Are you sitting comfortably?
Seats of beauty and power commanded unexpected prices and a powerful sculpture stirs memories
IF you happen to be a Preraphaelite stunner, as imagined by Osbert Lancaster in his 1939 Homes Sweet Homes, sitting ‘surrounded by such testimonies to her inspiration the intellectual young woman could safely relax and lend a properly appreciative ear to the patter of Pater and the whispers of Wilde’, or indeed ‘A greenery-yallery Grosvenor Gallery, Foot in-the-grave young man’, then you were well served in two of last month’s auctions. Both Dreweatt’s Spring Sale at Newbury, and Moore Allen & Innocent at Chichester offered Aesthetic Movement chairs by Edward William Godwin.
The first, on April 19, included a pair of ebonised, rush-seated armchairs made to a Godwin design, perhaps by William Watt and somewhere between 1867 and 1885 (Fig 2). This auction house is good about recording condition, here the ‘Ebonised finish rubbed to extremities and noticeably to the arms, the rush seats have started to fail to fronts of both seats, however still stable and useable, some old splits and cracks to bar and arms. Overall in fair condition for age’. The result of this candour was a price of £2,061 against the £800 estimate.
The chair in Chichester, on April 21, was more remarkable, as was its price (Fig 2). This was a much more ambitious comfortably upholstered armchair also given to Watts, of about 1877, with swept arms formed as quarter wheels with turned spindles. Once again, condition was given: ‘Various scratches, marks, chips etc to the frame as expected. Upholstery has been there some time—unsure if it is original. Arms and head-rest very dirty. The hessian at the bottom of the chair is in poor condition and one of the front castors need attention. Generally OK apart from wear to the edges, scratches, scuffs, marks, small chips etc.’
The estimate was to £6,000, but the auctioneer, Philip Allwood, was so convinced that it would do better that he was filmed saying so. In the event, it sold for £53,504.
It is not a very long step from such aesthetic furnishings to Ottoman textiles that might well have appealed to Godwin’s customers. Sotheby’s late-april Orientalist and Middle Eastern art week had a splendid group from the collection of Argine Benaki Salvago, who was described in Michael Haag’s book
Alexandria, City of Memory as ‘one of Europe’s most beautiful women, the toast of Paris in her youth’. She was one of Egypt’s cotton aristocracy and the grande dame of Alexandrian society in the 1930s.
The star lot was a 63¾in by 47¼in late-16th- or early-17thcentury silk-velvet and metal-thread panel (Fig 5) decorated with a çintamani and tiger-eye design. Çintamani is a pattern of a triangle of three spots over a pair of wavy bands. It seems to have come to the Ottomans from Chinese Buddhism by way of Tamerlane, who used it on coinage and to mark his property. The panel made a record £1,076,750.
Another highlight of the week was a 65in by 99½in painting by the German Georg Emanuel Opiz (1775–1841), The Arrival of the Mahmal at an Oasis en route to Mecca (Fig 3), which sold for £944,750. A Mahmal was an ornate camel-borne palanquin that represented the protection of the Sultan to pilgrims making the Hajj.
It has been suggested that the scene may just possibly record Mustafa Agha Barbar, Governor of Tripoli in Lebanon, receiving obeisance from the religious leader of the Hajj as it passes through his domain. Barbar (1767–1835) was much embroiled in the plottings, manouevrings and civil strife between emirs and sects that characterised the Near East in the early 19th century as now. He made a determined effort to eradicate the Alawite clan that now constitutes the Assad government.
However, the true star of the week in almost every sense, at auction for the first time in its 1,000-year history, was the earliest-known dated astrolabe from Umayyad Spain (Fig 4), signed by the celebrated Andalusi astrolabist Muhammad ibn al-saffar. It was the earliest of his three known instruments and the only one in private hands. The latticelike ‘rete’ dial was a perfectly fitting 16th- or 17th-century replacement, fitted in the eastern Mediterranean, showing how valued it always was. It now sold for £608,750.
Fig 1 above: Armchair designed by Godwin. £53,504.
Fig 2 right: Rushseated armchairs. £2,061 the pair
Fig 3 above: Georg Emanuel Opiz’s The Arrival of the Mahmal at an Oasis en route
to Mecca. £944,750. Fig 4 right: Earliest-known dated astrolabe from Umayyad Spain. £608,750
Fig 5: Silk-velvet and metal-thread Ottoman panel. £1,076,750