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|London's New Glory
by Brook S. Mason
|It's got all the ingredients of a fairy tale -- a fabled trove of royal riches, an aging and generous collector with a keen eye, and last but not least, a magic-wand act that restored a disheveled group of buildings on the Thames to their former Neoclassical glory.
The Gilbert Collection of decorative arts is the subject of that saga, and its hero is Sir Arthur Gilbert, who amassed some 800 objects of gold, silver and mosaic. This new museum opened to the public at the end of May and it has already averaged 4,500 visitors a week. While that attendance figure may seem scant, New York's 65-year-old Frick Collection, which holds decorative arts and master paintings, admits only some 788 more on a weekly basis. But then Britain has always been more receptive to the decorative arts.
While a Brit by birth, Sir Arthur resides in the U.S. Having made a fortune in England, the then 36-year-old Arthur Gilbert emigrated to California in 1949 as a retirement destination. But landing there, he quickly built a real estate empire and then turned his hand to collecting in several distinctive specialties.
Fast forward to 1996 and this loyal Englishman bequeaths his noted collection to the "Emerald Isle" and his holdings serve as the catalyst in the entire redevelopment of Somerset House, an architectural masterpiece originally designed by Sir William Chambers (1723-1796), architect to King George III.
Previously doing duty as civil service offices, the quarters now house the esteemed Courtauld Galleries and space for art from the Hermitage along with the Gilbert Collection. No less a luminary than Lord Jacob Rothschild, the former chairman of the lottery fund, spearheaded this latest chapter in museum development.
"This [opportunity] enthralled me and enticed me to choose Somerset House because it would become a palace for the people of England and of the world," said Sir Gilbert, who was knighted last June.
In essence, the setting elevates the very stature of the decorative arts. Unsurpassed in quality in terms of comparable collections in the U.S, this collection is uniquely one man's taste. "It is also encyclopedic in scope in clearly defined areas -- gold, silver and mosaics," says Timothy Schroeder, who served as keeper before leaving to pursue scholarly interests. "In addition, the Gilbert is the only comprehensive collection of mosaics worldwide," adds Schroeder.
But what sets this museum apart is the installation. While a museum like the Victoria & Albert displays its silver densely and didactically primarily for serious students, at the Gilbert objects are presented as works of art. Freestanding vitrines are oversized and seeing the silver is a bit like stepping towards a massive sideboard. The lighting is exceptional.
On the one hand, the visitor gleams the history and development of ornamental art in silver and gold but there are no early spoons nor plain Georgian silver, for the simple reason that Sir Arthur had no interest in common utilitarian service pieces. The 300 silver pieces are of highest importance, as is, for instance, a mid-18th century silver ewer and dish, perhaps Paul de Lamerie's most opulent example with deeply incised shells and figures. Even if you have not the slightest knowledge of the decorative arts, you cannot help but be enthralled with the height of Rococo style. Lamerie, alone, is represented with an impressive 25 major pieces.
The Embankment building contains two bays of double height towering to 30 feet and this is the majestic setting for a pair of massive silver gates. Catherine the Great presented them to a monastery Kiev in 1784.
Of course, the gold snuffboxes are paramount. Boxes from every capital of production -- London, Paris and Berlin -- are represented. They are presented on fabric mounts so the boxes can be examined from all angles. Those owned by Frederick the Great of Prussia (1712-1786), set with diamonds, emeralds and rubies, are the most dazzling. A number of these snuffboxes served as official gifts of state during the 18th century.
Next, mosaics rate their own separate galleries with both Roman and Florentine examples from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Clearly, Sir Arthur is interested in technical artistry as evidenced by his pietre dure (hardstone mosaics made up of minerals and marbles from around the world). He began collecting in this area the late 1960s, long before it came into vogue.
Rudolf II, the 16th-century Holy Roman Emperor, favored this art form and he set up imperial workshops in Prague. A collector's cabinet dates from that workshop. It's covered with castle scenes composed of stones such as jasper and lapis.
One index to the value of such pieces in the 17th century is that a Florentine hardstone example would fetch as much as a painting by the leading court artist Archimboldo. Some of the pietre dure had belonged to the legendary publisher William Randolph Hearst.
By the 18th century, the Grand Tour fueled the taste for such mementos and there are tables with detailed views of the Coliseum, St. Peter's and the Pantheon, all composed of hardstones. In some cases, the reproduction quality approaches that of fine prints in terms of shading and detail.
Sir Arthur's Roman micromosacis, a term he personally coined, are astounding. Made up of minute pieces of opaque glass tesserae, most of the examples date from the 18th and 19th centuries. There is a fabulous reclining tiger set against a dark background. Others are studded with neoclassical motifs.
Unfortunately, the parting view to these riches is a reproduction of Sir Arthur's California office, complete with the donor done in wax, a la Madame Tussaud's, dressed in L.A. attire -- shorts with the requisite white poodle. When asked why the fake French Louis Seize chairs retain Queens, N.Y.-style plastic slipcovers, Schroeder replies, "The room is an authentic recreation." So much for Sir Arthur's personal taste.
Even so, his gift to London is magnificent.
Will this collection remain static? The answer is a resounding no. "Sir Arthur will collect until his dying day," concludes Schroeder.
BROOK S. MASON writes on antiques and the decorative arts.