North German, probably Danzig, circa 1690
- red and yellow amber, ivory, mica, mirrored glass and metal foil, on a wood core, within an early 19th-century red velvet-lined wood case, with metal mounts
- North German, probably Danzig, circa 1690
George Percy, 5th Duke of Northumberland (1778-1867), Syon House, Middlesex;
thence by descent.
Middlesex, Syon House, 1866-2014
Account of Morel & Hughes for work at Northumberland House, dated 30 June 1824, p.14, (under ‘Sundry Rooms’), 'To repairing and cleaning an antique carved ivory dressing glass stand, restoring the colours of the ivory, and ornamenting with large and small pieces of different kinds of amber 24-15-' and 'To a mahogany box to receive the foregoing stand, made to the same shape & opening in 2 parts, lined with Mazarine blue silk velvet 6-18-' (Alnwick Sy.U.I.64(1) )
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.
NOTWITHSTANDING THIS REPORT OR ANY DISCUSSIONS CONCERNING A LOT, ALL LOTS ARE OFFERED AND SOLD AS IS" IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE CONDITIONS OF BUSINESS PRINTED IN THE SALE CATALOGUE."
Amber, known at the time as ‘Baltic gold,’ was a valuable commodity with a limited supply during the Baroque period. It was consequently used only for expensive luxury objects, which were the preserve of the wealthiest European princes and nobles. Given the fragility of this fossilized organic material, very few such objects survive. Worked ambers were frequently exchanged as diplomatic gifts, the most notable example being the the famous Amber Room, gifted to Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia, by the Prussian King, Frederick William I, and tragically lost during World War Two. The present mirror is an unusual example of an amber object probably being commissioned as a wedding gift. The marriage scene on the reverse is likely to be a double portrait, and appears to commemorate the union of two wealthy individuals.
The Northumberland Mirror: Style and Technique
The Northumberland Mirror finds no clear precedent or parallel. The only comparable Danzig mirror of this scale is dated a little earlier, to the middle years of the 17th century (Laue, op. cit., no. 40). It is similar in overall form, but, unlike the present object, has a handle and so is clearly intended to be a hand mirror. Moreover, it is interesting to note that amber takes a dominent role over the decorative ivory reliefs, whereas in the present mirror ivory is equally as important in achieving the overall aesthetic effect. Like the present object, however, this earlier mirror incorporates ivory panels with intricate openwork foliate decoration, a hallmark of Danzig amber work from the period.
Very similar intricate panels with flowing Baroque foliate decoration are seen in the extraordinary Weld Blundell Cabinet in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, which dates to between circa 1700 and 1720 (Laue, 2001, op. cit., no. 6). With their prominent open flowers, these are very close to the two foliate panels flanking the mirrored glass in the present object. Note also the faceted amber orbs surmounting the cabinet, which are similar to those forming the stem of the present mirror, and are found on other late 17th- and early 18th-century ambers. In both objects, all of this amber and ivory decoration is built up around a wood core. This approach was one of the key innovations made by Danzig carvers, distinguishing their work from earlier Königsberg ambers which often lacked such a structure.
One of the more unusual characteristics of the decoration governing the Northumberland Mirror are the isolated open flowers (analagous in form to the Tudor Rose) surrounding the glass panel. Near-identical flowers, but of white amber rather than ivory, are a feature of a Danzig or Copenhagen casket dating to circa 1690 in Rosenborg Castle, Copenhagen (Bencard, op. cit., p. 23, fig. 4).
The caryatids with their serpentine tails are reminiscent of the scaly beasts, which appear in the work of Christoph Maucher (1642-1706). Operating in Danzig for much of his early career, Maucher went on to become one of the leading German ivory and amber carvers of the 17th century. Compare, for example, with his equestrian sea creatures adorning the base of his amber casket in the Schlossmuseum, Malbork, dating to around 1690 (Ehmer, op. cit., pp. 101-103, no. B II 9). Note also the borders with flame-like finials, which are close to that surmounting the stem of the Northumberland Mirror. The figures in the marriage scene adorning the reverse of the mirror are stylistically close to representations of people in contemporary dress by other members of the Maucher family. Compare with the hunter wearing an analagous frock-coat, stockings and healed shoes in an ivory relief by Michael Maucher on a rifle in the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum (inv. no. W 631).
In terms of the overall conception of the present mirror, the design is similar to those of amber house altars, which were made in Danzig from the middle of the 17th century onwards. What is essentially an octagonal framing composition (for the mirror itself) is reminiscent of the elaborate 17th-century Danzig amber altar acquired by the Medici and now in the Museo degli Argenti, Florence (inv. no. Bg. 1917 no. 91). Note also the similar openwork ivory reliefs with vegetal motifs flanking the central devotional image, and the octagonal amber base, which is close to the present mirror with its decagon foot. However, the most important comparison is with an amber reliquary from the workshop of Michel Redin, dating to around 1680, in the Schlossmuseum, Malbork. Note the similarly conceived octagonal foot, supported by little reclining amber lions, which recall their ivory equivalents adorning the Northumberland mirror.
