Lot 29
  • 29

A pair of late George III ormolu-mounted blue-john vases Circa 1802, the mounts attributed to Alexis Decaix

400,000 - 600,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Stone and gilt
  • 37.5cm. high, 22.3cm. wide;1ft. 2¾ in., 8¾ in.
the krater formed vases formed from solid blue-john with swan-cast handles to the sides and classical masks to both front and back mounted with glass eyes with a turned socle and ribbed ormolu plinth, the ormolu plinths probably a later 19th century addition


Thomas Hope Esq., presumably at Duchess Street, London and at Deepdene, Surrey, prior to 1899.

Thence by descent to Lord Francis Hope Pelham-Clinton-Hope, sold Christie's London, The Hope Heirlooms Sale, 18-19 July 1917, 252A, where purchased by Gooden & Fox, London for £120. 15s.

Sold, Christie's London, 15 May 1969, lot 18.

Private collection, London.


The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Thomas Hope: Regency Designer, 21 March - 22 June 2008, no. 70.

The Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture, New York City, 17 July -16 November 2008, no. 70.


Thomas Hope, Household Furniture and Interior Decoration, 1807, pl. XIII, no. 3.

Martin Chapman, The V & A Album 4, `Thomas Hope's Vase and Alexis Decaix', London 1985, pp. 216-228, fig. 17.

David Watkin and Philip Hewat-Jaboor, Ed., Thomas Hope: Regency Designer, Yale, 2008, pp. 382-3, no. 70.

Catalogue Note

Thomas Hope (1769-1831), the Regency author, connoisseur, designer and collector acquired his palatial house in Duchess Street in 1799 and set about remodelling the interiors to "appropriate a little repository for the reception of a small collection of antiquities, Grecian and others," as well as furniture that he had himself designed and commissioned. Originally from Amsterdam, from a dynasty of fabulously successful and influential bankers, Hope eventually settled in London in 1795 after an extensive eight-year long Grand Tour that covered many countries including Greece, Egypt, Italy and Turkey. At this time he commissioned new works as well as purchasing ancient sculpture, and would eventually become patron to many of the leading artists that he met during this period, including the sculptors John Flaxman, Antonia Canova and Bertel Thorvaldsen, as well as those that he would meet later such as the painters Richard Westall, Benjamin West and Thomas Daniell and the silversmith Paul Storr.  Hope was to become a key figure in the history of taste and design in the early 19th century – the instigator of what we now call Regency style.

His house in Duchess Street, off Cavendish Square, was to become the focus for his pioneering zeal to stimulate a more serious interest in the decoration of interiors, as well as to improve the standards of design and craftsmanship in London, which, as an ardent Francophile, he felt considerably inferior to that of Paris. In his belief in the purity and correctness of ancient classical, mainly Greek, design having only the "appropriate character and meaning" he advocated a return to primary classical sources and counselled against ancient ornament being shallowly used in only a decorative fashion.  He sought to enrich contemporary design with a classical repertory "that prodigious variety of details and embellishments, which, under the various characters and denominations of imitative and of symbolic personages, of attributes and of insignia of gods and men, of instruments and trophies, of terms, caryatides, griffins, chimaeras, scenic masks, sacrificial implements, civil and military emblems, &c., once gave to every piece of Grecian and Roman furniture so much grace, variety, movement, expression, and physiogonomy."

The dazzling rooms and their pioneering contents  were celebrated by Hope in his  publication Household Furniture and Interior Decoration Executed from Designs by Thomas Hope (1807), which he wrote in part because "in England much more attention is generally paid to the perishable implements of the stable than to the lasting decoration of the house."  The sixty plates of black and white line engravings depict the furnishings of the principle rooms of Duchess Street at the time of the completion of the house in 1802.  Our knowledge of the actual appearance of exisiting furniture, together with Hope's own vivid descriptions, allow us to translate the stark engravings into the richly decorated interiors that they were illustrating.  

It was undoubtedly on his Grand Tour that Thomas Hope honed his eye for works of art which would have afforded him, amongst many other things,  the opportunity to develop a taste for the coloured hardstones and marbles that are such a part of Italian architecture and decoration. He developed a passion for these richly coloured exotic hardstones and marbles, and Duchess Street was filled with objects and rare or lavishly-inlaid table tops.  This pair of blue john vases are formed of superb examples of the finest of English stones although in form are directly derived from classical examples. Whilst we have no indication as to where these vases could have stood in Duchess Street – whether in the public rooms illustrated in Household Furniture or in the private apartments Hope was particularly sensitive as to the placement of works of art and he segregated his white marble sculptures from those in coloured materials.  Many works 'wrought in variously coloured materials, such as granite, serpentine, porphyry, and basalt'  were grouped together in the Egyptian Room suitably decorated in Egyptian style to house both ancient Egyptian works as well as in an Egyptian style.

