Library with reverse-painted mirror front made of ebony and china from the early reign of George III

This gorgeous bookcase is unique and extremely rare. Made of solid ebony with a pine and teak frame, the four upper doors display a dazzling display of sixty original reverse-painted Chinese mirrors, separated by molded glass bars forming an interlocking pattern of octagons and rectangles, above a continuous band of inlaid pale Chinese satinwood. The lower drawers are lined with eucalyptus wood and decorated with gilt brass lion mask handles and paper pennants, all supported on a sure base.

Ebony: the wood of emperors, kings and princes
In his creative work, Woods in British furniture making, 1400-1900Adam Boyett wrote: “Ebony can be described as the most important wood for cabinetry…Ebony’s appeal was both aesthetic and symbolic.” Ebony was the wood of emperors, kings and princes, and was imbued with the authority of ancient texts… Its core was dark black, seemingly flawless and indestructible, a kind of vegetable marble. Its practical properties were also somewhat similar to stone, not only because of its hardness, but also because of its very smooth texture. Ebony possesses a degree of perfection of surface, shape and color that cannot be achieved in any other wood, while still being amenable to established woodworking techniques’ (2012, p. 70). Although ebony was highly desirable, it was also expensive, and for this reason it was rarely used in English cabinetmaking in the mid-18th century, except on rare occasions for decorative detailing. In addition to high shipping costs from Asia, ebony was subject to import duties equivalent to approximately £2,000 per ton (ibid., p. 72). Its use in this bookcase indicates extreme extravagance.

Unique design
There is no known precedent for this bookcase, other than a smaller two-door paddock one, formerly with Ronald Phillips, London, which shares a similar broken base with ivory moulding. They also have reverse painted Chinese mirrors with a similar glass stripe pattern. The use of exotic woods in both cabinets is notable, and the thematic similarities between the glass panels suggest that they must have come from the same workshop, and may have been commissioned by the same superior goods.

The overall shape of this bookcase was inspired by Chippendale’s designs for the “Library Bookcase” published in Mr. and Director of the Council of Ministers (1754, pls. XCI and XCV). However, there are no known comparisons with ebony as a primary wood, likely due to its greater cost and difficulty of working as discussed above, and its use in this context predating later fashions. The inlaid band of Chinese-colored satinwood matches the frieze molding shown in one of Sir William Chambers’ designs for the “Chinese Room” (W. Chambers, Book of Chinese Buildings, Furniture, Dresses, Machines and Utensils, London, 1757, p. X, fig. 8). The gilt brass lion mask mounts on which the pulls are hung are the same pattern that appears on a signed George III mahogany cabinet, dated 1763, by William Hallett (d. 1781) sold from the collection of William F. Reilly; Christie’s, New York, 14 October 2009. This cabinet shares the same broken pediment centered around the base and a cornice decorated with dentil moldings, placing Hallett as a likely maker, although the designs were not exclusive to him.

Cantonese Workshop: SIOU-SIN Where?
Chinese reverse-painted mirrors were rarely incorporated into furniture of this period, the Ronald Phillips cabinet being the only other known example. Thus, in this abundance, it is certainly unique. The sixty panels here are arranged symmetrically, according to a coherent overall plan. Obviously each section has been custom-made to fit its designated space, so drawings or specifications of the pattern of the glass bars must have accompanied the glass when it was originally sent from England to China to be painted. The paintings form part of an ordered plan: each door has at the top a hanging basket with flowers, followed by a still life consisting of vases and flowers, a central octagonal panel depicting Chinese figures, another still life with fruits and flowers, and finally a seascape. The mirror panels surrounding these scenes are identical and decorated with birds, insects and flowers. Together they form what must be one of the most beautiful collections of 18th century Chinese reverse glass plates ever assembled.

The mirror paintings can be attributed to a Cantonese workshop that has been in operation for at least a year. 1740-1760, based on very similar images of Chinese characters also seen in the mirror panels above the mantel in the Drottningholm Chinese Pavilion in Stockholm, Sweden. As Thierry Odric suggests Chinese painting on reverse glass 1720-1820the workshop that provided the mirror panels for the Drottningholme Cabinet and also this bookcase, is probably the same one visited by Sir William Chambers, which he called Siou-Sin Saang (T. Audric, Chinese painting on reverse glass 1720-1820 – an artistic encounter between China and the West(Peter Lange, 2020, pp. 120-125). Perhaps best known as the architectural advisor to King George III, Sir William Chambers (1722-1796) was born in Gothenburg, Sweden, to Scottish parents. He was educated in England before embarking on a commercial career and joining the Swedish East India Company. He made three separate trips to Asia between 1740 and 1749. The first (1740-1742) was to Bengal, India, while the second (departing in 1743) and the third (1748-1749) were to China. On voyages to China, Chambers worked as a super-shipper’s assistant, and was thus responsible for managing and selling the cargo, as well as purchasing and receiving the goods for the return voyage, and it was here that he was familiar with the Siou-Sin Saang workshop. It was a very lucrative position, and it was during these travels that he made first-hand observations which later formed the basis of his widely popular published drawings (see: W. Chambers, Book of Chinese buildings, furniture, etc., 1757). Although there is no clear connection between Chambers and this bookcase to date, it is possible that he advised on such a commission. Who commissioned the bookcase? around The year 1760 would have been very wealthy, their order could have been implemented immediately at Canton, and thus they must have had a strong relationship with the East India Company.

