Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Features Classic Example of Regency Era Design

Rebecca Tilles
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Pair, monopodia supported armchairs, likely Irish (Dublin), c. 1810. Gilded wood, modern upholstery; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift, Horace Wood Brock. Photo © MFA, Boston.

  The Regency era in the United Kingdom is the period between 1811 — when King George III was deemed insane and unfit to rule and his son, the Prince of Wales, ruled as his proxy as Prince Regent — and 1820, when the Prince Regent became George IV on the death of his father. The term Regency is therefore used to describe works of art produced in England between the late 1790s until 1837 when Queen Victoria ascended the throne. [1] Fine Arts Magazine  

George IV, while Prince Regent, by Sir Thomas Lawrence(c. 1815)

  Unlike the neoclassical style of the second half of the eighteenth century that drew upon inspiration from ancient civilizations like Greece and Rome, Regency style furniture set out to copy and reproduce ancient forms of decoration. Well-known Regency furniture designers, such as Thomas Hope, James Newton, George Smith, and Henry Holland, borrowed from a wide range of classical sources. From the ancient Roman period, they appropriated symbols such as sphinxes, monopodia, chimera and griffins. Reaching further back still, they also sought inspiration from Egyptian masks. Items were produced for the privileged classes in luxurious materials, with veneers of zebrawood, mahogany and rosewood and were often embellished with and patinated and gilt mounts.  

Figure 2: Tripod table design with monopodia legs, publ. in Household Furniture and Interior Decoration Executed from Design, by Thomas Hope. Reprint of 1807 ed.,1970, plate 32.

 The monopodium, a decorative support consisting of the head and one leg of an animal, often a lion or leopard, was first seen in Roman furniture and was revived during the late eighteenth century by neoclassical designers, such as Thomas Hope in his 1807 publication Household Furniture and Interior Decoration [2] (see Figure 2). The use of these classical design elements helped to establish the ‘English Empire’ element in Regency furniture. [3]  

Antique sources of inspiration were also popular during the mid-eighteenth century and the French archaeologist, draughtsman, and collector Anne Claude Philippe de Tubières, comte de Caylus, encouraged interest in the study of classical subjects as a result of his 1752 publication Recueil d’Antiquités Égyptiennes, Étrusques, Grècques, et Romaines completed upon his return to Paris from a study tour of Italy and Greece. Figure 3 illustrates the profile of a Roman monopodium similar to the legs of the MFA chairs and also common in Hope’s designs.  

In 2009, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston acquired a pair of Irish Regency monopodia armchairs owned by the Second Earl of Caledon, Du Pre Alexander, the son of the 1st Earl, James Alexander, who made a tremendous fortune in India. In 1776, James Alexander purchased the Caledon estate in County Tyrone, Ireland from Edmund Boyle, 7th Earl of Cork and Orrery, whose father had acquired it by marriage into the Hamilton family of Caledon in 1738. It is likely that a suite of these chairs were commissioned for Caledon castle. (right) Figure 3: Drawing of a Roman monopodium by A.C.P. Caylus from Recueil d’Antiquités Égyptiennes, Étrusques, Grècques, et Romaines I (1752), pl. XCV, no. II.  

A typical Regency era interior, showing the ample use of red, an influence of China trade.

Although these chairs have not been attributed to a specific designer, design drawings depicting similar panther monopodia were also made by the English architect and designer C.H. Tatham during his Grand Tour to Rome from 1794-1796. He traveled Europe to study classical remains, architecture, and decorative details, a project which architect, Henry Holland, later published as a collection of drawings. [4] As a result of Tatham’s scholarly approach to decorative details, he left his mark on the Regency style by paving the way for a strictly archaeological approach to furniture and design and drove the demand for craftsmen and designers to be well versed in the classical tradition. [5]  

Chairs embodying animal monopodia forming arm supports or, in the case of the MFA pieces, the front legs, were intended to be used primarily in a drawing-room or library. They were often more elaborate than parlor chairs, since they were produced in luxurious materials, such as mahogany, painted or gilded wood. [6]  The MFA chairs are further enhanced by the use of gilt bronze mounts to the top rail, a testament to the importance of the scheme for which they must originally have been commissioned.  

A recent exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts entitled, ‘Splendor and Elegance: European Decorative Arts and Drawings from the Horace Wood Brock Collection’ [7] highlighted a selection of the museum’s Regency collection. A future English Regency gallery at the MFA will include many fine works of art of the period.  

by Rebecca Tilles, Contributing Writer  

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[1] Martin P. Levy, “’Of Beauty’: Aspects of the Horace Wood Brock Collection of Decorative Arts,” in Splendor and Elegance: European Decorative Arts and Drawings from the Horace Wood Brock Collection (Boston: MFA Publications, 2008), p. 25.  

 [2] Household Furniture and Interior Decoration Executed from Designs by Thomas Hope (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, & Orme, 1807).  

 [3] Clifford Musgrave, Regency Furniture, 1800 to 1830 (London: Faber and Faber, 1961), p. 51-52.  

 [4] Ania Buckrell Pos, “Tatham and Italy: Influences on English Neo-Classical Design,” in Furniture History, vol. XXXVIII (2002), p. 58.  

[5] Ibid. p. 58, 60.  

[6] Musgrave, p. 95.  

[7] See the exhibition catalogue Splendor and Elegance: European Decorative Arts and Drawings from the Horace Wood Brock Collection (Boston: MFA Publications, 2008).  

Rebecca Tilles is a curatorial research associate in decorative arts and sculpture in the Art of Europe Department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and has assisted with the exhibitions “Symbols of Power: Napoleon and the Art of the Empire Style, 1800-1815” (2007) and “Splendor and Elegance: European Decorative Arts and Drawings from the Horace Wood Brock Collection” (2009). She holds a BA in French and French Cultural Studies from Wellesley College and an MA in European Decorative Arts from The Bard Graduate Center in New York.

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