No records as to who made his furniture have come to light.  In his introduction to Household Furniture he bemoans the difficulty in finding in London craftsmen of more than average talent, "Throughout this vast metropolis, teeming as it does with artificers and tradesmen of every description, I have, after the most laborious search, only been able to find two men, to whose industry and talent I could in some measure confide the execution of the more complicate [sic] and more enriched portion of my designs, namely, Decaix and Bogaert,: the first a bronzist, and a native of France; the other a carver, and born in the Low Countries."

 Both Household Furniture, and a series of watercolours of the Deepdene his country seat, provide us with a partial record of the collection, but the majority of the furniture and objects which once adorned Duchess Street and the Deepdene remain untraced. A large part of the collection was dispersed by his eventual heirs in a series of sales at Christie's organised by Lord Francis Hope, later the 8th Duke of Newcastle, in 1917. This stimulated renewed interest amongst a small group influential collectors and gentlemen decorators, such as Lord Gerald Wellesley and Edward Knoblock and stimulated a revival of the Regency style which continues to this day.

Philip Hewat-Jaboor. May 2011 

It appears almost without doubt that the current vases are those depicted in the wonderfully simple line drawings in Hope's Household Furniture, shown as plate XIII, no. 3 (see fig. 2). Further weight is given to the origins of these vases being those in Duchess Street by the appearance of them in a photograph of 1899 showing The Vase Room at Deepdene, Surrey (see fig. 3), 'The finest example of in England of an Italian villa' created by Hope following his purchase of an earlier house on this site in 1807. In this photograph, clearly visible on the consoles flanking the chimneypiece, stand the current vases displayed alongside ancient alabaster canopic jars and beneath Sir William Hamilton's acclaimed second collection of Greek pottery vases purchased by Hope in 1802 from Lady Warwick, Hamilton's sister, from whom Hope had also purchased his house on Duchess Street.

The design of these magnificent vases, and in particular the handles, are derived from an ancient example, Hope stating in his notes to plate XXXIV of Household Furniture, which relates to the Victoria and Albert  Museum vase and which is of very similar form to the offered vases, that the 'shape and handles copied from a Greek vase of white marble in the museum at Portici.' Martin Chapman (op.cit., p. 228) notes further that the vase formerly in the Portici is now in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples where is has been reassessed to be considered a late Roman marble copy of an ancient Greek ceramic volute krater. Chapman also illustrates in his article (Chapman, op.cit., fig.13) a drawing of a similar vase to that in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale which was published by Henry Moses, A Collection of Antique Vases, Altars, Paterae Tripods, Candelabra, Sarcophagi &c, 1811, which was dedicated to Hope.

Alexis Decaix

Decaix was a bronzier of French origin and probably a refugee of the French Revolution,  he is first recorded in the rate books of St. James, Piccadilly as having established his business at 15 Rupert Street in the spring of 1794. By 1799 he is included in Holder's Directory, a London Trade Directory as a `bronze and ormolie manufacturer' . Decaix is also known to have worked for Henry Holland at Woburn Abbey and for the Prince of Wales, later King George IV. Bills record his work in the early 1790s for cleaning and repairing furniture, ornaments and chimney-pieces at Carlton House and Kempshott. In a further bill dated 5 January 1801 he records himself as a 'bronze and ormolu manufacturer' and earlier appeared in the silversmith Garrard's ledgers producing fashionable ormolu objects. On 9 October 1800 Decaix made 'a pair of Egyptian Slaves for a Light on a Bronze Pedestal with hierogliphick characters' for Garrard's own shop costing £6.

The magnificent bronzed copper and ormolu vase to Hope's designs now in the Victoria and Albert Museum which served as the centre piece to Martin Chapman's essay of 1985 and which is attributed to Decaix, has near identical handles to the pair of offered vases. The V&A vase is also mounted with tragic masks though the current pair have glass eyes which Martin Chapman remarks in his note in the exhibition catalogue of 2008, must be a reference to the obsidian eyes found on classical antiquities.

The Blue-John

The extraordinarily well figured and richly coloured blue-john on this pair of vases has been quarried from the all but depleted 'Bull Beef Vein' located in the Blue John Mine and Cavern, Castleton, Derbyshire. This rare fluorspar, only occurs in Derbyshire and has been treasured since Roman times. It was however mainly in the second half of the eighteenth century that the demand for this stone was reignited, largely through the entrepreneurial metal-worker Matthew Boulton and the renowned neo-classical architect Robert Adam who realised the potential of the wonderful colouration to be found in this mineral and utilised it to great effect in decorative objects and architectural detailing respectively. The dark colouring of the 'Bull Beef Vein', so named due to its resemblance to rare steak, was the most popular of the fourteen or so named veins identified in the early nineteenth century and prized by craftsmen and patrons at this time. It is therefore no coincidence that this vein was selected for such a prestigious commission as the current pair of vases for the leading 'taste-maker' of the day.