In 1767 Josiah Wedgwood described the engineer and entrepreneur Matthew Boulton (1728-1809) as ‘the most complete manufacturer in England in metal’.
At a cost of over £20,000, the Soho Manufactory in Birmingham had recently opened, complete with state-of-the-art machinery and a department for the large-scale production of ormolu. It was Boulton’s aim to emulate the French bronziers he had seen first-hand when visiting Paris in 1765.
Polished stone vases with mounts satisfying the Georgian craze for the ‘antique’ accounted for the majority of the firm’s ormolu production – the most popular made from the purple, blue and yellow fluorspar known as ‘radix amethysti’ or blue john. Such was their appeal that in 1768 Boulton himself attempted to purchase or lease the blue john mines in Castleton, Derbyshire, to secure sufficient stock.
A number of variations on the neoclassical theme are extant, most with reversible covers allowing the vases to function as either a candle sconce or as a cassolette for perfume or incense.
Three different forms were offered by Mellors & Kirk (24% buyer’s premium) in Nottingham on March 8-9 as part of a collection of Georgian and later blue john works of art.
A campana shape vase is described in the Boulton & Fothergill pattern book preserved in Birmingham City Archives as a ‘Sphinx Vase Perfume Burner’. It stands 9in (23cm) high from square base to pineapple knop
Dated to c.1770-82, these were originally supplied with the option of an additional painted glass ‘lapis lazuli’ and ormolu Egyptian revival base cast to the four corners with a recumbent sphinx.
As detailed in Nicholas Goodison’s book Matthew Boulton: Ormolu (2002), Queen Charlotte bought a pair with bases for her private sitting room at Windsor Castle. Another of this type is mentioned in the auction of Boulton wares held by James Christie in April 1771 described as ‘A vase in the antique taste radix amethysti and or molu [sic] lined with silver and perforated for essence supported by four sphinx’.
It was among the top prices of the sale at £23 12s 6d. Another example with its pedestal took €170,000 at a sale held by Mathias, Le Roux, Morel, Ribeyre in Paris in 2007 when a vase of this type without its pedestal base brought €35,000.
Mellors & Kirk’s vase was not identical – the foot showing a different profile. With some loss and old repair to the cover, it took £8000 online (estimated £5000-7000).
Blue john and ormolu vase-form perfume burners with leaf-capped loop handles and affixed marble and ormolu pedestals also follow designs that appear in Volume 1 of the Boulton & Fothergill pattern book. Two are pictured in Goodison alongside an image of the many component parts after disassembly.
The 10in (24cm) pair offered in Nottingham came with a decent condition report (one cover dented, the body of one vase with old filled repair) and sold at £16,000 (estimate £10,000-15,000). The price was relatively modest: a single example sold for £22,000 as part of Christie’s Apter Fredericks sale in January 2021 while a pair to a similar design made £40,000 at Canterbury Auction Galleries in July 2020.
A pair of 8½in (21cm) ormolu and marble candle-vases with c.1770, perhaps the most often encountered Boulton model, took the lower estimate of £5000. The original design appears in Volume 1 of the Boulton & Fothergill pattern book with examples recorded with white marble, blue john, gilt or enamelled copper bodies. These were in good unrestored condition.