28 June 2018

The Mystery of the Medieval Manuscript and the Australasian Cockatoo

The recent discovery of four illustrations of a white parrot in a medieval manuscript may seem fairly unimportant, but researchers believe it may re-write the history of global travel and trade.

Left: A sketch from the pages of Arte Venandi cum Avibus Right: A Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo

Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II was a keen collector of exotic animals, and his extensive Falconry Guide Arte Venandi cum Avibus (The Art of Hunting with Birds) had been gathering dust in the Vatican Library since its creation in the 13th Century. Finnish biologists have recently poured over the aged parchment and identified four previously unnoticed sketches seeming to depict the Sulphur-Crested Cocktaoo.

The distinctive white bird with yellow tipped feathers and red eyes is a species native only to the northern tip of Australia, New Guinea and the islands off Indonesia.

Until now, the earliest known depiction of the species in European art was Andrea Mantegna’s 1496 Altarpiece Madonna della Vittoria. The discovery of a native Australasian species in a work of art pre-dating Mantegna’s by at least 250 years forces a radical re-think of the history of global trade.

Researchers are now examining the possibility of a vibrant trading network which brought commodities such as exotic animals from the islands around Australia to the Middle East and beyond. It has been suggested the bird was likely purchased in Cairo and brought to Sicily by the Sultan of Egypt Al- Kamil, who is known to have gifted a parrot to the Emperor.

The presence of animals and plants from one continent in the art of another plays a key role in the exploration of their shared history. Creatures depicted can be explanatory sketches, botanical studies, or imagined mythical hybrids. The study of these artworks can provoke revelatory discoveries – as the story above shows - or can simply provoke further tantalising questions.

Inspired by the curious qualities of birds in antique art, we’ve tracked down the most intriguing specimens currently available at Grays.

Chinese Pith Paper Painting Depicting Chinese Birds on Rocks with Flowering Japonica.
19th Century. Available at Guest and Gray
German Solid Silver Parrot. 20th Century. Available at Pushkin Antiques

Chinese Framed Rank Badge, Depicting a Crane with Crysanthenum. 18th Century. Available at Guest and Gray.

Corinthian Jug Depicting Mythical Bird Hybrid, Greece or Italy, 6th Century. Available at Guest and Gray

Iranian Safavid Kendi Depicting Birds and Foliage, 17th Century. Available at Anita Gray

European Art Nouveau Bird of Paradise Brooch, Silver and Enamel, 18th Century. Available at Moira Fine Jewellery

Asprey Silver-Gilt Parrot on Malachite Stand, c1980. Available at Pushkin Antiques

25 June 2018

Meissen Porcelain: From the Colours of the Rainbow to the Flowers of the Land

Alchemy and diplomacy have made Meissen synonymous with one of the finest and most highly prized wares and sculptures of European production. Meissen porcelain remains today one of the most sought after names in European ceramics. And it has its origins in the eighteenth century, when trade in porcelain ware, known at the time as ‘white gold’, was booming. Meissen is a historic and picturesque town in Saxony. Sitting on both banks of the river Elbe, it is also one of the northernmost wine regions in Europe. 

Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony at the time, was passionate about porcelain. He saw great potential, and a way of using style and fashion for diplomacy. He set up a court porcelain factory, initially, driven by the desire to emulate Chinese imports, which commanded high prices. The method for making porcelain remained a mystery to Europeans up until then making porcelain the most coveted commodity. So, Augustus founded the factory in order to supply himself, sell to the grand families in other European courts and commission a significant number of gifts, marked A and R, for Augustus Rex. 

Based on Johann Bottger’s discovery of how to make hard-paste stoneware and ‘true’ porcelain, the factory developed its own style and aesthetics. There was experimentation with glazes and forms, and glass-cutters from Bohemia joined in. Originally copying oriental designs, production grew into decorative fantasy chinoiserie scenes often combining them with baroque European forms. 
Much of the aesthetic inspiration for Meissen production came from the fashion for decorating dining tables of aristocratic houses all over Europe with sugar ornaments. The arrival of porcelain made them more permanent and increased their value. Now such ornaments could be collected and displayed in cabinets rather than dining tables. 

The variety of the output was quite staggering. It included figures (mythological or allegorical), temples, gardens, pastoral scenes, street traders. Drawing from Moliere’s theatre plays, and public entertainment, Harlequin and the commedia del’ arte characters became the most popular depictions. For its tea wares, vases and snuff-boxes, depictions of landscape and harbour scenes taken from seventeenth century paintings, and English flower and hunting scenes, were widely used in an interpretative way. Colours and styles were mixed with styles from China and Japan.

