Heroes, emperors and gods, royals, saints and monsters – all have been immortalised and treasured over thousands of years, painstakingly carved in stone and shell,.
‘Glyptics’ is the catch-all term for these engraved gems, which encompass two main types: cameos and intaglios. In cameos, the design stands out in three-dimensional relief against a receding background. In intaglios, the opposite is the case – the design is carved directly into the stone.
Perhaps more than any other gem, glyptics have held a mirror to western culture for thousands of years, and have inspired generations of fanatical collecting. An impressive single owner collection of cameos and intaglios in our Fine Jewels sale on 20 March 20 takes us through their incredibly rich history, from antiquity through to the 19th century.
One intaglio in the collection demonstrates the passion for carved stones that took England by storm in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the art form’s intrinsic links with the classical world. Nathaniel Marchant (1739-1836) was one of the most talented stone carvers that England produced, and his work adorned British stamps and coinage during his tenure at the Royal Mint and the Stamp Office. Commissioning a Marchant intaglio was ruinously expensive, and only the most elite clients populated his long waiting list. The design of this lot was one of his most popular: the Apollo Belvedere, a 1st century AD Roman copy of a Greek statue, unearthed in 15th-century Italy, and revered by 18th-century society as one of the highest artistic attainments of the classical world.
Marchant trained in Italy, which was the centre of the glyptic trade. On their grand tours of the region, collectors would obtain vast collections of engraved stones, many of which were recent forgeries. Among the skilled carvers of Rome at the time was Giuseppe Girometti (1780-1850), whose cameo of the young Hercules is based on a Roman original now found in the British museum. Carvers such as Girometti were used to seeing their works passed off as originals by unscrupulous dealers, and so many took to signing their pieces to mark them as their own.
Cameos have enjoyed periodic revivals since the Roman era, notably in the early Renaissance and again in the 18th and 19th centuries. It wasn’t until the 19th century when Napoleon’s wife, Empress Joséphine, was painted wearing a parure of cameo jewellery, that cameos entered the realm of fashion. Napoleon greatly admired the workmanship in these miniature carvings and saw how they might serve as emblems of France’s new republic, linking it and himself to Roman grandeur. From commissioning cameo-embellished gold crowns for himself and Josephine, to furniture, Napoleon swept in a craze for cameos that quickly spread beyond France.
One of the greatest military figures of the Napoleonic era is undoubtedly Joachim Murat (1767-1815), immortalised in what is probably the centrepiece of the collection – a cameo by the Neopolitan engraver Filippo Rega (1761-1833). Murat’s rise from humble origins to Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother-in-law was down to both his military courage, tactical skill and memorable good looks and charisma, skillfully captured by Rega. Murat was made King of Naples in 1808, and this cameo captures him at the height of his power, which was unfortunately short-lived. Murat struggled to maintain his rule over Naples as Napoleon’s momentum faltered. After Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815 Murat fled to Corsica, where he was captured by the forces of Ferdinand IV, his successor as King of Naples.Sentenced to death, he is reported to have kissed a cameo of his wife Caroline, possibly also by Rega, before issuing his final instructions to the firing squad - ‘straight to the heart, but spare the face.’
However, no one was more passionate for cameos than Queen Victoria. A prolific jewellery lover, she is credited with keeping the trend alive in Britain throughout much of the 19th century. In emulation of their queen, common people sought out their own versions, mass-manufactured from molded glass and Jasperware.
Cameos fell out of fashion in the 20th century, but are now being appreciated once again thanks to a handful of contemporary jewellery designers who have revived this classic jewel. Sotheby’s is pleased to offer an important collection of antique cameos in London’s Fine Jewels sale. As the saying goes, everything old is new again.