Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 18, 2009
Philip Hewat-Jaboor and David Watkin, eds. Thomas Hope: Regency Designer Exh. cat. New York and New Haven: Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture and Yale University Press, 2008. 520 pp.; 420 color ills.; 40 b/w ills. Cloth $100.00 (9780300124163)
Exhibition schedule: Victoria and Albert Museum, London, March 21–July 21, 2008; Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture, New York, July 17–November 16, 2008
Settee. After a design published by Thomas Hope (ca. 1802). Bronzed and gilded beech, with restoration, and bronze mounts. The Trustees of the Faringdon Collection, Buscot Park, Oxfordshire. Courtesy of the Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture. Photographer: Bruce White.

In the course of the eighteenth century, European artists, architects, travelers, and scholars broke from narrow Renaissance conventions and cast fresh eyes on the material and literary remains of classical antiquity. The repertoire of models available to designers and theorists was widened by the study and publication of ancient sites in Egypt, Greece, Italy, and the Near East, while ancient authors such as Homer, Pausanias, Strabo, and Virgil were reevaluated through on-site comparisons of texts and landscapes. The discovery of previously marginal or underappreciated art forms such as Roman frescos and Greek vase painting resulted in a new understanding of ancient techniques, while theoretical works such as Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums (1764) and Richard Payne Knight’s An Account of the Remains of the Worship of Priapus (1786) opened new perspectives on ancient art and culture. A quest for novelty and innovation in an age marked by shifting definitions of self and the public sphere contributed to the emergence of a consumer culture in which individual values and personal distinctiveness could be expressed through the acquisition and display of a range of sophisticated goods. Artistic appropriation became encyclopedic in its breadth, but classical antiquity continued to furnish an expanded array of forms that fueled stylistic revivals and design fads, from the French “goût à la Grecque” to European-wide Egyptomania.

Thomas Hope (1769–1831) was one of the principal bell-weathers of the artistic and cultural transformations of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He is a rare example of a designer who was his own best patron and thus a subject uniquely qualified to represent himself through his living environment. An unparalleled glimpse into Hope’s world and by extension into the world of design and elite culture after the French Revolution was provided last fall by the exhibition Thomas Hope: Regency Designer, organized by the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture. The effort that went into assembling objects for the exhibition and texts for the accompanying catalogue was fully justified by the results, yielding the most complete panorama of Hope’s activities as a designer and collector since the contents of his residences were dispersed. Simultaneous to John Soane’s experiments in his house at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and Percier’s and Fontaine’s renovation of La Malmaison, Hope was borrowing from the same sources and exploring similar ideas. Though his houses have been demolished, it is now possible to imagine the wealth of innovation that went into their planning and to appreciate how Hope’s interiors and furnishings were used to showcase his aspirations and ideals.

The scion of a fabulously wealthy Anglo-Dutch banking family, Hope could indulge his passions for travel, collecting, and design on a grand scale. Growing up in Holland, Hope was first exposed to art and collecting in the context of his family residences. His father John Hope assembled a collection of Dutch and Flemish paintings described by Joshua Reynolds as the best in Amsterdam. In the 1780s, John Hope’s cousin Henry built a spectacular country residence near Haarlem and filled it with his own collection of old master paintings. Thomas Hope would ultimately inherit his father’s art collection and would build his own through commissions and purchases, the most remarkable of which was his acquisition in 1801 of 750 Greek vases assembled by the British ambassador to Naples, Sir William Hamilton.

The crucial step in Thomas Hope’s formation, however, was taken in the 1790s when he embarked on a grand tour of epic proportions. Over the course of most of the decade, he crisscrossed Europe, North Africa, and the Near East from the Iberian Peninsula to sites throughout Ottoman-controlled lands in the Levant. He sojourned in Rome on a number of occasions, lived in Constantinople for twelve months, and visited Athens, the Aegean Islands, and Egypt. Hope was indisputably one of the best-traveled connoisseurs of the age and channeled his experiences into both his designs and writings. Though he is now best known for his furniture, Hope was the author of a popular “Oriental” novel entitled Anastasius (1819), a rambling Essay on the Origins and Prospects of Man (1831), and an important Historical Essay on Architecture (1835). Through his travels, Hope became acquainted with the leading figures associated with late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Neoclassicism, including Antonio Canova, John Flaxman, Charles Percier, and Bertel Thorvaldsen. His firsthand knowledge of the monuments of antiquity would not only become the basis of Hope’s own design practice but also lent him considerable credibility in the context of contemporary discussions about architecture in Britain. In 1804, Hope published an influential pamphlet attacking James Wyatt’s designs for Downing College, Cambridge, and advocating that the monuments of Periclean Athens serve as models for the new institution. The commission was subsequently awarded to the architect and traveler William Wilkins, inaugurating the Greek revival in Great Britain.