Soon Augustus commissioned a menagerie of porcelain animals for his Japanese Palace in Dresden, now part of the Zwinger collection. This is a stunning series of sculptures, modelled by Johann Kirchner and Johann Kandler, who were the two most important persons in the history of Meissen porcelain production. Their work is very much admired today. The earlier pieces that came out of the factory are not as refined or elegantly finished. Therefore the Meissen crossed swords mark, is not the only consideration when examining the quality of the porcelain figure. Provenance, condition, colour and the particular feel, are all factors determining value. 

There are many great collections of Meissen porcelain ware and sculptures in the world, including the Met in New York, the V&A in London and the Royal Collection. Augustus’ factory which dominated European porcelain production throughout the first half of the eighteenth century still exists and it is making porcelain today.

Fine pair of 19th century Meissen figures of seated couple, offered by K &  M Antiques

Pair of fine 19th century Meissen figures of girls with toys & dolls, offered by K &  M Antiques

Fine quality 19th century Meissen group of mother with 2 young daughters, offered by K &  M Antiques

A very rare Art Deco Urstück (meaning example) group of a lady holding a golden ball behind her back in her right hand, which the Moor boy is appealing for her to return. Signed and dated by Scheurich for 1921. Offered by Serhat Ahmet

Antique Meissen Saucer, offered by Serhat Ahmet

Rare and delightful group of lop eared rabbits, designed and modelled by Ivar Tillberg for Meissen between 1905-10, offered by Serhat Ahmet

Written by Titika Malkogeorgou

14 June 2018

Dealer Spotlight: Amber Fortuna

Amber Fortuna is a unique specialist dealer based within Grays, who deals exclusively in the rarest and finest quality Baltic Amber.

1960s Owl Ornament Carved from Pure Baltic Amber

The Baltic region is home to the largest known deposit of amber anywhere in the entire world. Named ‘Baltic Amber’ or ‘Succanite’, this form of resin dates from 44 million years ago (the Eocene epoch) and it has been estimated by scientific study that this vast forest may have created more than 100,000 tons of amber. 

Amber Fortuna is an expert in the geological properties, as well as the cultural associations, of genuine Baltic amber. Baltic amber is neither a mineral nor a gemstone, but rather a form of tree resin, which has been recognised throughout cultures in Eastern Europe for many centuries for its supposed healing properties. 

Whether or not you buy in to the legend of healing associated with the mineral, anyone can be attracted by the hundreds of different shades of brown, red, yellow and orange which naturally occur in this charismatic, organic substance. 

Amber Fortuna offers a wide range of ornamental objects and jewellery in every colour permutation imaginable. We've picked out a few of our favourites below:

1960s Baltic Amber Beads
1960s Baltic Amber Brooch 

Baltic Amber Ornamental Horse

1960s Baltic Amber Beads

1960s Baltic Amber Multi-Faceted Beads

Amber Fortuna | Ground Floor | Stand 360-361 | amberfortuna.com

8 June 2018

Birthstone of June: Pearl

Pearls are a symbol of feminine style and sophistication. Audrey Hepburn famously wore a five-strand pearl necklace designed by Kenneth Lane in Breakfast at Tiffany's, which was featured in the poster to promote the film. Marilyn Monroe also famously received a pearl necklace: a Mikimoto necklace as a honeymoon gift from her second husband Joe DiMaggio in 1954.  

An iconic image of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's

Called “the queen of gems”, pearl is the birthstone for June, as well as for the star sign of Gemini. It’s the time-honoured gift given on 1st, 3rd, 12th and 30th wedding anniversaries. Pearls symbolise love and are said to bring fortune and wisdom to those whose birthstone it is, as well as joy and happiness to married couples.

At Grays there's no shortage of  pretty pearl jewellery. Here are just a few of our favourite picks:

 French brooch, platinum mounted bow set with diamonds and natural pearls c.1910, offered by Nigel Norman

Earclips with South Sea pearls, mounted in platinum and set with more than 15 carats of fine white baguette cut diamonds, offered by The Gilded Lily

Edwardian Caduceus in Enamel and Pearl Brooch, offered by Wimpole 

15ct yellow gold cabochon amethyst heart pendant surrounded by pearls, offered by Spectrum

South sea pearl necklace, offered by Michelle Payne

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