Victor Chinnery, Oak Furniture, The British Tradition, Woodbridge, 1979, p. 170.
These carved wooden herms would have once supported the entablature of an open colonnade or arcade, perhaps of a market hall in a town square. Their design shows the revolutionary impact of Europe on English decorative art in the late sixteenth century, when large numbers of prints of Renaissance and Mannerist ornament were imported into the country. The most influential of these sources was Jan Vredeman de Vries (1527-1604), of Antwerp, who published over five hundred engravings. His subjects ranged from cartouches and columns to fountains and furniture, and his book Caryatidum, published in 1565, helped spread the craze for herms and caryatids of the kind offered here.
The present herms would have formed part of a much larger architectural scheme now lost, and as a result their iconography is obscure. Their rare size, however, is remarkable, the most obvious figures of comparable scale being on the great screen at Middle Temple Hall, London. The herms offered here share a number of stylistic features with the Middle Temple herms, which were designed in 1574. In particular the herm with his arm in a sling is echoed in the Middle Temple at eye level by several figures similarly modelled. At the top level of the great screen are two herms of crossed-armed bearded figures merging into pedestals embossed with lion masks suspending fruit, as here.
Further comparisons can be made with herms and caryatids in other English decorative schemes. For instance, the overmantel in the White Drawing Room at Charlton House, Kent, has female figures with free-flowing hair of the sort seen on the female herm here. Or at the hall screen at Gray’s Inn, London, (c.1585), where the pedestal sections of the upper level herms are carved with acanthus in the manner of two of the offered herms.
Part of the appeal of figure-carving no doubt lay in the myths behind the origins of such figures. Caryatids – female figures supporting entablatures above – were widely known to depict the fate of the Caryae, a tribe of Peloponnesian women who allied themselves with the Persians in the war against the Greeks. After the Greeks were victorious, the Caryae were enslaved and forced to carry burdens on their heads. Atlantes – the male equivalents of caryatids– derive from Atlas, the god who in Greek mythology was forced to hold up the heavens. Herms derive from the wooden posts topped with a carved head of the god Hermes that were used as milestones and boundary marks in ancient Greece.
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