Despite the virtually limitless means at his disposal, a sophisticated understanding of the arts, and an acute awareness of his power to shape his destiny and image, it was the vagaries of history that motivated Hope’s decision to settle in London, subsequent to his family’s flight from the Netherlands in the wake of the French Revolutionary wars. From 1798, he set about transforming himself into one of the leading tastemakers of Regency Britain, using his residence on Duchess Street and his country house (the Deepdene) in Surrey as vehicles to elaborate and project his singular persona. Significantly, one of Hope’s first artistic commissions upon his arrival in London was a full-length portrait in Turkish garb executed by the British artist William Beechey (1753–1839), a stunning work that proclaimed Hope’s worldliness and fascination with Eastern cultures. Nothing could be more different from the formulaic portraits produced by Pompeo Batoni for countless British aristocrats who only traveled as far Rome. More than a juvenile dress-up fantasy piece, Beechey’s portrait can be interpreted in the light of Hope’s dissatisfaction with modern Western European culture, which he described in Anastasius as “heartless . . . frigid . . . dull and prosaic.”

Hope designed principally for himself and for close family members, but his residences became showplaces where the elite of British society could marvel at his taste and ideas. Hope’s polemical use of architecture and design may be inscribed within a larger British tradition, including Lord Burlington’s neo-Palladian villa at Chiswick, Horace Walpole’s Gothic confection at Strawberry Hill, and John Soane’s idiosyncratic London residence and museum. Hope’s designs may also be positioned in relation to larger, international trends: the degree to which his designs resemble the work of his French contemporaries Percier and Fontaine is striking, evidence of a shared appreciation and deep knowledge of antique sources. Inspired by Percier’s and Fontaine’s Recueil de décorations intérieures (1801–12), Hope published his Household Furniture and Interior Decoration (1807) as a record of his Duchess Street residence. Household Furniture was aimed explicitly at cabinetmakers and was intended to contribute to the improvement of British design. For Hope, domestic articles should gratify the eye and imagination, and thus their design could not be left to those ignorant of the principles of art and beauty. Hope’s residences and book were part of a pedagogical and patriotic effort to instruct patrons and craftsmen alike. Household Furniture concludes with a useful three-page bibliography listing some thirty-five sources mostly published during the prior half century that provided Hope with many of the visual models for his designs.

Though one room from the Duchess Street residence was partially recreated with some of the original furnishings in 1972 as part of The Age of Neo-Classicism show at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Bard exhibition was the most significant opportunity to view Hope’s design work since his collections were dispersed at auction in 1917. Many pieces are now in private hands, making Thomas Hope: Regency Designer an especially valuable contribution to a scholarly understanding of Hope’s work. The exhibition was one of several in recent years that provide a window on the nature of artistic appropriation in Britain and France around the time of Hope. Most notable among these were Grecian Taste and Roman Spirit: The Society of Dilettanti at the Getty Villa in Malibu last fall, Bard’s James ‘Athenian’ Stuart that took place in New York and London in 2006–7, Ingres et l’antique organized by the Musée Ingres in Montauban and the Musée de l’Arles et de la Provence antique in 2006, and the remarkable Dominique-Vivant Denon: L’œil de l’Empereur at the Louvre in 1999–2000.

The townhouse on West 86th Street in New York occupied by the Bard Graduate Center seemed especially well-suited to displaying Hope’s furniture and collections, providing an appropriately intimate environment for the delectation of objects intended for domestic settings. Many of the works exhibited throughout the three floors were originally displayed in Hope’s London residence, for which sufficient information may be gleaned from Household Furniture and other documents to recreate a sense of how the interior spaces were organized and decorated. Designed by Robert Adam in the 1770s, Hope acquired the Duchess Street house in 1799, and with the assistance of the architect Charles Heathcote Tatham transformed it into a showplace for his collections of paintings, antiquities, and furniture. The piano nobile consisted of a sequence of galleries and reception rooms planned around a square courtyard, each decorated according to a different theme. In accordance with eighteenth-century “sensationist” theory, the viewer was appropriately stimulated as she or he passed through each space, not only by works of art, furnishings, and wall treatments that presented the eye with a rich and varied palette of motifs, colors, and materials, but also by music blasting from an organ in the Picture Gallery and incense wafting from the Indian Room. It would be impossible to recreate any of these spaces, but a number of rooms in the Bard exhibition were thoughtfully organized and decorated to suggest the kinds of relationships that Hope sought to establish between his own furniture and items from his collections of Greek vases, ancient sculpture, and paintings.

