Henrik Åberg, Tillverkning av förgyllda bronser i Stockholm under empiren, magisteruppsats, Uppsala universitet 1999;
Porfyr: Den kungliga stenen. Sven-Harrys Museum, 2016.
AN IMPERIAL STONE
Porphyry has always been associated with power and considered as the noblest of ancient stones. Being a hard igneous stone, it is extremely difficult to carve and polish, varying in colour from red to green, often with flecks of feldspar.
Besides Egypt, porphyry is also found in Sweden and is mentioned for the first time in writing in Swedish in 1670. In 1731, the stone is discovered in the Valley of Älvdalen. In 1788 the Elfdahls Porfyrwerk (The Porphyry Works of Älvdalen) was founded by the governor of the region, Nils Adam Bielke, and a group of investors with the aim to start producing porphyry objects. They delivered the first piece ever produced to Gustav III, then establishing a strong connection with the royal family.
Most designs used in the factory were related to those created by the architect Carl Fredrik Sundvall whose elegant creations were employed by the factory well through the 19th century. The present vase design can be seen in a drawing by Sundvall from 1790 where is presented as “vase antique à la Villa Borghese à Rome”.
On an illustrated commercial catalogue, with price list, from circa 1830, this type would feature prominently with several size options were available, as well as the optional bronze mounting. The present lot seems to follow this model, with the handles and the acanthus scrolling to the body, although lacking the upper rim scrolling or the socle mounts.
A STONE FOR A NEW DYNASTY
In 1810, Jean-Baptiste Jules Bernadotte (1763-1844), one of Napoleon’s finest generals, was unexpectedly nominated official heir to the Swedish throne after Karl XIII of Sweden and Norway, being impressed with his conduct on the field of battle and attitude towards the Swedish army. He became Karl XIV Johan, King of Sweden and Norway in February 1818, after the death of Karl XIII, the same year he purchased of the Porphyry Works of Älvdalen.
For about four decades, the majority of the important pieces that left Älvdalen were destined to adorn the royal palaces, to honour foreign monarchs and dignitaries visiting the country. Never before had Swedish artefacts reached such level of quality and sophistication. The Swedish king had a deep appreciation for the stone and the monarch’s association with it was ultimately recognised by his monumental porphyry funerary tomb, of Roman classical sarcophagus shape, weighing 16 tons, as well as his portrait, here illustrated, where porphyry vases are depicted on the background.
Examples of Karl XIV diplomatic gifts are the similar large scale blyberg porphyry campana vases offered to the Duke of Wellington in 1816 (Apsley House, London) , and another pair offered to King Louis Philippe, who installed them in the royal château in Pau, where Bernadotte was born, and still in situ. A massive porphyry urn was presented to the Russian czar and a further pair of vases was presented to George IV.
There was always a deep appreciation for bronze and a concern of improving its quality in Sweden. Nevertheless, since the size of the bronziers’ workshops in Stockholm did not allow them to achieve the quality needed for a large scale commissions, the King cleverly started to pay bronze pieces imported from Paris with porphyry pieces. Paris was in fact the major commercial destination for the products from Älvdalen and where the most important pieces would be mounted. The superb quality of the bronze mounts of the present lot, as well as their scale, point out for a commission from a leading bronzier in Paris.
The above mentioned 1830 catalogue, published in French for an international market, is revealing of the commercial appeal of the porphyry throughout Europe and how Paris was the key centre to sell these objects, mounted or unmounted. The finely chased and burnished mounts are of a bold design and superb quality and produced in a size which suggests the patronage of a major figure, possibly the very own Karl XIII Johan.
A smaller version of this model (63cm) with mounts after the same design was sold at auction in New York in 2007 ($78,000). Also of this smaller size, a pair of vases with simpler bronze handles was offered at Christie’s, Exceptional Sale, 4 July 2013, lot 43 (£103,875).
Similarly significant vases seem to have all been diplomatic gifts from the King and, despite the lack of a known relevant provenance, one can position these on a similar context for its commission and original destination. These large-scale vases, a technical tour de force in Sweden’s national stone, are important examples of their most prestigious manufacture, championed by their Royal Family.
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