Elemental Enlightenment | A Unique Collection Comes to English & Continental Auction
Freeman’s is pleased to to offer a unique single owner collection of Blue John, including fine urns, columns and even 19th century hand warmers each crafted from a highly decorative and beautifully colored example of this rare material in our upcoming auction English & Continental Furniture & Decorative Arts. The study of geology, a term first used in 1735 to describe the study of the earth, was of great interest to the gentleman scholars of the Enlightenment. The new minerals and materials they found and classified impacted both industry and the arts. Of particular significance was the sighting of a new type of fluorospar called Blue John; first discovered in 1700 and mined in the 1760s Blue John quickly became a highly valued commodity favored by the most celebrated architects and artists working in the Neoclassical period.
Unique to the Castleton region of Derbyshire, Blue John is formed in veins where small amounts of sandstone, granite and millstone grit from the Northern Pennines had once flowed between the cracks of the limestone slabs of the southern Peak District. Its appearance varies widely but is largely characterized by a striking combination of shades of purple, blue white and yellow; fourteen different veins have been named. Though it is typically only found in small deposits, no greater than four inches wide, the mineral’s decorative appearance quickly made it a favored material of Neoclassical architects and designers who used Blue John to create fashionable decorative objects such as urns, obelisks and vases for England’s most notable country houses and royal palaces.
One of the earliest exponents of Blue John was Matthew Boulton, who learned of the new material through the geologic studies he pursued with the Lunar Soceity. Founded in Birmingham in the 1760s, the soceity was composed of scholars and thinkers from a variety of fields including Boulton, James Watt, James Keir, Josiah Wedgwood and Erasmus Darwin among others. Using their diverse skills they embarked upon various collaborations in an effort to maximise the commercial and industrial potentials of the new minerals and soils they were studying, an endeavour they pursued with great success. Experimentations by Keir and Wedgwood led to significant innovation in English pottery; working together they studied a vareity of materials from the Derbyshire region, performing over 5000 experiments on the materials before finally developing a formula for Wedgwood’s well known Jasper ware that could sustain the high heat of the kiln without cracking. Around the same time, Erasmus Darwin’s explorations of Treak Cliff and Blue John Cavern gave members of the group impetus to start working with the new flurospar they were beginning to mine in Derbyshire in the 1760s.
Matthew Boulton became particularly known for his use of Blue John, a material he so took to that he attempted to purchase the Blue John mines in 1768. Though he did not acquire the monopoly he desired, he did order fourteen tons of Blue John the following year to craft into the ormolu mounted vases he had begun creating for his royal and aristocratic patrons. In a letter to his wife from 1771, Boulton records a visit to George III and his wife, where “the Queen sent for me into her bed chamber, shewed me her chyney [chimeny] piece and asked me how many vases it would take to furnish it, for she says all that china shall be taken away.” Within a fortnight, he had arranged for seven or eight Blue John vases to be sent to the palace.
Blue John was also used to create a variety of objects suited to the coordinated architectural structures and interiors of the Neoclassical structures being built at the time, particularly those by Robert Adam. Obelisks, columns and urns were fashioned to decorate the new homes being built by the gentleman scholars who had completed the Grand Tour and returned with an interest in the civilizations of Antiquity. A contemporaneous vogue for the display of architectural models based on examples of classically inspired buildings erected during the Renaissance also served as a visual reminder of the link between the scholars, artists and rational thinkers of the 15th and 18th centuries who had looked to Antiquity for beauty and order.
Despite its immense popularity, the limited quantities of this unique mineral eventually led to restrictions on its mining, dwindling from 20 tons allowed per year in the late 18th century to just three tons by 1892. Consequently works in Blue John are highly valued for both their beauty and rarity and are most often found in museum collections and historic residences including the Royal Palaces of London, Lauriston Castle in Edinburgh and the collections of great country houses including Chatsworth House, Kedleston Hall, and Osterley Park. Freeman’s is pleased to have the opportunity to offer this unique single owner collection of Blue John, including fine urns, columns and even 19th century hand warmers each crafted from a highly decorative and beautifully colored example of this rare material in our October 6 auction of English & Continental Furniture & Decorative Arts. We invite you to join us on Friday, October 2 when exhibition for this sale opens to the public.
Lot 2: Fine Regency blue john campagna form urn on pedestal, early 19th century. Estimate $4,000-6,000
Lot 11: Pair of French ormolu mounted blue john urns, mid 19th century. Estimate $5,000-8,000