The David Roche House Museum and Gallery complex in Adelaide opened by the Hon. Paul Keating contains decorative arts with a focus on the spirit of antiquity, evident in England and Europe during the second half of the eighteenth century. The neoclassical style featuring in Gallery 1 for its celebratory opening exhibition reveals how over a fifty year period it went from being fine and elegant to being monumental during a period of political change.
This included revolution, scientific discovery, dazzling artistry, literary excellence, military milestones and both political and social scandal.
During this time ancient societies came into focus with archaeological expeditions bringing forth spectacular finds, including the buried cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii which were excavated after 1738 and 1748 respectively.
In this gallery a breakfront cabinet bearing scenes taken off the walls of excavated houses in Herculaneum from L’Antichita di Ercolana published between 1755-1792 appear.
Magnificent clocks, which David Roche loved, appeared on mantelpieces often flanked by candelabra and he remain true to form with outstanding clocks, many of which are French as they were simply making the most extravagant at the time.
Mercury gilding adorns one superb neoclassical French clock’s ornament, the most common form of decoration, although later banned because of the high rate of death among the tradesmen who practiced its craft.
Made during the reign of Louis XVI, in white marble and bronze it is signed Robinet, Paris. He was appointed master clockmaker in 1776. Strength and Justice stand in front of two pilasters surmounted by two lions with an eagle perched above.
The pendulum bears the sign of the ‘Sun King’, and it is adorned with other neoclassical motifs.
When Napoleon went on his French Campaign to defend ‘trade interests’ his journey to the valley of the Nile 1798 – 1801 made possible extraordinary finds so that ancient Egypt became the rage as well.
Napoleon went to Egypt because he knew he could cut off the English’s land route for supplies to India and because he believed he had been given the opportunity for a great civilizing mission, one where he could teach as well as learn.
Napoleons’ expedition included Baron Dominique Vivant Denon (1745-1825) a gifted young draughtsman and engraver who prior to becoming an enthusiastic Egyptologist with a taste for adventure was also an impassioned collector of Etruscan vases, which later proved to be Greek but by then the term ‘Etruscan’ came to mean black on terracotta or terracotta on black.
The neoclassical style was based on wide ranging archaeological and academic research of ancient Greece and Rome with painted chairs retaining their classical elegance. Many were based on the ancient Greek klismos form which was often found recorded on these glorious Attic vases.
The colour scheme became popular as more and more glorious black and red figure pottery was uncovered and identified in the north of Italy near the ancient site where the Etruscans had founded their colonies.
The Etruscans were a race of people gradually absorbed into the Roman world during the period of its greatness 753 BCE – ACE 476, when many of the traditions and values associated with western civilization were established.
The works in David Roche’s collection showcase the fashions, passions, ideas and attitudes of a society in both Europe and England which at this point were still busy discovering the benefits of bathing regularly through their study of life in ancient Rome.
The superb sculptural porcelain group Orestes and Pylades was made around 1790 by the famed Meissen Porcelain factory in Germany established in 1710, modelled by Christian Gottfried Juchtzer (1752-1812).
It features two nude youths wearing laurel wreaths, the prize for winning at the ancient Olympic games where they could have been competing. Said to represent Castor and Pollux, twin brothers from Greek and Roman mythology they were also featured in a marble version created by Antoine Coysevox for the parterre de Latone of Versailles.
They also feature in the best-known story of the twins’ birth when their father the great God Zeus disguised himself as a swan and seduced Leda wife of King Tyndareus of Sparta whose myth gave rise to the art of Leda and the Swan, which is also one of the most admired paintings in David Roche’s collection.
Opening the house museum and gallery complex in Adelaide in June 2016, former Prime Minister of Australia the Hon Paul Keating referred to the Enlightenment period in Europe, explaining in his indomitable style what that means for people today.
Certain thinkers and writers at this time, primarily in London and Paris, believed human reason could be used to combat ignorance, superstition, and tyranny in order to build a better world where everyone could enjoy freedom.
Their principal targets were religion (embodied in France in the Roman Catholic Church) and the domination of society by a hereditary aristocracy who changed their outlook in England and became the great patrons of the age.
Together with their brilliant architects, designers and craftsmen they ‘lived art’, with harmony and proportion in all branches of the arts considered essential and relative to man’s well being.
Houses designed and-or decorated by such as architects William Kent and Robert Adam, surrounded parks by Capability Brown or Humphrey Repton, were filled with paintings and sculpture from the Grand Tour and furniture and furnishings by the great cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale or his son Thomas Chippendale the Younger, with splendid vases by ceramic genius Josiah Wedgwood and the fantastical factory at Worcester.
David Roche admired all their form and scholarly wealthy patronage, which was an impetus for such intensive creative and artistic activity that continued unabated into the nineteenth century until it came to a screaming stop with the advent of the industrial revolution when machines replaced man and quality with detailing suffering.
Accordingly his collection includes works by Thomas Chippendale The Younger like this wonderful chair in David Roche’s bedroom.
It reflects his great interest in both the history of this time and the superb excellence that handcraftsmanship had by now attained in all areas of the visual arts.
The enlightenment is one of those rare historical movements, which in fact named itself.
Everyone was aware a new and glorious age had dawned and Scottish architect Robert Adam (1728-1792) based himself in London following his grand tour to put together a bulging portfolio to answer the architectural aspirations of his clients, although mostly working on their interiors where he excelled.
The idea of the villa, a smaller more compact type of house in the country or city in which privacy, convenience and elegance were more important than parade and magnificence had taken hold by mid century and with the rediscovery of the ancient world a new and vibrant palette of colours were discovered amid the ruins of Rome and Greece.
Lilacs, bright blues from crushing lapis lazuli and greens derived from corroding copper, bright pinks, blacks and most characteristically terracotta red-browns had often been used in combination with black to create a colour scheme dazzling in the extreme.
All of these are evident in David Roche’s fabulous collection of porcelains.
It’s hard to know where to start with these except at the beginning with the German factory of Meissen, the first to make real ‘hard paste’ porcelain in Europe.
It took several years for Saxon porcelain to equal and eventually rival oriental wares. Combining clays from Colditz with calcified alabaster produced the very first examples of white porcelain.
The moment of differentiation between products bearing a resemblance to porcelain and something comparable to the Chinese body so long admired was not a reality until the eighteenth century.
New techniques for polishing and engraving were developed and eventually, with artistic innovation, the appropriate response came from the public and the factory was on its way to success.
The factory soon proved too small and in 1710 it moved to the old fortress at Meissen where European porcelain differed from Far Eastern porcelain by its relatively high proportion of kaolin about 50% against the Chinese of 30%.
In France the study of the ancients influenced the reigns of the ancien regime including Louis XIV 1643-1715 of whom there is a delightful gilded sculptural reminder in the house drawing room – Le Style Baroque (Quatorze).
During the neoclassical period dining rooms instead of being hung with damask, tapestry, etc., were finished in stucco and adorned with statues, paintings and candelabra…so ‘they may not retain the smell of the victuals’.
Gilded bronze was the most important metal and used not only on furniture but also for chenet and brass d’applique.
We could choose to see David Roche’s collection as a group of objects belonging to a very rich man or, alternatively view them as an extraordinary tribute to the talents and skill of each and every one of the many crafts people who gave them form.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016
241 Melbourne Street,
North Adelaide, South Australia
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All images by Carolyn McDowall
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