’, the source for which was Ancient Greek vases which were greatly admired in Britain during the late 18th century, where they were often displayed in private libraries and galleries designed to house antiquities. The most famous English collector of Etruscan vases was Sir William Hamilton, Britain's Envoy to Naples; coloured engravings of the Hamilton vases were published in Pierre François Hughes d'Hancarville’s four volume ‘Collection of Etruscan, Greek and Roman Antiquities’ the earliest of which appeared in London in 1766 where they provided a ready source of inspiration for artists (see illustration).

    The painting on the urns strongly suggests the involvement of Henry Clay, 'Japanner in Ordinary to His Majesty and His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales’. Clay is known to have adopted the Etruscan-style decoration, indeed a visitor to his workshop in Covent Garden in 1775 reported that he made boxes, tea-caddies, panels for coaches and sedan-chairs, coffee trays, and '... all kinds of other vessels, black with orange figures in the style of Etruscan vases' (see Georg Christoph Lichtenberg's ‘Visits to England as described in his Letters and Diaries’, transl. and annot. by M. L. Mare and W. H. Quarrell, 1938). A table by Clay was among the contents of the Etruscan Dressing Room at Osterley listed in an inventory of 1782, described as ’A pembroke table richly Japanned by Clay' (see Maurice Tomlin ‘Catalogue of Adam period Furniture’, 1982, p. 84, cat.no.J/5, illus.)

    In terms of construction, although the urns utilise a white primer beneath the paintwork, which is uncharacteristic of the work of Clay and late 18th century midlands’s japanners in general, it is possible that this method was used in certain circumstances. In his book ‘The Handmaid to the Arts’ in 1764 Robert Dossie comments on the method of priming grounds for japanning with a composition of size:

    ‘In the olden practice, such priming was always used, and is at present retained in the French manner of japanning coaches and snuff-boxes of the papier mache. But in Birmingham manufacture here, it has always been rejected. The advantage of using such priming or undercoat is, that it makes a saving in the quantity of varnish used: because the matter of which the priming is composed fills up the inequalities of the body to be varnished… This was therefore such a convenience in the case of wood, as the giving hardness and firmness to the ground was also in the case of leather, that it became an established method, and is therefore retained, even in the stance of papier mache by the French. …There is nevertheless, this inconvenience always attending the use of an undercoat of size, that the japan coats of varnish and colour will be constantly liable to be cracked and peeled by any violence… This may be easily observed in comparing the wear of Paris and Birminghams snuff-boxes.’

    Dossie’s thoughts thus illustrate that French japanners continued to use primer on wooden objects in the known ‘continental’ way even if they no longer used it on papier mâché or metal objects and thus there is a possibility that this practise was also concurrent in the English japanning trade. Although Clay is known to have faced or veneered wooden objects with papier mâché prior to their being japanned owing to its smoother and more receptive appearance, it is probable that at the time these urns were made, Clay would not have developed the techniques to make hollow vessels of this shape in papier mâché nor even covered vessels made from another material such as wood with paper. Under these circumstances he too would have had to revert to earlier japanning techniques

    In terms of the decorative scheme of the urns, Clay is known to have decorated pieces with white figures as illustrated by the known table at Osterley Park (mentioned above) and also a corner cupboard recently sold at the Shrubland Park sale (see below), which on the evidence of the former, can be fairly reliably attributed to Clay. The type of decorative scheme with orange/red figures seen on pieces mentioned by Lichtenberg on his visit to Clay’s factory in 1775 can be seen on a contemporary but unmarked papier mâché tea caddy in the collection of the Hon. Lady Morrison at Madresfield Court in Worcestershire. Therefore on the evidence to date, it can be suggested that Clay probably decorated goods in the Etruscan style with both white and orange/red figures, and that the detailed white-painted figures were reserved for important furniture commissions whilst the less accomplished orange/red painted figures were used for smaller stock items. This possibility is strengthened by the fact that Wedgwood, with whom Clay had business dealings, was making rosso antico vases of a similar form to the above urns, and Clay, given his entrepreneneurial flair, probably saw a chance to exploit the same market. The only way that was available to him at that time was to make the urns entirely of wood and this perhaps explains why he may have possibly reverted to the use of white priming.

