Diana Scarisbrick on the Art of Gem Engraving

Diana Scarisbrick on the Art of Gem Engraving

A s several stunning examples of engraved gems come to auction in the upcoming Small Wonders: Early Gems and Jewels sale opening on 3 July, Head of Auction Sales for Sotheby's London, Christopher Mason, speaks to Diana Scarisbrick FSA, one of the world’s most admired and respected antique jewelry experts, about her unique scholarly journey and why people throughout the ages have been drawn to the art of gem engraving.

Diana has a particular love of engraved gems and, together with Sir John Boardman, has catalogued many of the most important collections, including those of the Dukes of Devonshire, Marlborough and Northumberland. She was appointed Research Associate at the University of Oxford’s Classical Art Research Centre in 2013. Diana has written extensively, with Diamond Jewelry: 700 Years of Glory and Glamour being published only last year.

Diana Scarisbrick by Carla van de Puttelaar, 2018. Image © Carla van de Puttelaar.

Diana, it’s truly a great pleasure for me to interview you on your subject of specialism. Perhaps you could begin by explaining how you came to be interested in cameos and intaglios?

"Well my dear, I used to work as a journalist in the 1970s and I always found I was on the fringes and never really made a special subject my own. I used to be a kind of shop hound for an Italian art magazine. That’s how I got into galleries and started looking at things and buying things myself, especially rings. I have always been interested in sculpture because we had sculpture in our home and I learned to live with sculpture and to appreciate it. The problem is though, that if one doesn’t live in a stately home one can’t go on buying marbles and things!

I was attracted to cameos because they are miniature sculptures. I used to be very fond of antique rings and one day a friend of mine from the Ashmolean said, ‘Diana you like rings, – we have a collection of rings. Why don’t you come to Oxford and catalogue them?’ I was seized with a total panic and didn’t think I could do it. It took six months [for me] to come up to Oxford! Nobody had bothered about the bequest since it was given by Charles Drury Fortnum in the 19th century. As soon as I saw them I realised that I could do something with them, make a proper classification chronologically and thematically and work out what they signified to the people who actually wore them. I got excited because everyone has a ring and so people can relate to them. So I said, ‘Why don’t we have an exhibition?’, and we did, at the Ashmolean and at Goldsmiths Hall, and it was a tremendous success.

The Tiara from the Devonshire Parure, image ©The Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth.


Throughout your career you have brought great gems to light that have otherwise been hidden, often within the greatest aristocratic collections. How did this come about?

"After the exhibition I decided I’d take myself off to Chatsworth and have a look at the important collection of cameos and intaglios there. So my initiation to the field was through Chatsworth. The present Duke is, of course, extremely open to the public but in those days generally people weren’t so friendly. The Devonshires, however, couldn’t have not have been more welcoming. I ended up by writing about the famous Devonshire Parure which is mounted with some of the best gems in the world. And in the centre of the bandeau you have the carnelian intaglio of Diomedes signed by the greatest gem engraver of the Augustan age, Dioscorides.

So I really got my eye in with the best, and that is how I became interested into cameos and intaglios. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Debo and Andrew Devonshire who encouraged me to study, and also to Anthony Blunt, who was rather in at Chatsworth in those days until, of course, there was a scandal and he was exposed as a Soviet spy.

I was so lucky with access to the stately homes. After beginning at Chatsworth, I was asked by Michael Jaffé and Graham Pollard to catalogue the post classical gems of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. I was also commissioned to write the introduction to the catalogue, which traces the history of English gem collecting. So, I begin with Prince Henry and Lord Arundel and I end up with… well I’ve forgotten who! Sadly, the collecting had fizzled out by the early 20th century."

The Bandeau from the Devonshire Parure. Image ©The Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth.

Why was there an explosion of gem collecting in the 18th century?

"Well, in the 18th century you have all of the excitement about excavations and the discovery of the classical world with the uncovering of Pompeii and Herculaneum. You have the Grand Tourists: English gentlemen realising they have money, that they had had a classical education and that it was part of their upbringing to travel to Italy.

When I was working with John Boardman on the Marlborough Gems I came across the annotated catalogue compiled by the Fourth Duke of Marlborough himself and I was so impressed by how he noticed any unusual stones and made a special point of commenting on that. I loved the way that when he liked a gem he would simply write: Cosa bellezza incredible (an unbelievable beautiful thing). I love that enthusiasm. With his classical education, he was able to identify the subjects, however obscure. The gems weren’t just play things, the collectors really studied the objects at that time. We see this in the famous Joshua Reynolds portrait of Marlborough and his family at Blenheim (1777-1778). He’s there holding his favourite gem, and his son and heir is standing next to him holding one of the boxes in which the gems were kept. If that doesn’t show an absolutely incredible total involvement with the subject I don’t know what does!"

Which were the greatest British collections of gems?

"It’s impossible to say. Which is the biggest? Marlborough. There are some wonderful gems, but if one is thinking of exquisite gems them I would point to the collection of the Earl of Yarborough because most of them were chosen by Sir William Hamilton. Sir Richard Worsley, who collected the gems now at Brocklesby Park, trusted Hamilton, who had such a wonderful eye and was ambassador to Naples from 1764-1800 and had the chance to see the things as they came out of the ground. He was also very much in touch with the Roman dealers. The widest range of gems is at Chatsworth and again there are some exquisite things. Three great collections, and I really can’t say which is the best."

the Devonshire Parure
The Necklace from the Devonshire Parure. Image © The Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth.