Singleton Abbey, Swansea – Vivian’s family
The commissary of this bookcase remains a mystery at present, as the earliest record of it is from Singleton Abbey, Swansea, Wales. The original structure of Singleton Abbey was an octagonal villa called Marino, built in the latter half of the 18th century by the Swansea architect William Jernegan for Edward King, Esq. (1750-1819), Deputy Controller of Customs for the Port of Swansea and later Collector of Customs (S. Littlejohns, Singleton Abbey: A History of the Singleton Estate, Swansea,, 2023). In 1816, John Henry Vyvyan, Esq., FRS, (1785-1855) began leasing the house from King, eventually acquiring it for his family’s residence. He came from an ancient Cornish family whose headquarters were Trelowarren House in Meanage, and had “arrived in Swansea on a packet boat from Ilfracombe” in 1806 to expand the family’s copper works in the area. John Henry and his wife Sarah were living in Marino in 1817 and began enlarging and renovating the house during the year. They eventually appointed the London-based architect Peter Frederick Robinson (1776-1858) to complete work on the house, which was executed in the Tudor style, and so the house became known as Singleton Abbey (ibid.). A bookcase was well suited to such a house, as ebony furniture was seen as the right choice for a neo-Gothic interior, especially by an antiquarian such as John Henry. He was an avid collector and collected a variety of fine objects for Singleton throughout his life. The sale of Singleton Abbey in 1919, as documented in the auction catalog by Knight, Frank and Routley, provides compelling evidence of this. The catalog lists an abundance of ebony and ebony furniture, which includes Florentine cabinets inlaid with ivory and tortoiseshell, William and Mary inlaid tables and parquet, as well as artwork dating from the Tudor and Elizabethan eras. In keeping with good taste, it also housed exceptional ancient paintings, some of which can now be traced back to prestigious institutions including the Louvre.

This bookcase was not included in the 1919 Singleton Abbey sale, as it was kept in the Vivian family and was at some point moved to Clyne Castle, the adjacent residence of John Henry Vivian’s son, William Graham Vivian. He had no children, so it eventually descended to his nephew Algernon Walker Hennig, who was bound to take the surname Vivian upon inheritance. On his death in 1952, the castle and surrounding lands were purchased by Swansea Borough Council and its contents were auctioned in the same year, with this bookcase numbered 382.

Moynes Park, Essex Josephine Hartford Price
In the early twentieth century, Josephine Hartford Price (1870-1922), known as “Jo” or “Jo-Jo,” was a glamorous girl best known for being part of the much-discussed trio of New York heiresses alongside Barbara Hutton and Doris Duke. . She was the daughter of Edward V Hartford (1870-1922), heir to the A&P grocery chain, and Ne Henrietta Gerard Pulitzer (1881-1948) of Charleston, who later married Prince Guido Pignatelli (1900-1967). Joe was an accomplished pianist, linguist, equestrian, and, later in life, a pilot. She had an extensive art collection and was a popular member of the International Aircraft Collection. By all accounts, she lived nothing less than a momentous life (C. Burns, The Life and Times of Josephine Hartford, new york social diary, 8 January 2021 (Part 1), and 12 January 2021 (Part 2), accessed July 2023).

Joe’s fourth and final marriage was in 1950 to the “dashing Englishman” John Felix Charles Price, known as Ivar (1906-1985). Joe acquired Moyns Park, an Elizabethan mansion in Essex, for Ivar, as it had previously belonged to his maternal family, and he had many fond childhood memories there. Together they sympathetically restored and furnished the house beginning in 1952, enlisting the help of the famous decorating firm Colefax and Fowler for one of their first major commissions. The bookcase was almost certainly acquired through Colefax and Fowler from Clyne Castle’s sale of the Drawing Room at Moyns Park, where it is listed in the 1958 inventory.

(tags for translation)Christie’s

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