Gold Snuff Box, Berlin, c.1760
This glitzy, diamond-covered box certainly attracts attention. Imagine how the gold and diamond decoration would have sparkled across the crowded room in the candlelight, catching the eyes of those around.
Snuff, introduced into European society from the Americas as the powdered leaf form of tobacco, became popular with all levels of society, men and women alike. Such was the fashion for snuff that, by the mid-18th century, a market had developed for elaborate containers for wealthy consumers.
The enamelled scenes are taken from the late-16th-century epic poem Gerusalemme Liberata, by Torquato Tasso, which tells a heroic story of battle and love during the First Crusade. The enchantress Armida tries to kill the great crusader knight Rinaldo, but instead falls in love and bewitches him.
Tasso’s poem was hugely successful throughout Europe and over the next two centuries was a frequent source of inspiration for artists, composers and playwrights. In 1724 J.-B. Mirabaud's French prose translation of the poem sparked a revival of interest and was a best-seller across Europe, including Germany, where French was commonly spoken by well-educated people. This renewed literary and artistic respectability made Gerusalemme Liberata an acceptable theme for history painting in Paris in the 1730s. The scenes on the back The Swoon of Armida (Fig.1) and front The Sleep of Rinaldo are after designs for tapestries intended for Versailles by Charles-Antoine Coypel (1694-1752). The image on the cover depicting Rinaldo, reclining in Armida’s arms, holding a mirror before her is taken from an engraving by Nicolas Château after a drawing by Louis de Silvestre (1675-1760) in the British Museum (Fig.2). A later painted version of the same subject was formerly in Dresden where de Silvestre was head of the Academy of Painting from 1727-48. In Berlin, where this box was made, the poem was also the basis for Carl Heinrich Graun’s successful opera L’Armide, first performed in 1751.
It is thanks to recent research on collections of 18th-century gold boxes, including Charles Truman’s work for the forthcoming Wallace Collection Catalogue of Gold Boxes, that German goldsmiths’ work has become better understood. German boxes were rarely marked, meaning that attributions often have to be based on style. In this box the gold strapwork and lapis blue ground compares to another Berlin box shown here (G76, Shelf 5 of the Boudoir Cabinet) and is similar to another in the Gilbert Collection at the V&A, signed ‘Baudesson à Berlin’.
Bought by Sir Richard Wallace, in 1872 for 350 guineas, from the collection of Empress Eugénie of France (1826-1920) who was forced to sell many of her works of art after her husband, the Emperor Napoléon III, was overthrown in 1870.
Tuesday 2 and 16 November with Rebecca Wallis.
- Somers Cocks, Anna and Truman, Charles, Renaissance jewels, gold boxes and objets de vertu : the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Sotheby Publications, London, 1984.
- Truman, Charles, The Gilbert collection of gold boxes, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1991.
© Trustees of the Wallace Collection 2010. Text by Rebecca Wallis