One of your great achievements was, with Sir John Boardman and Dr Claudia Wagner, to catalogue the celebrated Beverley Gems at Alnwick Castle. Could you give us a flavour of that collection?

"Well again that is a wonderful group. My favourite gem is undoubtedly the one owned by Lorenzo de Medici – it has his name on it. It’s the boyhood of Bacchus and the infant god is depicted grasping a thyrsus offered by an elderly satyr, whilst a younger satyr puts a boot on his foot. It’s totally idyllic – the idealised version of the classical world, as Lorenzo liked to see it. It is unknown who engraved it: either a great 15th century artist in the classical tradition or, possibly, it was carved in the 1st century AD. I adore that gem.

What interests me about that collection is how the Grand Tour changed Lord Algernon Percy, who acquired the gems. He had been a problem child, only interested in hunting, shooting, fishing and gambling. His parents decided that the best thing to do was to send him off to Italy with a tutor. The tutor they chose – Mr Louis Dutens– was an inspiration, who knew exactly how to handle Lord Algernon. In the end they were in Italy and Austria for two or three years and during that time Lord Algernon changed from a playboy character into a serious scholar. He had several collections; the first was sold to Catherine the Great of Russia. He then made another one which he left to his own family and they eventually got back to Alnwick Castle through a 19th-century duke. They are still there to this day: one of the glories of Alnwick Castle."

Sardonyx cameo with the Infant Bacchus, possibly 15th century, from the collection of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Image © His Grace the Duke of Northumberland and The University of Oxford, Classical Art Research Centre.

In many respects, gems are for private enjoyment. How best can collectors overcome the problems of displaying such small objects?

"I work a lot for the Japanese and they invited me to do an exhibition on gem collecting from Alexander the Great to Napoleon III, covering the whole chronological range if you like. The Japanese are brilliant at display and I was able to borrow many of the gems from Alnwick and that was a great thrill...to see how wonderful they looked when properly displayed. This worked perfectly because the Japanese understand how to give things space. Although these gems are small, they are inherently grand; so much is condensed into these little miniature sculptures. The Japanese understand that. I suppose it comes from their tradition of Netsuke. I felt very proud, and they showed them with manuscripts. I lent my own picture of the Fourth Earl of Carlisle holding his favourite gem which is a Diana, and since I’m a Diana I was very interested in that!"

The most important people in history seem to have collected gems, starting with Julius Caesar going straight through to Napoleon III. Why have they always appealed to powerful people?

"The gems we see today are rarely in their original settings. These gems were commissioned and cut for use: the cameos for display as jewelry and on horse trappings, all kinds of accessories. Over the centuries these settings got stripped away but the hardstones remained, being imperishable. Most of these things were meant to be worn and not just put into a collector’s cabinet. That is one of the things I like about the Empress Joséphine, Napoleon’s first wife. She was mad on cameos but she wanted to wear them. One of the pleasures in her life at Malmaison was that she’d be wearing a cameo necklace or bracelet and she’d take it off and it would be handed round to her ladies in waiting who would discuss the subjects. They were talking points and were part of people’s lives."

Why did kings and queens in the Renaissance choose to have their images cut into stones?

"Royal portraits have been engraved in hardstones since the days of Alexander the Great. The portrait glorifies the living and deifies the dead. In the 16th century, you have a great time of classical revival. Whether it is Philip II, Mary Stuart, Queen Elizabeth or Henri IV – they all wanted to have their images carved in a cameo or an intaglio. They were given as a mark of royal favour. When you look at the painting of Sir Christopher Hatton in the National Portrait Gallery, proudly and prominently displayed around his neck is the portrait of Queen Elizabeth. This is the mark of royal favour in an imperishable material.

In the 18th century, members of the elite seem to have preferred expressing themselves in intaglios which could be used for sealing. Cameos were a Renaissance thing. One of the things I love about intaglios used for seals is that they tell you so much about the person who used that seal. If I ever had time, I’d love to make a proper list of all the subjects people chose. For instance I like to think of Joshua Reynolds sealing his letters with a portrait of Michelangelo. Denis Diderot – who does he seal his correspondence with? Socrates of course. I’d love to know who the Duke of Wellington chose...Julius Caesar perhaps? A great strategist, military hero. Each person chose a subject that expressed their particular cultural and intellectual interest."

How do you explain the enduring interest in engraved gems throughout history?

"They were always expensive so it was an art which flourished when the richest people had the taste for classical culture, admiring that sense of beauty. When I was working on Renaissance gems I remember coming across one which was bought by Lorenzo the Magnificent which cost more than a Botticelli painting. One of the reasons they are so expensive is because it’s such a difficult art; it’s not just having a good eye. First you’ve got to have a good stone. Secondly, when you are working a multilayered stone for a cameo you never know when you are going to come across a flaw and, if so, you can’t continue with the bit that you are doing. The good engravers knew how to take advantage of these flaws but they never knew what they were going to come up against and technically it was very risky.

They’ve always been rare, they’ve been the prerogative of the wealthiest people with the best taste. Over the centuries the majority disappeared into into institutions. And they are getting more and more scarce. What I would say to collectors is, if one comes up for sale that you like, for God’s sake buy it because there won’t be many more opportunities to acquire them in the future."

European Sculpture & Works of Art
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