    A documented George III tea caddy by Henry Clay with Etruscan decoration and formerly in the Robert Harman collection sold Sotheby’s London, 12 November 1999, lot 6. A pair of William IV painted lamp tables with comparable but later Etruscan decoration sold Christies, London, 8 July 1993, lot 52. A George III corner cabinet with similar decoration also attributed to Clay sold Sotheby’s Shrubland Park House Sale, 19 September 2006, lot 54.

    H. H. Mulliner, the connoisseur and director of the firm of decorators, Lenygon and Company was born in 1861, the son of Henry Mulliner the master coach builder and founder of H.J. Mulliner & Co. who built coaches for the new motor cars, most famously those made by Rolls Royce and Bentley.

    In his day Mulliner was well known as a collector of English furniture and shortly before his death in 1924, wrote a book (published posthumously) entitled ‘The Decorative Arts in England’ which aimed to illustrate the progress of the decorative arts from the late 17th to the late 18th centuries. Many of the illustrations included items from his own collection, as well as those of other important collectors. In his introduction to the book, the silver specialist J. Starkie Gardener remarked…’in many respects I regard the catalogue raisonée which Colonel Mulliner has compiled, as the most important contribution yet offered towards the study of English decorative art.’

    Mulliner also gave permission for objects from his collection to be illustrated in Margaret Jourdain’s many publications on furniture and decorative arts. After he died Christie’s held a two day sale of his silver and furniture (July 9-10, 1924) when it was stated that Mulliner’s aim had always been ‘… to secure the finest possible example of each distinctive style, and to secure a specimen of all the fashions in vogue during the period selected.’ The sale raised almost £40,000 and comprised 146 lots of furniture including the famous serpentine mahogany commode from Raynham Hall now in the Leverhulme collection and a pair of Matthew Boulton candelabra. A few days afterwards, Mulliner’s widow gave the Victoria and Albert Museum a satinwood marquetry commode attributed to John Cobb and a dressing table in his memory.

    The present urns were not illustrated in Mulliner’s book, nor did they appear in the auction of his collection; clearly they were regarded as treasured possessions and were given to his daughter instead. They have remained with the family ever since.

    We are grateful for the assistance of Yvonne Jones, Lecturer, researcher and former head of Arts and Museums, Wolverhampton in cataloguing this lot and are delighted to announce that the urns will be included in her forthcoming book on 18th and 19th century English papier mâché and tinware.

Saleroom notices

  • Please note further to the publication of our catalogue: Yvonne Jones comments 'Further to my comments in the footnote for this lot, the possibility of the urns being manufactured in Germany must also not be ruled out, please see catalogue 'Stobwasser Lackkunst Aust Brunswick and Berlin 2006, catalogue number 220, Detlev Richter' for examples also produced in the Etruscan manner by the Stobwasser manufactory'.
Auction information

This sale is now finished. If you are interested in consigning in future sales, please contact the specialist department. If you have queries about lots purchased in this sale, please contact customer services.

Buyers' Obligations


If you have any complaints or questions about the Conditions of Sale, please contact your nearest customer services team.

Buyers' Premium and Charges

For all Sales categories excluding Wine, Coins & Medals and Motor Cars and Motorcycles:

Buyer's Premium Rates
25% on the first £175,000 of the Hammer Price
20% from £175,001 to £3,000,000 the Hammer Price
12.5% from £3,000,001 of the Hammer Price

VAT at the current rate of 20% will be added to the Buyer's Premium and charges excluding Artists Resale Right.

Payment Notices

For payment information please refer to the sale catalogue.

Shipping Notices

For information and estimates on domestic and international shipping as well as export licences please contact Bonhams Shipping Department.

Similar Items