Saturday, February 1, 2014

Her Majesty's Furniture: The Coburg Sideboard, 1851

Germany, 1850-1851
The Victoria & Albert Museum

Oh, Prince Albert…you can take the boy out of Germany, but you can’t take the Germany out of the boy. Though courtiers suggested to Queen Victoria that her Consort might want to tone down the whole, “I’m a foreign prince” schtick at various points, Prince Albert was unabashedly German in almost every way. Though Prince Albert’s pre-Victoria life was actually kind of terrible and sad, after his marriage he romanticized Germany and his boyhood and developed a rather peculiar tie to all of the things which he ignored when he actually lived in Germany.

So, by 1851, when the Prince’s baby, “The Great Exhibition” had launched, he was keen to make sure that Germany was represented. And, then, came this sideboard and its heavily carved brethren. Ferdinand Rothbart (1823-1899), a German furniture maker, presented a handsome suite of furniture at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Rothbart was assisted by one Th. Kolb whose history is all but lost now. The suite included four chairs among other objects which were all manufactured by Thomas Hoffmeister and Thomas Behrens in Coburg, Germany around 1850.

The entire lot was commissioned by the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg. Just for the record, let’s not forget that Albert was the Prince of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (which was, by the way, the official name of the Royal Family from Victoria’s 1840 marriage until King George V changed it to “Windsor” on July 17, 1917 during the First World War when there was, understandably, some anti-German sentiment).

After the Exhibition, and after the sideboard—the most admired piece of the lot—was awarded an “Honourable Mention” by the juries there, Prince Albert bought the whole lot, intending to use the pieces in Balmoral Castle. However, during the construction of the new castle at Balmoral, the furnishings were taken to the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh where it was used in the Evening Drawing Room. Evidently, Albert changed his mind and the suite never made it to Balmoral. It remained in Holyroodhouse until 1923 when Queen Mary donated the furnishings to the University of Edinburgh. I find this rather queer as it’s the first time I ever heard of Queen Mary donating anything to anyone. She much preferred having people donate things to her. I suspect, however, that these pieces weren’t really Mary’s cup of tea. She, too, at times tried to distance herself from her German roots. After all, aside from being related to Prince Albert as well, she was also the daughter of the uber-German Duke of Teck. Perhaps she just didn’t want these pieces around. The University grew tired of the suite as well, and, in 1967, donated the lot to the V&A which seems quite content to have it. 

This particular sideboard was described in the 1851 Exhibition catalog as being “in the German-Gothic style of the middle ages.” Well, yes, it is. It’s quite Gothic—complete with ogival arches and repeated motifs similar to Gothic window tracery. The door panels are deeply carved with hunting scenes and motifs. The central doors depict a group of deer in a woodland setting. These are flanked by figures of men with spears, knives and bugles. Boars and bears round out the theme. The whole of the reverse is covered in deep, plush, red velvet, which, where exposed, is faded to brown.

No comments: