Alexander Hugh Baring, 4th Baron Ashburton was descended from a dynasty of bankers with a strong interest in the arts and collecting. Among the most notable collectors was his grandfather, created 1st Baron Ashburton in 1835, who, in the words of Gustav Friedrich Waagen, united 'an ardent love for the fine arts with extraordinary wealth'. Since he 'expended very large sums in the gratification of this taste [he] succeeded in acquiring a choice collection of Dutch and Flemish pictures from the most celebrated cabinets in Europe' including many of the masterpieces formerly belonging to Prince Talleyrand. The pictures were divided between his country estate at The Grange, Northington, in Hampshire and Bath House, London, known later as the 'Palazzo di Piccadilly' when the collection was lavishly expanded by his heir, the 2nd Lord Ashburton. The 4th Baron's cousin, the banker and politician Thomas Baring, had also inherited the collecting gene together with a prodigious appetite for purchasing pictures (of his house a visitor noted 'the pictures and china are renowned; so is the cooking') – and he is the first member of the family with a recorded interest in gold boxes, having exhibited an impressive group at the Special Loan Exhibition at the South Kensington Museum in 1862 (nos. 4149-4167).
The Christie's 1947 sale of the 4th Baron's gold box collection by his daughter Lilian (1874-1962), widow of Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick Adam, was shared with a further group described as 'From the collection of the 3rd Lord Ashburton, now sold by order of Frances, Lady Ashburton', showing that the 3rd Baron (son of the 1st; brother of the 2nd and father of the 4th Baron) had also been a gold box collector. Interestingly all three collections included snuff boxes either by or very probably by Neuber: Thomas Baring had lent three boxes attributable to Neuber to the 1862 Loan Exhibition, the 3rd Baron owned one and the 4th Baron owned three including the present box, which sold for 651 guineas, a signed example decorated with pansies (Sotheby's London, Treasures sale, 6 July 2010, lot 15) which sold for the same price, and a third numbered specimen box attributed to Neuber but actually the work of C.G. Stiehl, then acquired by King Farouk (later sold Sotheby's, Palace Collections of Egypt, 10-17 March 1954, lot 705).
This snuff box is extraordinary not only because of the masterly pietra dura technique employed by the goldsmith but also for its unique design and the subtle colouring of the chosen hardstones. These are not the local Saxon stones which Neuber went on so successfully to promote but more precious lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, porphyry from Egypt and recently discovered chrysoprase from Poland. The box is not signed by Neuber but has traditionally been considered as his work, an attribution confirmed by Alexis Kugel's study of 2012. It is closely linked to an oval box in the Louvre (Inv. OA 7974) inlaid on the lid with a perspective view of a garden terrace leading to a small pavilion, the sides with a balustrade surmounted by flowerpots (resembling those on the top of the Ninfeo of the Villa Aldobrandini), leading in the front to a fountain flanked by a relaxed gallant and his lady. The two boxes are linked not only by the use of perspective but each also has the sides edged with identical narrow chevron borders. In its turn, the background of the Louvre box is filled with very distinctive frilly-edged speckled green leaves, leaves which reappear on a small group of five boxes (Kugel, nos. 13-17) inlaid with rustic subjects, one of which is signed: Taddel à Dresde Ao 1769, one: Neuber à Dresde 1770, and one: Neuber à Dresde. Kugel considers that in this case Taddel acted as retailer for a box made by his son-in-law and protegé and that this group of boxes are, in fact, all early works by Johann Christian Neuber although other authorities disagree.
Johann Christian Neuber (1736-1808), Court Jeweller in Dresden, specialised in creating Galantariewaren (useful but precious objects) which combined locally-mined hardstones with delicate goldwork in the Zellenmosaik (cell mosaic) technique to form pictures or patterns. Neuber was apprenticed to Johann Friedrich Trechaon, a goldsmith of Swedish origin, in 1752 at the age of 17. In 1762 he became master goldsmith and burger of Dresden, succeeding Heinrich Taddel as director of the Grünes Gewölbe, and before 1775 he also was appointed Court Jeweller. It was from Taddel, his father-in-law and mentor, that Neuber acquired his knowledge of hardstones and how to work them. As Jean Auguste Lehninger, a contemporary visitor to Dresden, wrote in 1782: Chez le Sieur NEUBERT, Jouailler de la Cour, on trouve nombre de pierres rare et très belles, toutes sortes d'ouvrages de Jouaillerie et particulièrement un superbe assortiment de tabatières de pierres composées, espèce de mosaïque qui étonne le connoisseur et dont le Sr NEUBERT fait un commerce considerable.
Although commissioned to produce the occasional large-scale work such as the side table inlaid with 169 hardstones given by the city of Freiburg to Frederick Augustus III in 1769 and the table inlaid with 128 hardstones given by the Elector to the baron de Breteuil in 1780 to celebrate the peace of Teschen (now in the Louvre)
, Neuber advertised a wide range of small objects made from inlaid hardstones including boxes for ladies and gentlemen, cane handles, watch cases, chatelaines, and jewellery such as bracelets and rings. His distinctive style was popular both at court and with the many visitors who flocked to Dresden as it rebuilt itself after the Seven Years' War. This distinctiveness was eventually counter-productive with a novelty-seeking public and by the end of the 1780s, his over-extended enterprise started to suffer increasingly severe financial problems. Despite holding a lottery in 1788 and other fundraising measures, business failure finally led to Neuber's retreat from Dresden in 1805 to the house of his son
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