Fruitful symbolism

Pair of silver salvers by William Peaston, London, 1744, engraved with the arms of Sir Matthew Featherstonhaugh (1714-1774). Image courtesy of Sotheby's

We have just managed to buy at auction a pair of silver salvers with a connection to Uppark, West Sussex. They were purchased at Sotheby’s in London on 27 April for £6,250, with funds originally donated by the late Simon Sainsbury and from various other gifts and bequests.

The Red Drawing Room at Uppark.

Salvers were developed from the second half of the seventeenth century onwards as a kind of tray used to bring in drinks, but they could also be used for display on a sideboard. The silversmith William Peaston specialised in salvers, but National Trust silver expert James Rothwell says that the vine-leaf border seen on these examples is unusual. It fits in well with the decorative scheme at Uppark, as we shall see below.

Sir Matthew Featherstonhaugh (1714-1774), first Baronet, by Pompeo Batoni. ©NTPL/John Hammond

The arms engraved on the salvers are of Sir Matthew Featherstonhaugh (pronounced Featherston-hoar) and his wife Sara, née Lethieullier. Sir Matthew descended from an ancient Northumbrian family who had made their fortune in coal and wine. Sarah was the great-granddaughter of a Huguenot who emigrated to England and became a prominent London merchant.

Apollo mask, sunburst and garlands of fruit on the ceiling of the Little Drawing Room. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

Soon after marrying Sarah in 1746, Sir Matthew bought and began to remodel Uppark, probably using James Paine as his architect. Paine was close to the St Martin’s Lane Academy circle, a group of artists and architects who were instrumental in spreading the Rococo style in England. 

Sarah, Lady Featherstonhaugh (1722-1788), by Pompeo Batoni.

In 1749 Sir Matthew and his wife went on a two-year tour of Italy, taking in Florence, Venice, Rome and Naples. They brought back a subtantial number of pictures, including portraits of themselves wreathed in fruits by Pompeo Batoni.

Carved-wood head of Bacchus on the Little Parlour chimneypiece. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

The asymmetrical foliage, flower and fruit motifs typical of the Rococo are clearly in evidence in the decoration at Uppark associated with Paine.

Deatil of the ceiling plasterwork in the Red Drawing Room. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

Bunches of grapes obviously referred to wine and to the pleasures of the table. More generally, fruits were auspicious as symbols of bounty. Perhaps all this symbolism was too reassuring, suggesting limitless resources: Sir Matthew’s son Sir Harry became a spendthrift Regency rake – but that’s another story.

8 Responses to “Fruitful symbolism”

  1. littleaugury Says:

    I have a beautiful Batoni book I am going to hunt up and see if these portraits are in there. I am fascinated by the draping and colours in portraits, & that too is another story, or post. Sir Harry rather than being an apple falling not far from the tree, was more the “rotten” sort, I suppose- Though there is nothing like a Regency rake-and can not wait to read that Post ! pgt

  2. Barbara Says:

    When was Lady Sarah Featherstonhaugh painted? Her clothing is so very similar to that in portraits by Henry Benridge (1743-1812) & of course, John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) during the 1760s-1770s on this side of the Atlantic.

  3. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Gaye, yes Batoni had great flair. He seems to make all his British sitters look ever so slightly Italian.

    Barbara, both the portraits of Lady Sarah and of Sir Matthew were done in 1751.

  4. columnist Says:

    Why is she “Lady Sarah”? Was she the daughter of a peer?

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Columnist, Yes, come to think of it, if she was the daughter of a peer she would be ‘Lady Sarah Featherstonhaugh’, but as the wife of a Baronet she should be styled ‘Lady Featherstonhaugh’ or ‘Sarah, Lady Featherstonhaugh’. So thanks for that correction, I will change the caption to her portrait. I find British titles fiendishly complicated, only exceeded in subtlety perhaps by medieval Japanese court titles :)

    You are a bit of a silver buff – are these salvers to your taste?

  6. columnist Says:

    Yes, the title system has its minefields, which must have been designed as a test, of which Nancy Mitford would have been proud. Luckily I was well-schooled in the system. The Thai Court and royal titles are also fiendishly complicated.

    The salvers are beautiful, and I have been eyeing some in auction recently. I will confess to thinking they were intended for calling cards or letters when they were delivered to the lady or gentleman of the house by the butler, so thank you for enlightening me.

  7. le style et la matière Says:

    I notice that the artist has favored the noble pear as symbol for his sitters. I just learned from an exhibit that dietetic tradition says one should “sur poyre vin boire” to avoid problems of bad winds. Furthermore, the pear tree was said to attract lightening. So metaphorically, it seems to follow that son Sir Harry turned out to be a rake. We need his portrait now!

  8. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Actually, Columnist, you are right: salvers were used for other things as well, and no doubt the way they were used also changed over time. In one of the eighteenth-century inventories for Dunham Massey, Cheshire, it lists silver ‘waiters for cards’, meaning salvers to carry playing cards in to the players – must have been a rather grand, ceremonial style of card-playing they had there :)

    Le Style, your analysis of the pear symbolism is ingenious :) I have just been consulting my copy of the Getty Museum guide to ‘Nature and its Symbols’. Apparently, in Antiquity the pear was associated with Juno and Venus. In a Christian context the pear is associated with the sweetness of virtue, inspired by a passage in Psalms (34:8): ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good.’

    But apparently pearwood rots quickly, so that could be the bad omen referring to the rakish son… I must try to do a post about him.

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