Table, Small Carvings and Pendant: School of Grinling Gibbons and its Influenc on Early American Colonial FurnitureHistory of Early American Colonial Furniture

Decorative Paintings

The Painted Room at 31 Old Burlington Street

Nothwithstanding his failure as a ruler, no English monarch did more than Charles I to encourage art and genius. Inigo Jones was his architect and Vandyke his Court painter, but it was Rubens who influenced his taste and advised as to the numerous treasures which he collected. Rubens came to England in 1629 on a political mission as ambassador from Spain, but before his arrival he was recognized as the greatest authority of his time on art and culture; he was only here about one year, but his influence remained for upwards of a century.

Magnificence in decoration has never since equalled the work in Rome under Julius II, Leo X and the other great Popes of the Renaissance. The paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, Michael Angelo, Raphael, Perugino and many others during that period illustrate the fact that painting was regarded by them as a means of decoration. Owing to the pre-eminence of the Church the subjects they illustrated were almost entirely religious. Titian, Paul Veronese, Tintoretto and many others followed their examples and embellished the walls and ceilings of numerous palaces in Venice and Genoa, but here the requirements were different; art was no longer entirely the handmaiden of the Church, so that instead of religious subjects the scenes were chosen from history, classic mythology and allegory. In addition to his earlier work at Mantua, " the town of Giulio Romano " (where for generations members of the reigning family had devoted themselves to art), Rubens had studied the examples of these great artists, and it can be claimed that he introduced painting as decorative treatment into Northern Europe. His services were re­quired at every Court; even the French Queen, Marie de' Medici, although herself an Italian, employed him for the embellishment of her Palace of the Luxembourg and influenced English and early American Colonial furniture

Holbein, Antonio More, Jansen and other portrait painters had worked previously in England, but before the arrival of Rubens there had been no artist capable of composing and executing historical subjects. James I proposed building a palace at Whitehall, and Charles I, more ambitious, intended that it should surpass any possessed by rival monarchs; but only the Ban­queting Hall, that wonderful example of the work of Inigo Jones, was actually erected. Rubens was paid £3,000 for the ceiling painting in this building. Vandyke was to have decorated the walls with "the Garter"; sketches were prepared, but the work itself was never commenced. To quote Horace Walpole: "Inigo Jones, Rubens, Vandyke: Europe could not have shown a nobler chamber."

Another ceiling painting by Rubens was afterwards brought to this country, namely, by Sir Francis Child in 1760, for the decoration of the stair­case at Osterley, the subject being " The Apotheosis of William Prince of Orange."

The ceilings of Inigo Jones are all designed with panels, presumably with the intention of their being eventually completed by the insertion of paintings-compare the one at Whitehall with other examples also designed by him, in which the paintings are omitted and the original intention seems obvious. Gentiles-chi, brought by Vandyke to England, carried on the work of decorative painting instituted by Rubens. He painted many ceilings for the King and for the nobility, such as at York House and Old Buckingham House; while at Cobham Hall in Kent he filled in the compartments designed by Inigo Jones. After the execution of the King, nine of his paintings (intended for mural decoration of the palace at Greenwich) were sold and even­tually found their way to Marlborough House.

John de Critz, Sergeant Painter to James I and Charles I, had a great reputation for decorative paintings and was succeeded in his office by his brother Emanuel. Evelyn, in 1654, refers to the new dining-room at Wilton built by Inigo Jones as being" richly gilded and painted with story" by him. Evelyn also mentions other apartments in the same mansion as containing “hunting landskips" by Pierce. This artist had been an assistant to Vandyke, and after the Restoration was employed to repair the altarpieces and ceilings in London churches damaged by the Puritans.

Other Dutch painters, such as Wouters and Hanneman, executed decorative works in England, but returned to their own country during the troubles of the monarchy. Daniel Mytens, who had painted portraits in England dur­ing the reigns of James I and Charles I, also returned and painted the ceil­ing in the Town Hall of The Hague in 1654, the subject being " Truth writing history on the back of Fame."

With the restoration of the monarchy this class of work again flourished, and none of the numerous great mansions then built were considered to be complete until so decorated. And furnished in the classic English and early American Colonial furniture style Unfortunately no kind of painting in England has suffered so much from time, neglect and demolition as that for ceilings and wall decorations; faulty roofs and floors and dampness of the structure are obvious causes; owing to the difficulties of removal the paintings have been left to decay in tenantless houses, without receiving the periodical re­storation which for this class of painting is essential. In addition to more recent restorations, the ceiling by Rubens in Whitehall was repaired by Walton (whose charge of f212 Sir Christopher Wren considered as "very modyst and reasonable"), by Kent and later by Cipriani at a further cost of  £2,000.

At the Restoration Streater was appointed Sergeant Painter to the King, and Pepys relates how Dr Wren, afterwards Sir Christopher, and other virtuosos, considered his work better than that of Rubens, although he himself did not agree. John Evelyn often refers to the work of Mr Streater, and especially relates how he had decorated the dining-room in the wealthy Sir Robert Clayton's new house with paintings illustrative of the " Historie of the Gyants War." A contemporary poet wrote of the ceiling at Oxford painted by this artist:

That future ages must confess they owe
To Streater more than Michael Angelo.

