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BEVIS HILLIER

Cabinet Reshuffle : How Four Masterworks of Victorian Furniture Were Reunited After More Than 80 Years of Travels

August 24, 1986|BEVIS HILLIER

Families that have been reunited are a regular standby of television news programs. It is always a moving moment when two brothers, or a mother and daughter, who have not seen each other for perhaps 40 years are brought together again, with decades of missed love to make up for. At first they may not seem to have much in common, but as they talk, family traits reassert themselves, and we discern something about the eyes, or the cast of the head, that makes these people kin.

Less movingly but no less miraculously, the same kind of thing can happen with antiques. One such happy reunion has been achieved by the Fine Art Society in London. Founded in 1876, the society--almost opposite Sotheby's on New Bond Street--is not, as its name suggests, some exclusive private club for dilettantes, but one of London's leading commercial art galleries. It specializes in 19th-Century and early 20th-Century paintings and also in decorative arts of those periods--William Morris tapestries, furniture by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, silver by Archibald Knox and Omar Ramsden.

In 1981, the society held an exhibition titled "Architect-Designers: (A. W.) Pugin to (C. R.) Mackintosh." In it was a handsome ebony-and-ivory cabinet inlaid with the owner's monogram, "A. M." It had been acquired by the FAS from a London dealer who had bought it at Christie's auction room in South Kensington, London, where it had been catalogued as Italian. But Peyton Skipwith, a director of the FAS, realized that the initials on the cabinet stood for Alfred Morrison, a stupendously rich collector of the late 19th Century. Morrison had lived at Fonthill House, Wiltshire, an extension of part of Fonthill Abbey, built for another prodigal collector, William Beckford, author of the Gothic novel "Vathek." Morrison (1821-97) in herited a fortune of several million pounds, which he increased through the firm of Morrison & Dillon, the first modern department store in London.

Further research showed that the cabinet had been designed for Morrison in 1862 by Owen Jones, whose picture book "The Grammar of Ornament" (1856) was the bible of so many Victorian craftsmen in "revivalist" styles--that is, styles that revived the ornament of the Italian Renaissance, of Moorish Spain and other great cultures.

In 1984, a huge, fitted display cabinet in ebony and ivory was bought in France by Italian antique dealers based in London. It was sold to them as an Italian piece and was displayed by them as Italian until someone pointed out to them an illustration of the smaller cabinet in the FAS exhibition of 1981. They then offered the large cabinet to the society, which bought it.

Last fall, an over-mantel mirror, painted glossy white, turned up at Sotheby's. Skipwith had a hunch about it and bought it for the society. Sure enough, under the paint was ebony with ivory inlay, a perfect match to the two pieces already in the possession of the FAS. It had been used as a bathroom mirror for some years. Because ebony has such a close grain, it is virtually impervious to paint, so the mirror cleaned well, and the inlay was intact.

The three pieces, now on show on New Bond Street, were made for Morrison by the furniture firm Jackson & Graham between 1862 and 1865 as part of refurbishments at Fonthill House. Jackson & Graham also made furniture to Jones' design for Morrison's London house, 16 Carlton House Terrace, between 1864 and 1868; and recently the FAS has been able to borrow, for temporary exhibition, a sofa from these London furnishings, inlaid with exotic woods.

The Fonthill and the Carlton House Terrace properties were vacated by Morrison's widow in the early 1900s. The furniture was given away or sold through the firm of John Walton in Mere, Wiltshire, which has kept no records. In 1952, the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, staged a pioneering exhibition of Victorian and Edwardian decorative arts. The museum staff failed to trace any of the Morrison furniture. It was not until 20 years later, when the museum acquired a small cabinet found in an attic at Carlton House Terrace, that Jones' important work for Morrison was represented in a British national collection. This cabinet and a few pieces that the museum already possessed and that had been designed by Jones for one James Mason (not, of course, the James Mason) at Eynsham House, Oxford, were the total of Jones' known furniture design until the pieces now at the FAS appeared.

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