Magazine article The Spectator

Mediaeval Fantasy

Magazine article The Spectator

Mediaeval Fantasy

Article excerpt

It is rare to find outstanding objects on the art market; it is almost unheard of to find them for sale, recognised and properly catalogued, at a provincial auction house. But last week, there one was, gleaming in the pale Suffolk sunshine at Vost's auctioneers at Tattersalls in Newmarket, the culminating lot in a day's sale which embraced most things from vintage corkscrews and radiator-cap car mascots to a 27,000 Flemish 17th-century painting.

This rogue star lot was a glorious piece of `Pre-Raphaelite' furniture, a rare painted and gilded sideboard or buffet designed by the brilliant but eccentric Gothic Revival architect William Burges, and painted by Nathaniel Westlake and others. Burges saw furniture as `full of pictorial art, of colour and gold', as art that `speaks of all sorts of things and subjects'. This particular buffet spoke of the martyrdom of St Bacchus, its decorative scheme inspired by an obscure 13th-century French poem. Narrative panels combine with heads emblematic of various wines, still lustrous gilding and heraldic colour. Made in 1858 and exhibited in the Mediaeval Court of the International Exhibition of 1862, it is one of the earliest, and grandest, pieces of painted furniture produced by Burges or, for that matter, by any member of the Morris coterie. As the wag in the Art Journal put it, here was furniture such as Piers Gaveston might have ordered, had his London residence been in St James's Square.

The buffet was known in the Burges literature - it may even have been designed for the architect's own use at Tower House in Kensington - and recorded in stereoscopic photographs taken in 1862. It then disappeared, so to speak, until John Vost and a colleague discovered it during a routine probate valuation at a house in Cambridge, at the back of a drawing-room thigh-deep in rubbish, covered in cobwebs, and reeking of the stench that comes from co-habiting with 33 cats.

Its discovery is the very stuff of every auctioneer's dreams. The rub for those in the country, however, is that they rarely get the chance to try their hand at selling any remarkable find. Executors, not unreasonably, tend to take the view - or come to be persuaded - that their object will do far better in the hands of an international auction house. Moreover, something like the Burges buffet is never going to be easy for anyone to sell. There are hundreds of people in the world prepared to part with five-figure sums for a piece of good 18thcentury English furniture but perhaps less than 20 prepared to pay serious money for a seminal example of something from the 19th. Burges's mediaeval fantasies are not to everyone's taste.

As it turned out, John Vost subsequently admitted, it was only two minutes before the sale began that he knew he had a good chance of two bidders -- there was a bid on the books and a telephone line open. …

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