Pietra Dura mounted ormolu casket by Samson Wertheimer (1811-92)
The Phoenix panel: attributed to the Grand-Ducal Workshops (Galleria dei Lavori): FLORENCE, first quarter of 17th Century
The lapis lazuli panels: ITALY, 16th Century
The remaining panels: ENGLAND, circa 1855
The casket: Signed and inscribed: S. Wertheimer, Maker, 33 New Bond St, London
ENGLAND, between 1856-60
The top mounted with an inclined 17th Century Florentine pietra dura panel representing the Phoenix emerging from the flames; the left hand side with a pietra dura panel representing three butterflies; the right hand panel representing a parrot; the front and back panels of geometric design incorporating lapis lazuli, Belgian black and jasper. The canted corners incorporating grooved panels of lapis lazuli and with lion’s head surmounts. The lapis lazuli panels date from the 16th Century. The ormolu profusely chased with floral and scrollwork decoration throughout. The lapis lazuli possibly repaired.
The marble and pietra dura were supplied by noted mineral dealer James Tennant (late Mawe), of 149, Strand, London who was a dealer and manufacturer of marble and pietra dura. He had purchased the business from the widow of John Mawe, who had been Minerologist to the Queen. Tennant was also Professor of Geological Mineralogy at Kings College, London, until his death in 1881.
The Panel of the Phoenix: The beautiful early 17th Century panel of the phoenix, which this casket was made to present, relates very closely to the pietra dura panels in the Barberini Cabinet (now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). One of the plaques in The Barberini Cabinet shows a Phoenix in the flames, which was the emblem of Pope Clement VIII who had appointed Mafffeo Barberini to the French Court. It is flanked by a plaque showing a salamander, another mythical creature which was the emblem of Francis I of France (like Barberini a celebrated patron of the arts). (See Wolfram Koeppe and Annamaria Giusti, Art of the Royal Court, Treasures in Pietre Dure from the Palaces of Europe, Yale University Press, 2008, p.176). The stylistic similarities in the depiction of the fire under the salamander and the wings of the phoenix (both on the Barberini Cabinet) with the Phoenix panel on this casket are so strong as to suggest the same workshop.
In Greek mythology, a phoenix or phenix (Ancient Greek φοίνιξ phóinīx) was a long-lived, red-gold feathered bird which was cyclically regenerated or reborn. Associated with the sun, a phoenix obtains new life by arising from the ashes of its predecessor.
Samson Wertheimer: Samson Wertheimer was descended from a distinguished Bavarian Jewish Family. He was born in 1811 in Fiert and is recorded as arriving in London on 9th December 1839 from Antwerp where he describes his profession as a Merchant. In the 1841 census he is recorded as living at Red Lion St, Christchurch, Spitalfields in the borough of Tower Hamlets and later that year his marriage is recorded at the Gt Synagogue in Duke’s Lane on 9th June. His occupation reads as a ‘bronze factor’(?), although the second word is unclear. By the 1851 census he had moved to 35 Greek Street in Soho and his profession is recorded as ‘embosser’, employing 6 men. In the 1856 Post Office directory he is listed under ‘Antique and Furniture or Curiosity Dealers’ at 33 New Bond Street, but by the 1861 Post Office directory he was located at 154 New Bond Street when his trade is described as ‘curiosity dealer and ormolu factor’, and in 1871 and 1881 he is described as a ‘dealer in works of art’. This may indicate that he had ceased to operate as a manufacturer and was simply dealing, although there is no other evidence for this. He remained at this address until his death on 25th January 1892 and is buried in the West Ham Jewish cemetery. His will was proved in May of the same year by executors Alfred Charles de Rothschild and Leopold de Rothschild and his estate amounted to the considerable sum of £382,810 4s 9d. Asher Wertheimer continued the business until his death in 1918. He bequeathed a portrait of himself by John Singer Sargent to the Tate Gallery, where it remains. Unfortunately all the business records and correspondence were destroyed by the family, making it difficult to trace objects with any certainty.
Wertheimer exhibited at the International Exhibition in London in 1862, where he showed a polished steel console table after Gouthière, an engraving of which was illustrated in the Art Journal Catalogue for the 1862 exhibition, which described his stand as an “extensive collection of objets de luxe; he is a large importer of the choicest productions of the best fabricants of the Continent. Those we engrave however are his own productions and consist principally of works in ormolu, admirable as castings but receiving increased work and beauty from the labours of the chaser”. Wertheimer’s entry in the official catalogue was in Class XXX No.5852 noting that he showed “cabinets, etageres, a council table and ormolu”. He was also recorded as “bronze ormolu and marqueterie manufacturer by special app’t to the Queen”.
An ormolu casket was illustrated in the Art Journal of 1871, very much in the 19th Century manner, cast with ferns and foliage. Wertheimer was active in the salerooms between 1860 and 1880 and purchased from the Hamilton House sale in 1882.
Wertheimer and the Rothschilds: Samson Wertheimer had very close ties with the Rothschild family. He played an important role in the formation of Baron Frederick de Rothschild’s collection at Waddesdon Manor, and in addition to appointing both Alfred Charles and Lionel de Rothschild as executors of his will, he also had dealings with Steiglitz and Gustave.
Virgil Solis: Virgil Solis or Virgilius Solis (1514 – 1 August 1562) was a German draughtsman and printmaker in engraving, etching and woodcut who worked in Nuremberg. His prints were sold separately or formed book illustrations; and many of the prints which are signed by him are probably by his assistants. After his death his widow married one of his assistants and continued the workshop into the early seventeenth century. Solis’ woodcuts were reprinted and copied in many different editions, in Latin and translated into various languages.
Solis’ woodcuts illustrating Ovid were especially influential, though partly borrowing from earlier illustrations by the French artist, Bernard Salomon. He illustrated the phoenix rising, which is described in Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ (see print below by Solis, printed in Frankfurt in 1581).
The design of this casket incorporates decorative renaissance strap and scrollwork, and it is interesting to note that Solis also uses the same strap and scrollwork motifs as a border decoration in his print depicting the phoenix.
We are grateful to Jonathan Meyer, John Hardy and Charles Truman for their assistance with preparing the notes for this item.