The sequence of rooms on the ground floor contained a selection of some of the finest objects from Hope’s Duchess Street residence and suggested something of Hope’s idiosyncratic taste and flair for the theatrical. Among the most striking elements were a colossal ancient porphyry foot, originally placed in the ante-room (cat. 46); a vase attributed to the French metalworker Alexis Decaix and inspired by an ancient volute krater seen by Hope at the museum in Portici near Naples (cat. 89); a splendid marble bust by John Flaxman representing Hope’s brother Henry Philip (cat. 9); a table supported by two pairs of gilt bronze caryatids (cat. 68); and a stunning gilded settee probably executed by Peter Bogaert, one of Hope’s favorite cabinetmakers (cat. 81). On the second floor, Beechey’s portrait (cat. 1) was hung adjacent to a display of two embroidered Ottoman waistcoats (cat. 2) worn by Hope for the painting. The exotic flavor for Hope’s Egyptian Room was evoked in an adjacent space through a number of remarkable pieces (esp., cat. 76–77) designed at the same moment as Bonaparte’s ill-fated campaign to the eastern Mediterranean. Many of the items from Hope’s Duchess Street residence could be identified from plates in Household Furniture; copies of the relevant illustrations were included with the descriptive texts throughout the exhibition. In addition to a wide range of objects designed by Hope and works of art and antiquities that were part of his collections, the exhibition included such items as drawings from Hope’s voyage to Constantinople, attesting to his fascination with Near Eastern art, design, and culture (cat. 16–34). A variety of documents representing Hope’s residences—including five architectural drawings for Duchess Street, a watercolor rendering of the interior of the Flemish Picture Gallery, and twenty-one watercolors of the Deepdene—were also part of the exhibition and are all reproduced in color in the catalogue (cat. 106–107, 120–124).

Thomas Hope: Regency Designer will complement rather than supersede David Watkin’s Thomas Hope 1769–1831 and the Neo-classical Idea (London: John Murray, 1968), the first and only book-length treatment of Hope’s life and career in English. The catalogue opens with a chapter by Philip Mansel examining Hope’s family background and his early travel experiences. Essays by Frances Collard, Martin Chapman, and Aileen Ribeiro (chapters 5–6) provide detailed analyses of Hope’s furniture designs, metalwork, and ideas about ancient costume, while different aspects of Hope’s collections of art and antiquities are examined in essays by Daniella Ben-Arie, David Bindman, Jennie Chapel, and Ian Jenkins (chapters 7–11). Hope’s less well-known publications are examined by Jerry Nolan and Roger Scruton (chapters 13–14). Watkin’s essays on Hope’s Duchess Street mansion and the Deepdene (chapters 2 and 12) incorporate material from Watkin’s recent journal articles and provide a clear understanding of the planning and function of these buildings. Watkin’s essay on Hope’s writings about architecture (chapter 3) places his ideas in the context of contemporary French architectural theory and demonstrates Hope’s knowledge of such authors as Marc-Antoine Laugier, Pierre-François Hugues d’Hancarville, Nicolas Le Camus de Mézières, and Antoine-Chrysostôme Quatremère de Quincy. The critical apparatus—including a bibliography, chronology of Hope’s life, family tree, and list of paintings inherited by Hope—are meticulous. The catalogue includes 125 items (not all displayed), each one thoroughly documented and beautifully illustrated with large color reproductions.

The catalogue’s concluding chapter, “The Afterlife of Hope: Designers, Collectors, Historians” (chapter 15), by Collard and Watkin, is striking for what it reveals about the impact of Hope’s work down to the present day, and it provides clues to understanding details of both the exhibition and catalogue. Not surprisingly, Hope’s furniture was admired through much of the nineteenth century and stimulated imitators in Britain and the United States. But toward the end of the First World War, when the contents of the Deepdene were put up for auction, Hope’s furniture acquired a special caché among collectors who found in his design work a material link to the psychology of a lost age. Among those who acquired objects from the 1917 sale were the New York-born Hollywood scenarist Edward Knoblock, who devoted himself to resurrecting the early nineteenth-century sensibility exemplified by Hope’s interiors in an apartment in the Palais Royal in Paris, a suite of rooms in the Albany in London, and a Regency-era villa at Worthing called Beach House. The latter residence—renovated and furnished by Knoblock between 1918–21—was reviewed in Country Life by the young Christopher Hussey, inaugurating the modern British fascination with Hope. Also present at the 1917 sale was the Italian art historian Mario Praz, in whose mind Hope’s furniture stood for a grand conception of ancien régime Europe united under the governance of monarchs. In his apartment in the Palazzo Ricci in Rome, Praz sought to recreate the formality and grandeur of the Regency and Empire. Inspired by Walter Benjamin, Praz gave considerable thought to the meaning of interior space, asserting in his An Illustrated History of Interior Decoration from Pompeii to Art Nouveau (London: Thames and Hudson, 1964) that “the ultimate meaning of a harmoniously decorated house is to mirror man, but to mirror him in his ideal being; it is an exaltation of the self . . . a museum of the soul” (25).

The intellectual link between classical forms and nostalgia for an idealized—not to say fictitious—past, along with a dissatisfaction with the messy incongruities of the modern present, propelled Hope to create spaces that served as showplaces for his inner self, a world self-sufficient and entire, like Kubla Kahn’s stately pleasure-dome as imagined during an opium-induced stupor by Hope’s contemporary Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The fragments of Hope’s world continue to fascinate devotees not merely for their material qualities: his furnishings serve as so many “lieux de mémoire,” as tangible remains of a heroic age, as sites for the elaboration of dreams. The fragments have once again been dispersed, but in the pages and illustrations of Thomas Hope: Regency Designer—as in the exhibition that gave rise to it—their trace remains to be savored with longing and regret.

Christopher Drew Armstrong
Associate Professor and Director of Architectural Studies, Department of History of Art and Architecture, University of Pittsburgh