The Gilbert Collection - Sir Arthur Gilbert - Somerset House

On 20.01.01 I went to the Gilbert Collection in Somerset House.

The Gilbert Collection is London's newest museum of decorative arts given to the nation in 1996. It is displayed in an existing new space in the restored Embankment Building at Somerset House (the late 18th century architectural masterpiece of Sir William Chambers). The Collection is comprised of 800 breath-taking objects in the fields of English and Continental gold and silver, snuffboxes, Italian micro-mosaics and portrait miniatures, together forming a dazzling spectacle of European craftsmanship.

The Gilbert Collection was formed over four decades in Los Angeles and is entirely the result of Arthur Gilbert's passion in the 60's for collecting English silver and Italian micro-mosaics; he was attracted to the silver because of its artistry and historical associations.

He was born in London in 1913. In 1949 he and his late wife Rosalinde moved to California and there he embarked on a successful career in real estate and started to collect works of art, in the beginning purely for his own pleasure, "I sought only those objects of great beauty, great value and great history". I was speechless with the high standards of the pieces of the collection, especially the pieces from Italy. In all my years of living in Italy, I have never seen such gorgeous micro-mosaics. ("Micro-mosaics", a term coined by Sir Arthur Gilbert, were perfected in Rome in the late 18th Century. They differ from ancient mosaics in that they comprise minute tesserae of opaque coloured glass, frequently with as many as 1,500 tesserae to the square inch. )

In 1996 Arthur Gilbert, captivated by the scale if his vision, gave his Collection to the nation and in 1999 he received Knighthood at the Queen's Birthday Honours for his outstanding generosity. Sir Arthur said, "This collection is the result of my perseverance and trying to achieve the best. I felt it should return to the country of my birth. " (Sir Arthur Gilbert was born on 16 May 1913 and died on 2 September 2001, age 88. )

Amongst the gold and silver items on display are the following: a casting bottle made for sprinkling rose-water through its pierced top; a beautiful partridge of silver and silver-gilt, mother-of-pearl, rubies and emeralds; a "Nef" (the word is from the Medieval French) from Regensburg, Germany; a vessel shaped like a ship used to mark the place of the host or guest-of-honour a table; a magnificent intricate pair of gates presented in 1784 by Catherine the Great to the Monastery of Pechersk Lavra in Kiev. Made in what looks like fine gold lacework they separate - in the Orthodox church - the sanctuary from the nave and symbolise the entrance to the Kingdom of Heaven; a Howdah from Rajasthan, India, of silver, silver-gilt, wood and velvet. A Howdah is a chair for riding on an elephant. The one on display was made for an Indian Maharajah.

One of the snuffboxes show the charming portrait of a dog (a gentleman, to be properly dressed, should have a different snuffbox for every day of the year!!)Snuff is scented and ground tobacco.

Frederick the Great of Prussia ruled from 1740 until his death in 1786 and laid the foundations of modern Germany. Under his regime, Berlin became the centre of patronage with artists, musicians and philosophers from all over Europe being attracted to his court. He certainly left his mark as regards to snuffboxes. He had a passion for them and is said to have owned more than 300.

Also on view is the superb painting Return of their Most Gracious Majesties King William IV and Queen Adelaide to Somerset House, c. 1831, showing how London's Thames was really a thoroughfare of water travel in those days much more so than it is now.

Verinha Ottoni.


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