A one-of-a-kind piece of furniture decorated with ancient lava from an Italian volcano has become part of the historic collection at a Leeds mansion.
Commissioned by one of the nation’s greatest antiques collectors Charles Townley in around 1770, The Townley Commode – an elaborate cabinet – has gone on display at Temple Newsam House thanks to generous support from the Leeds Art Fund.
Among the most eminent antiquarians of his day, the eclectic Townley was a prolific traveller and museum pioneer, who purchased a table top made of specimens of lava from Mount Vesuvius as a souvenir during the first of several jaunts to Italy.
Keen to incorporate his precious find into a piece worthy of his collection, he commissioned a London cabinetmaker to craft the commode using tulipwood, sycamore, amaranth and satinwood. It is inlaid with flamboyant figures copied from classical paintings found at the famed archaeological site of Herculaneum and topped with his volcanic Italian memento.
Adam Toole, curator at Temple Newsam House, said: “This is a truly unique piece of furniture both in its remarkable design and the story it tells about the exploits of its extraordinary former owner.
“Charles Townley amassed a spectacular collection of antiquities and became one of the country’s most esteemed and respected authorities on Roman sculpture. His voracious appetite for ancient history also saw him become a trustee of the British Museum, which his sculpture collection calls home today. He even opened his own innovative museum in his London home, where he encouraged his contemporaries to think about and explore the past in new ways.
“It’s extremely rare to find a piece of furniture which so perfectly embodies the life, passion and personality of an individual and we’re immeasurably grateful to the Leeds Art Fund for their support in bringing this beautiful piece to Temple Newsam.”
The Townley Commode was thought have been lost to the nation since 1947, having entered the collection of noted New York hostess Mrs Henry Ford II.
But her estate was recently sold, giving Temple Newsam a once-in-a-lifetime chance to acquire the piece, which would not have been possible without the Leeds Art Fund meeting the full cost.
Mark Westgarth, Chair of the Leeds Art Fund, said: “The Leeds Art Fund are absolutely delighted to support the acquisition of the Townley Commode for the collections at Temple Newsam and to ensure that this highly important object is accessible to the public.
“The LAF has been supporting Leeds Museums and Galleries for more than 100 years and this new acquisition, using funds from the Hurst Bequest, builds on this long held relationship with Leeds Museums. We very much look forward to continuing to support Leeds Museums and Galleries and art and culture in Leeds in the future.”
The commode is now on display at Temple Newsam alongside a number of other prestigious items of furniture including Chippendale’s famous Harewood writing table and John Channon’s huge mahogany cabinet, with hidden drawers designed to conceal aristocrats’ love notes and treasures.
Councillor Jonathan Pryor, Leeds City Council’s executive member for economy, culture and education, said: “Leeds is home to so many treasures which we can proudly say can be found nowhere else in the world and it’s incredible to welcome yet another extraordinary piece of history to the city.
“The strength of our collection is a massive endorsement of the collaboration and partnership work which takes place across our arts and culture community. Because of that work, hundreds of thousands of visitors have the opportunity to enjoy so many unique experiences year after year.”