Antiques & Collecting: Talking about Antiques

PUBLISHED: 13:12 26 August 2010 | UPDATED: 17:46 20 February 2013

Antiques & Collecting: Talking about Antiques

Antiques & Collecting: Talking about Antiques

Items in a stone unique to Derbyshire have been treasured since the 16th century. Max Craven investigates ...

At the end of June, Bamfords, the Derby auctioneers held a four day fine art sale twice the usual size. Among a number of highly interesting items, one that stood out as an object of international importance that was also made locally was a black marble occasional table with a plain baluster support. It was inlaid with an exotic bird surrounded by concentric rings of specimen marbles inlaid alla segmentata, many of which were from Derbyshire for example Blue John, Birds Eye and Dukes Red.

Derbyshire black marble items with delicate inlaid scenes and objects of this type are rare and early, and frequently appear in auctions described as Italian pietra dura literally hard stone. As a result they often attract higher prices than the locally made product. Italian pietra dura is inlaid in actual marble, very different to Ashford Black Marble which is a polished limestone that starts out a bluish-grey colour and is unique to Derbyshire. Real black marble has a harder shine and more intense black ground, whereas the Derbyshire version has a softer sheen, even when highly polished.

According to William Adams Gem of the Peak, first published in 1838, Ashford Black Marble was first worked into ornaments by the important Derby spar manufacturers Brown & Mawe of King Street. This firm was a late partnership between spar turner Richard Brown (1736- 1816) and geological pioneer John Mawe (1766-1829), at the important purpose-built works at the corner of St Helens Street recently (and unforgivably) demolished to build part of the Derby Ring Road.

Adam claimed Brown and Mawe began using Ashford Black Marble around 1804 to make obelisks, vases, chimneypieces and especially tables, the latter based on drawings by the celebrated John Flaxman who contributed to the design of Josiah Wegwoods basaltes wares. Plain black marble obelisks and similar small items dating from the late 18th century can be found in sales occasionally. The stone was in demand both for funerary monuments, from the early 16th century onwards (often deployed with Chellaston alabaster), and to embellish chimneypieces of grander Elizabeth houses: Hardwick Hall being an excellent example.

From the outset, inlays were added to embellish such objects, called by Adam mosaic work. These began with simple geometrical shapes like lozenges and rectangles, especially chess board tops for tables, but later Mawe, who set up on his own at Matlock Bath in 1812, started inlaying specimen Derbyshire polished limestones, also intermixing them with chips of continental marbles imported especially for the purpose. Later Mawe, who also had a showroom in fashionable Cheltenham, began to do what he termed Florence Work, in close imitation of Italian pietra dura decoration. Adam wrote that This work advanced from butterflies to sprigs, birds, flowers and foliage of every description introduced as ornamental tables etc. Later, though, this style was dropped and by the early Victorian era the distinctive inlays with which Derbyshire work is usually identified began to be popular and indeed was made until the earlier 20th century.

The present table is a classic example of Florence Work, especially the charming central bird on its sprig, with the bravura concentric rings of specimen marbles set around it. The Florence Work style was continued after Mawes death in 1829 by his former assistant William Adam (1794-1873), who had been head-hunted by Mawe from his Cheltenham outlet c.1820. He continued his business in Matlock Bath, whilst Mawes other assistant, William Vallance, started a workshop and outlet right next door.

The present table is in a plainer style than the later work of either man, so if not from Mawes workshop itself it dates from the year following his death. Estimated at between 4,000 and 6,000, it realised a hammer price of 5,800.

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