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Boxing clever: Julia Clarke applauds the long-awaited catalogue of the Wallace Collection's gold boxes.

The Wallace Collection Catalogues: Gold Boxes

Charles Truman

Paul Holberton Publishing, 100 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 9780900785948

The Wallace Collection has the reputation of being London's best-kept secret--a reputation fostered by its former director, Dame Rosalind Savill, who transformed the museum from a dusty backwater to a thriving concern with renovated galleries, displays using the most modern curatorial techniques and excellent facilities, all without losing its identity and charm. A secret within that secret is the small cabinet of a room, an opulent jewel box lined in pale blue silk, where the collection of 18th-century gold boxes glitters enticingly behind glass. Hertford House and most of its contents, mainly 18th-century French paintings and works of art, Old Masters and arms and armour amassed by the Marquesses of Hertford, was bequeathed to the nation in 1897 by the widow of Sir Richard Wallace, reputedly the illegitimate son of the 4th Marquess of Hertford and himself a passionate collector. Nothing was to be altered, taken away from or added to the collection, even to the mysterious gilded pills and ancient snuff contained in some of the boxes at the time of the bequest. It included the 99 gold boxes and objects of vertu, collected by the 4th Marquess and Sir Richard, which are the subject of this long-awaited catalogue. No longer is one obliged to bang one's nose against that glass while craning for side views; all is at last revealed here in the outstandingly detailed colour photographs.

Former director Sir Francis Watson was, with his catalogue of the Wrightsman Collection (1966-73), the first to explore gold boxes as serious works of art rather than treating them as rich men's toys; presumably other obligations prevented him from producing a catalogue of the boxes. Dame Rosalind, whose 1980 article on the design sources for six of the Wallace enamelled boxes was a revelation of what could be discovered, had long cherished hopes of undertaking the project herself. In the meantime, the Norton family of S.J. Phillips Ltd generously volunteered to sponsor a catalogue, and the redoubtable Charles Truman was chosen as its author.

Nobody could be better qualified for such a task. Over the years, Truman has worked as a curator in the metalwork and ceramic departments of the V&A, has headed Christie's silver and objects of vertu department, presided over Asprey's antique department and worked for many years as an independent dealer and expert. During this time he has contributed to or written catalogues of the gold boxes at Waddesdon and those in the Thyssen and Gilbert collections, as well as publishing his scholarly discoveries, notably on the 19th-century faker Reinhold Vasters. This wealth of experience shows on every page of the Wallace Collection catalogue. The scholarship is worn lightly and the elegant prose is complemented by the notable modern elegance of the book's design. Truman achieves that difficult task of writing in a way that is immediately accessible and instructive to those who know nothing of the subject, while adding to the knowledge of those who do. It is such a pleasure to read art history without jargon.

The book follows the customary format of such catalogues--there is a thoughtful introduction covering the history of snuff and snuffboxes that is particularly sound on the technical construction of the boxes and the materials used; descriptions of each object, from Paris and other locations, including those amazing detailed images of each side of every box, matched where possible with illustrations of the drawings or engravings from which the decoration was derived, many previously unknown; biographies of the artists and goldsmiths; an extremely useful glossary; an up-to-the-minute bibliography; and supporting material, in this case an illuminating study of the collecting and display of the Wallace boxes by Rebecca Wallis and a fascinating essay by Seoyoung Kim on the scientific analysis of them. This last has long been of particular interest to Charles Truman; for the first time, the gold content of each box in the collection has been analysed and published, although not with wholly conclusive results--there is still no easy scientific way of pinpointing a fake. There are inevitable overlaps, particularly between the descriptions and biographies, but these would not be noticed by a reader using the catalogue as intended; it merely means that information can always be found where it is most needed. A more serious irritation, presumably dictated by the design, is that the illustrations of the marks have been cut into individual blocks in the old-fashioned way rather than showing them more usefully grouped as in the Louvre, Thurn und Taxis and Cognacq-Jay gold box catalogues; also none of the box numbers, although described in the text, are illustrated.

The 67 boxes made in Paris, roughly between 1740 and 1840, form the heart of the collection. Of these, the mid-18th-century painted enamel boxes are perhaps the best known and admired (Figs. 1 &, 3). It is the pages describing these which will be most eagerly studied, and where the fruits of Truman's research can most clearly be seen. A colleague of mine was told 40 years ago not to waste time researching 18th-century goldsmiths: 'It's all been done!' But the wealth of new information provided here, as well as the number of new attributions, attests to the current lively interest in research in this area.

Some readers may be surprised that so many boxes in a 'French' collection have emerged as having originated from the Huguenot goldsmiths from Hanau in Germany. In his introduction, Truman writes that Paris boxes by Louis Roucel and Adrien-Jean-Maximilien Vachette (Figs. 2 &, 4) were prized by previous generations because they 'signed' their works, which were therefore recognisable; it is remarkable how the art market value of boxes by Hanau makers has now shot up since their names have been identified.

Charles Truman said recently that whereas, on the one hand, gold boxes are microcosms of the arts of their time, on the other they were originally intended to amuse and be fun. His catalogue admirably reveals both the scholarship which can be applied to these small objects, and the pleasure they continue to give.

Julia Clarke is Senior Specialist in Gold Boxes and Objects of Vertu at Sotheby's.
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Title Annotation:The Wallace Collection Catalogues: Gold Boxes
Author:Clarke, Julia
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2013
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