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A REGENCY MAHOGANY BREAKFRONT BOOKCASE 

Origin: England
Circa Date: 1815
Stock No: F2J0280
Location: London
Dimensions:
H: 110.6 in (281.0 cm)
W: 103.9 in (264.0 cm)
L/D: 22.4 in (57.0 cm)
Price Range:
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A fine and elegant ebony inlaid mahogany breakfront bookcase, the upper section fitted with glazed doors opening to adjustable shelves; the lower section fitted to the centre with a secretaire drawer opening to a leather-lined writing surface before an arrangement of small drawers and pigeonholes above a pair of cupboard doors opening to adjustable shelves flanked to either side by a frieze drawer above a cupboard door opening to adjustable shelves; the carcass with a partial paper label and two full paper labels inscribed in ink "Thomas Brown Esq. / Uppingham / Rutlandshire / per N. W. R. / to Rugby from thence / to the Rockingham / Station 5th of June 1858" in the manner of Marsh and Tatham.

PROVENANCE: Thomas Brown Esq.


This magnificent Regency bookcase has been recognised by the pre-eminent furniture historian, and Christies consultant of 30 years, John Hardy, as the masterpiece of the cabinet-maker James Newton.

Known as the 'Athena' bookcase for its sophisticated decorative symbolism, it was almost certainly commissioned in 1800 by Matthew Robinson, who took over the exceptionally successful business, the Birmingham Mint and Soho Manufactory, from his father Matthew Boulton.


It is believed to have been designed for the main reception room at Soho House itself, which served as both a museum and showcase for the finest creations of the family company. It is now equally well known as having been the meeting place of Boulton's close circle of friends, the Lunar Society, made up of the 'fathers' of the Industrial Revolution, and immortalised various times by the painter Joseph Wright of Derby.

Newton, based in Wardour Street in London, was one of the most highly-regarded makers of his time and supplied furniture for Boulton at Soho House from June 1798 to November 1799. Other pieces attributed to Newton at Soho House include a pair of closely related 'klismos' seats, one of which remains on view in Soho House, the other is in the Victoria and Albert Museum. His most famous commission was for the then vast sum of nearly £8,000 for Burghley House in Northamptonshire.

The bookcase is designed in the late George III 'antique', or Grecian manner and has a highly sophisticated metaphorical symbolism in its decoration. The tympanum displays a Grecian 'th', an encircled dot which is the central symbol, 'AOE', of Athena ( or Minerva), goddess of Wisdom and which is repeated along the cornice and the plinth base. The pediment is flanked by acorn finials symbolic of growth and the oak tree that was sacred to Zeus ( Jupiter) as king of the classical gods.

Beneath each of these, and at each corner of the glazed doors, are sunflower paterae, or sun-discs, that symbolise Apollo, the god of light, wisdom and the arts, as do the griffin paws and the ebonised spheres at the base of the pilasters.

The applied bronze palms at the top of the glazed doors, and the inlaid palms on the drawers all relate to the triumph of Apollo, as the god of poetry, on Mount Parnassus. The lion-headed handles allude to the triumphs of Dionysus, (Bacchus to the Romans), who was considered by poets to have civilised the ancients.

Together, these parts combine to offer a lesson to an observer of the pleasures of knowledge, and the triumph of learning over ignorance, or light
over dark, as suggested throughout the piece by the use of contrasting dark and light woods. Furthermore, the glazed cabinet is believed to have been used to display Boulton's collection of ancient terracotta vases, and below to house Shakespeare folios, thus bringing together what was seen as the greats of antiquity and of the modern era.

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