Rock-and-Rollers and hippies have long had a soft spot for the decorative appeal of William Morris’s Gothic Revival, with its fair-haired maidens in flowing robes and its air of medieval mysticism. So it is not surprising that when Paul Reeves decided in 1973 to break out of designing avant-garde clothes for David Bowie, Led Zeppelin and The Who, he started selling Arts-and-Crafts furniture to some of the most famous musicians of the day, including George Harrison and Roger Daltrey.
Mr Reeves has organised a week-long selling exhibition and an auction at Sotheby’s next month. They will show just what a good eye he has, and how crucial he has been in encouraging furniture collectors to buy British design from the Gothic Revival onwards, a turning point in western architecture and interior design. About 120 items from Mr Reeves’s personal collection will be for sale at fixed prices. Another 120 pieces from other collectors—many of whom originally bought them from Mr Reeves—will be sold at auction.
Many of the period’s best works found their way to America. Mr Reeves helped collectors and museums alike—including the Getty brothers, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Wolfonsian-Florida International University Museum in Miami Beach—build substantial collections of fine 19th- and 20th-century British design, centred around such luminaries as A.W.N. Pugin, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Ernest Race and William Morris.
Mr Reeves initially faced a small market, but as this work has become more popular, prices have risen dramatically. A magnificent Anglo-Japanese sideboard by Edward William Godwin, an architect and designer who built houses for Oscar Wilde and James Whistler, sold last year for nearly £1m ($1.9m) to the Art Institute of Chicago.
Next month’s sale features a number of Godwin pieces, including an ebonised hanging bookcase, estimated at £60,000-80,000, and an ebonised chair, estimated at £10,000-12,000. But the star piece will undoubtedly be “The Quest for the Holy Grail: The Achievement” (pictured), a 25-foot (7.7-metre) tapestry based on the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Designed by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, a leading pre-Raphaelite artist, and woven by William Morris, it represents one of the two artists’ principal collaborations.
William Knox D’Arcy, an Australian mining engineer, commissioned the tapestry in 1890. It was the most important piece in a set of six hangings made for the dining room of his grand house, Stanmore Hall, on the outskirts of London.
It has only been sold twice: once in 1920 after D’Arcy died, when the whole set was sold to the Duke of Westminster, and again in 1978, when the current duke sold three of the hangings, thus breaking up the set. On that occasion, Mr Reeves bought “The Achievement” and one of the other pieces for Jimmy Page, Led Zeppelin’s guitarist. The third hanging, which is much smaller than “The Achievement”, was sold again at Christie’s in 2004 for nearly £390,000.
“The Achievement”, which Mr Page is selling because it is too big to fit into his new home, is expected to fetch more than £1m. Nothing like that price has ever been paid for a Burne-Jones tapestry, but there are many reasons why this piece will be eagerly fought over. “The Quest for the Holy Grail” was woven in several editions, one as late as the 1920s.
But only the original set, of which this is the most important piece, retains the lovely details of Burne-Jones’s faces and hands. In the later editions, the shading is far more generic, giving the tapestries a blander look. Even the carpet of flowers in the foreground, which had been traced for the weavers’ guidance by Morris’s assistant, J.H. Dearle, is virtually unrecognisable.
Burne-Jones resented Dearle’s floral foregrounds, complaining that they cluttered up his designs. No one, however, could deny their botanical accuracy. In 1895, soon after the tapestries were completed, D’Arcy’s gardener, a man by the wonderful name of W. Tidy, studied Dearle’s flowers and was able to identify every one: daffodil, saponaira, campanula, dianthus, foxglove, hawkweed, tulip, convolvulus, snowdrop, lychnis, winter aconite, celandine and poppy. Such intricate details make this particular work a glory of its kind.
“The Best of British: Design from the 19th and 20th Centuries” will be on view at Sotheby’s from March 14th. The auction is on March 20th.
in The Economist