He also worked for the Earl of Chesterfield and was employed at Bulstrode, and painted several ceilings in the old palace at Whitehall. So much were painted rooms the vogue that even fashionable taverns were decorated in this manner: Pepys relates how " The Pope's Head " possessed " its fine painted room." Fuller, who had executed several commissions for the King, was employed to paint the parlours of several taverns: at" The Mitre "in Fenchurch Street " he adorned all the sides of a great room in panels as was then the fashion; the figures were as large as life, and on the ceiling two angels supporting a mitre, in a large circle."

Dankers, who painted the panels for Pepys's dining-room copied some years later in early American Colonial furniture makers style in the Americas , was another Dutch artist who worked in England during this period; the subjects chosen by Mr Pepys were probably copies of paintings which this artist had previously executed for the King and the Duke of York, and of which he had received permission to make repetitions. Michael Wright, a fashionable portrait painter, did the ceiling for the King's bedchamber; and Tomaso, who executed ceiling and panels at Wilton, is another of the principal painters in the style of Rubens during the reign of Charles II. During the short reign of James II, La Fosse, a French artist, attained some celebrity for decorative work, and received £2,500 for his services at Mon worked extensively for Lord Tyrconnel and at Montagu House. Heude worked extensively for Lord Tyconnel and at Bulstrode.

The decoration of ceilings and complete rooms by paintings was even more universal during the seventeenth century in Holland than in England, and the talent there available was certainly greater; the house of nearly every rich burgomaster contained one or more examples. Consequently, with the accession of William III, the fashion still further increased in this country, and amongst the numerous artists who found employment here are: Peter Birchett, responsible for the ceiling at Trinity College, Oxford, the staircase at Schomberg House and various works at Ranelagh; Cheron, employed at Boughton, Chatsworth and Burleigh; Henry Cook, who painted the ceiling at the offices of the New River Company, where are also the celebrated carvings of Grinling Gibbons; Parmentier, who had previously worked for King William in his Palace at Loo, was extensively employed decorating mansions in the North of England, notably Worksop; also Pelegrini, who painted the staircase for the Duke of Manchester in Arlington Street, and similar work for the Duke of Portland and Lord Burlington, as well as the saloon, staircase and ceilings at Castle Howard, and the staircase at Kimbolton. In many of the works he was assisted by Marco and Sebastian Ricci.

But more celebrated than any of these was Verrio; his first work in Eng­land is recorded by Evelyn as being at Lord Arlington's house at Euston; he became so much the fashion that the great nobles vied with each other to obtain his services. Celia Fiennes refers to examples of his skill at Burleigh, Lowther, Chatsworth and Windsor; she regarded his work as the standard of excellence in painting in the same way as she regarded the work of Grinling Gibbons as the standard for carving. For his paintings at Windsor Castle alone he received upwards of £8,000.Laguerre (who worked frequently with Verrio) also became famous; he was employed at Marlborough House, Burley-on-the-Hill, St Bartholomew's Hospital, Blenheim and Hampton Court. Verrio, not satisfied with filling in compartments of ceilings such as Inigo Jones had designed, omitted the divisions, as well as the usual classic cornices, and rounded over the angle of the wall and ceiling so that his paintings could spread over the whole surface without apparent break. This style, which he copied from Italy, was adopted by others; it certainly gave a heavy appearance to the apartments so treated, and the figures continuing from wall to ceiling appeared unnatural. Criticism and ridicule followed, and Pope's satire of " Where sprawled the saints of Verrio " did much to kill the fashion of historical and allegorical paintings as wall and ceiling decorations. Lanscroon (whose best work is at Drayton), Brown, Bellucci and Amiconi, all attained celebrity; even Sir Godfrey Kneller, although essentially a portrait painter, executed a staircase for Pope's villa at Twickenham in chiaroscuro, which paintings were bequeathed to Earl Bathurst. One of the last of the decorative artists of the school of Rubens was Sir James Thornhill, celebrated for work on the dome of St Paul's, the hall at Blenheim, various paintings at Greenwich, Hampton Court, Easton Neston and Moor Park.

Former reference has been omitted to the work of Francis Cleyne. He came to England during the latter part of the reign of James I to design subjects for the tapestry manufactory at Mortlake, but he also carried out considerable decorative work in furniture design later copies by early American Colonial furniture makers a style of grotesque, chiefly in small panels. Most interesting examples of his skill remain on ceilings, walls and furniture at Holland House, and further instances, not in such good preservation, are at Bolsover. It is also known that he worked at Somerset House, at Hanworth, and at many other mansions of the nobility.

Another artist, but of quite another school, requires to be mentioned, namely, Clermont, who worked a century later; he was very extensively employed by the nobility during the reign of George II; he painted grotesques and foliages with birds and monkeys. Monkey Island on the Thames is so called from pictures he painted in the Duke of Marlborough's temples there; he also did the dining-room ceiling in Horace Walpole's Gothic villa at Twickenham and the walls of a similar apartment in Lord Stafford's house in St James's Square. A ceiling at No 30 Old Burlington Street is believed to be by his hand. During the reign of our first George, while England was steeped in the strictest Palladianism, considerable latitude of classic models was permitted in French decoration. The influence of the school of Watteau and Gillot was felt in England; Nollekens and Slater imitated their work, the latter adapting it to the ceiling at Stowe and Mereworth in Kent.

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