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The Artful Traveler: Thomas Hope, Regency Reformer and Educator

Bard1-Bobbie Leigh

It might have been Oscar Wilde who famously said: "Gentlemen don’t wear green." Thomas Hope had similar restrictions not about menswear, but walls. For Hope, green should never be the color of interior walls. It was deemed inappropriate, a crude and unnecessary imitation of nature.

Thomas Hope (1769-1831), connoisseur collector, designer, author and ardent admirer of all things classical, had many design ideas that still reverberate today. He was a champion of context, insisting that art should be displayed in relationship to its setting, connected to the colors, textures, and other decorative features in the room where they were featured. In his "Picture Gallery," Hope created a Greek revival interior complete with Doric columns to complement his classical collection. His "Indian Room" was covered with Persian carpets and featured a trellis- work ceiling displaying foliage, flowers, and peacock feathers. Not one to harness his enthusiasms, Hope even placed incense burners there whose aromas wafted through the room.

To encourage and influence the London public, Hope opened his Duchess Street house in London to the upper classes so they could see the art and artifacts he collected on his world tour as a young man. He and his wife Louisa were taste arbiters of their day and wanted to educate the English to be more resourceful (like the French) when it came to quality workmanship and handling light, color, and the use of mirrors to create magical settings. Hope did not follow his context ideas slavishly. He often mixed classic Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Ottoman pieces with contemporary French Empire furniture and decorative arts, a signature of Regency design. (Regency period is roughly the time (1811-1820) when "mad" King George III’s son, waited to become George IV. It continued through the 1830s.)

Image03_full_2 Hope’s ebullient designs, especially bronze and gilded furniture, has always had its admirers, and many examples of Regency furniture that appear at auction today are modeled after Hope’s drawings from his 1807 epic work, "Household Furniture. "

A talented artist, Hope’s publications influenced many imitators, making it difficult to differentiate Hope originals from copies. The Duchess House no longer exists but fortunately the London townhouse of his friend, architect Sir John Soane, is still intact with its eclectic assortment of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian works. It is well worth visiting at 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Sadly, all we have of Hope’s immense contribution to interior design is an exhibition at Bard Graduate Center on New York’s West Side on view through November 16th. It is the first time that Hope’s collection of furniture, paintings, books, statues, and decorative arts has been exhibited since the family heir’s sold the collection at auction in 1917.

Hope7 The standout of the show is an exhibit of some of the pieces from Hope’s Egyptian Room where he combined his Egyptian sculpture with contemporary furniture. A settee and two armchairs, painted in black and gilded with bronze mounts on view here were originally in his Duchess house, featured along with black marble canopic jars, a child’s mummy case, and an alabaster figure of a pharaoh, encircled by a large, classical frieze. Anyone tired of white walls and stark rooms may well be inspired by Hope’s insistence on high quality, vivid colors and textures, and a willingness to mix old and new for dramatic effect. According to Philip-Hewat Jaboor, a London art consultant and one of the curators of the show, Hope’s great contribution was to "look at classical antiquity, mainly Greek rather than Roman, as the apogee of great style and design, and reinterpret those lessons in new, modern, up-to-date ways."

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On view through November 16. Bard Graduate Center, 18 West 86th Street, between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue, 212-501-3000.

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