Designed by James Wyatt (1746–1813), the painting attributed to Biagio Rebecca (Italian 1731–1808)
ENGLAND, circa 1772
Oil on canvas, mounted on a pine panelled board, in a later frame
The central oval on this chimney board shows Apollo, god of the arts, playing a finely-arched, six-stringed lyre on Mount Parnassus. Apollo wears a laurel wreath and is surrounded by the Muses who, according to the classical ideal of beauty, are full-figured females.
A fireboard or chimney board is a panel designed to cover a fireplace during the warm months of the year. They were not in common use in 18th Century; the most celebrated are the four surviving examples by Rebecca at Audley End and the group Osterley. They are also noted in the 1804 inventory at Burghley House. This example represents an extraordinary survival; indeed James Martin Robinson, author of ‘James Wyatt: Architect to George III’, described it as ‘one of the most interesting recent Wyatt discoveries’.
James Lomax, former Curator at Heaton Park (and latterly Temple Newsam) has suggested that this chimney board may have been produced for the Cupola Room at Heaton. The design, palette and dimensions certainly conform with that possibility although sadly no documentary evidence can be found. Rebecca was responsible for the work in Cupola Room at Heaton, for which he was paid £130.0s.0d (‘Heaton Hall: A Short Account of its History and Architecture’, Manchester City Council, Cultural Services Department, Manchester City Art Galleries, 1984, p.21). The Cupola Room’s decoration was oil painting on paper. The room was originally intended as the Dowager Lady Egerton’s Dressing Room and represents a sumptuous illustration of the vogue for Pompeian decoration.
The tripod with rams heads in this painting is the same model for the candle tripods on the staircase at Heaton, which were made by Tobin of Leeds to Wyatt’s design (see image below taken from H. Avray Tipping, ‘Heaton Park, Manchester: The Property of the Manchester Corporation’, County Life, London, 1926 – ‘Reprinted from Country Life, August 29th and September 5th, 1925’). It is equally possible that it was produced for one of Wyatt’s other project like Heveningham Hall where one of his chimney boards remains.
In ‘James Wyatt: Architect to George III’, Robinson illustrates a sketch design by James Wyatt for a tripod in the Pantheon (James Martin Robinson, ‘James Wyatt’, fig. 15, see image below). Our oil painting combines several decorative techniques which Wyatt often used. This sketch for the Pantheon tripod shows the same tripod form, with similar curled feet and the support at the base. Each of the three supports has a ram’s head surmounting each strut, as in our panting, and the whole is topped by a pyre mounted on three curved supports, crowned with a female head and chest. The scrolling pattern down the central strut on this sketch design is similar to the patterning between the ram’s heads in the wall niche depicted in the painting.
In a painted door panel for Castle Coole in County Fermanagh, Wyatt uses similar foliate decoration to that used on each side of the wall niche in our painting (J.M. Robinson, op. cit., fig. 113, p.124 – see image below). He also places the figures illustrated on either side at the top of the niche on a similar reddish background. He uses the same colour – Etruscan red – behind the four mythological portraits on either side of the niche.
In the Appliqué girandole, designed by James Wyatt over a chimney piece at Longford Castle, Wiltshire, Wyatt uses a similar vertical foliate design to that used on each side of the wall niche in our painting, and places a similar urn at the base, seated on a triangular stand, with a line of foliage hanging from both sides of the vessel (J.M. Robinson, op. cit., fig.140, see image below).
In his painted decorations at Fawley Court, Wyatt uses a similar vertical column decoration, and uses the effect of inlaid tablets complete with antique figures, cameos, tablets and pendant medallions (J.M. Robinson, op. cit., fig.74, p.87 – see image below). J.M. Robinson states that: ‘[a]ncient vases were responsible for the colouring and subject matter of the Etruscan style.’
The three ladies, surrounding and supporting the pyre in our painting, are similar in design to the supports included in a sketch for a ewer (James Martin Robinson, op. cit., fig.126, see image below).
James Wyatt, RA (3 August 1746 – 4 September 1813): James Wyatt was an English architect, a rival of Robert Adam in both the Neoclassical and Neo-Gothic/Gothic Revival styles. He was the most significant member of the large Wyatt family’s architectural dynasty. Between 1762 and 1768 Wyatt travelled in Italy, before returning to London to establish himself as an architect-builder. Despite being young and unknown, he was selected as the architect to design the Pantheon in Oxford Street, London. Built by James’ brother, Samuel II (1737–1807), to his design, the opening of the Pantheon in 1772 established him as a fashionable architect. Whilst being unremarkable externally, the Pantheon’s classicising domed hall, surrounded by galleried aisles and apsidal ends, was something new in assembly rooms, and brought its architect immediate celebrity. The design was exhibited at the Royal Academy, and, due to the private commissions which followed, Wyatt quickly became a fashionable domestic architect and was made an Associate of the Royal Academy on the 27th August 1770.
Wyatt soon developed a large practice, with commissions in many country houses and public buildings. These include: Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire for William Beckford (1796-1807); Heaton Hall in Lancashire (1772); Ashridge in Hertfordshire (1808–18), which was completed by Wyatt’s nephew, Sir Jeffry Wyatville, on Wyatt’s death; Dodington Park in Gloucestershire for the Codrington family (1789); and Killerton Park in Devon (1775).
In 1776, Wyatt became Surveyor of Westminster Abbey. In circa 1782, he was made Architect to the Ordnance and, in 1796, Surveyor General and Comptroller of the Works. He was elected an Academician of the Royal Academy on 15th February 1785 and was made President in 1805–1806. He died on 4th September 1813.
Biagio Rebecca, ARA (1731–1808): Biagio Rebecca was an Italian artist, active mainly as a decorative painter in England. He became known for his depiction of neoclassical scenes from mythology, and he worked on decorative schemes in collaboration with Robert Adam at Harewood House, Kedleston Hall and notably Audley End where four of his chimney boards survive. He also worked regularly with James Wyatt, and he painted the old lecture room at Somerset House, then home of the Royal Academy, with Angelica Kauffman. He exhibited four works at the Royal Academy in 1770–02, and was elected an Associate of the Academy in 1771.
James Martin Robinson, ‘James Wyatt: Architect to George III’ (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2012)
H. Avray Tipping, ‘Heaton Park, Manchester: The Property of the Manchester Corporation’, County Life, London, 1926 – ‘Reprinted from Country Life, August 29th and September 5th, 1925’.
Christopher Gilbert and Anthony Wells-Cole, ‘The Fashionable Fire Place: 1660-1840’, Leeds City Art Galleries and W.S. Maney and Son Limited, 1985.
‘Heaton Hall, Manchester: Bicentenary Exhibition 1772-1972’, Manchester City Art Galleries, 1972/3.
‘Heaton Hall: A Short Account of its History and Architecture’, Manchester City Council, Cultural Services Department, Manchester City Art Galleries, 1984.
James Lomax, ‘James Wyatt at Heaton Hall’ in ‘The Antique Collector’, 4/84, pp.44-49.
James Lomax, ‘The First and Second Earls of Wilton and the Creation of Heaton House’.
We are grateful to James Lomax for his assistance with the cataloguing of this painting.