One final observation should be made about the ivory figure of Orpheus, who surmounts the mirror, playing the lyre and flanked by hunting dogs. He is reminiscent of groups by Jacob Dobbermann adorning an ivory cabinet made in collaboration with Gottfried Turau in Danzig around 1716, today in a private collection (Laue, 2001, op. cit., no. 3). The central figure of Diana, who is likewise turned in profile, serves a similar function as Orpheus, whilst her hounds are similarly presented in differing poses, with angled heads. The present figure of Orpheus, in its gentle classicising idealisation, is close to carvings by Dobbermann and his followers: see the relief with Adonis from the Reiner Winkler collection thought by Theuerkauff to originate from Dobbermann's circle (Theuerkauff, op. cit., pp. 36-37, no. 11). Jacob Dobbermann, who was born in Danzig, probably came from a family of amber carvers; he went on to become one of the foremost German ivory sculptors in the first half of the 18th century. Gottfried Turau, who was likewise a native of Danzig, is renowned for his work on the Amber Room. The stylistic similarities between the ivories adorning the present mirror and Dobberman and Turau's work, might possibly indicate therefore that it was made close to the turn of the 18th century. It is also interesting to note that there are two ivories by Dobbermann in the Northumberland collection, which may have been acquired from the same source.
The History of Amber in Europe
Amber has, throughout history, been considered a precious material. The 1st-century poet Ovid, in his epic poem, Metamorphoses, tells of the story of Phaethon, son of Helios, the sun-god (often conflated with Apollo), who persuades his father to permit him to drive his chariot across the skies as a test of his paternity. Inexperienced and therefore unable to control the powerful chariot, he releases the reigns, is shot down by Jupiter’s thunderbolt and falls in flames to his death in the River Eridanus. His sisters, the Heliades, metamorphosed into poplars as they wept, their tears turning into drops of amber.
The importance of amber in Western culture is evident even before Ovid’s poetic description of its genesis. One of the earliest recorded references to the material is made by Homer, who describes the Palace of Menelaus as ‘flashing with gold and amber’ (Williamson, op. cit. pp. 26-7); a reference that underscores the status of amber as a luxury material from earliest times. During the Medieval period, as trade opened up, the lands around modern day Königsberg and Gdansk (or Danzig) established themselves as the principal exporters of amber in Europe; though still rare, the material was periodically washed up in small quantities on beaches, and a rich seam was later discovered in the earth. From the 13th to the 15th centuries the supply of amber from the Baltic was strictly controlled by the ruling Teutonic Order. The Order, who coveted their monopoly, exported amber to Lübeck and Bruges, where it was used principally in the production of rosaries. When, in 1525, the Grand Master of the Order, Albrecht of Hohenzollern, converted to Lutheranism and became Duke of Prussia, the art of amber working flourished as demand for secular courtly objects increased. Königsberg, the seat of the Prussian Court, became the leading centre for the production of amber works of art, until it was overtaken by Danzig towards the middle of the 17th century. The final flourishing of amber production came with Peter the Great’s lost Amber Room, created and remodelled in the first decades of the 18th century.
Objects composed of amber were particularly prized by 17th- and 18th-century nobles for the rarity of their material and its natural properties. Finely worked amber caskets, games boards, cups and other objets d’arts were exchanged as diplomatic gifts and could be found in the Kunstkammern of the wealthiest and most learned rulers and merchants in Europe, including those of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II and Frederick II, King of Denmark.
It is unsurprising that an important amber such as the present mirror entered the collections of the Dukes of Northumberland. The precise date it was acquired, however, remains unknown. What is clear is that it was probably in Northumberland House by 1786, given the reference (transcribed above) to an amber and ivory object in the 1786 inventory. Given the likely date and origin of the object, it is possible that the mirror was acquired by Charles Seymour, 6th Duke of Somerset (1662-1748), or, more likely, his son Algernon, 7th Duke of Somerset (1684-1750), who travelled extensively throughout Europe during the War of the Spanish Succession, in which Britain was allied with the German states of Prussia, Hanover and Austria. As with amber objects throughout history, the present mirror may have been given as a gift, potentially a diplomatic one. The mirror would certainly have been of great interest to the 1st Duchess of Northumberland, who amassed a matchless collection of natural and artificial curiosities and housed them in her 'Museum Room' at Northumberland House. Indeed it appears that the present amber object was displayed in this very room at the time of the 1786 Northumberland House inventory discussed above.
The Northumberland Mirror is one of the rarest amber objects to have come onto the market in recent years. Distinguished by its noble provenance, it finds no clear parallel. In terms of style, technique and quality, it should arguably be viewed against the backdrop of the Amber Room, the most celebrated amber ensemble to have been produced by Danzig craftsmen around 1700.
G. C. Williamson, The Book of Amber, London, 1932, pp. 26-44; C. Theuerkauff, Elfenbein. Sammlung Reiner Winkler, Munich, 1984, pp. 36 and 37, no. 11; M. Trusted, Catalogue of European Ambers in the Victoria and Albert Museum London, 1985; M. Bencard, 'Märchenhafte Steine aus den Meer: Die Bernsteinsammlung der Kunstkammer in Schloss Rosenborg, Kopenhagen, Kunst & Antiquitäten, VI/1987, pp. 23, fig. 4; A. Ehmer, Die Macher. Eine Kunsthandwerkerfamilie des 17. Jahrhunderts aus Schwäbisch Gmünd, Schwäbisch Gmünd, 1992, pp. 101-103, no. B119; G. Laue, Der Bernsteinschrank. The Amber Casket, Munich, 2001, pp. 25-37, nos. 3, 6 and 26; W. Seipel, Bernstein für Thron und Altar. Das Gold des Meeres in fürstlichen Kunst- und Schatzkammern, exhib. cat. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, 2005; G. Laue, Bernstein. Kostbarkeiten Europäischer Kunstkammern. Amber. Treasuries for European Kunstkammer, Munich, 2006, pp. 166-167, no. 40