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Antiques

In reading Penepole Treadwell's book on Johan Zoffany, the German painter who emigrated to England in 1760, I came across an interesting fact that pertains to one of the pieces in my inventory. Eighteenth century England, and Europe for that matter, was filling up fast with clubs.

There were eating and drinking clubs, science clubs, literary clubs, fraternal orders, charities, etc. Zoffany, apparently, was a Freemason and a number of his clients were as well. To wit, he painted portraits of them that included numerous symbols of Freemasonry.

To quote Ms. Treadwell (p.131) in re to the black and white tiled floor in the portrait of the Earl of Sandwich. "....and, above all, introducing a pattern of black and white floor tiles. This is perhaps a common enough element in Italian and Northern European paintings, but it is much less so in British art. On the other hand, it plays a crucial role in the iconography of Freemasonry.

Together with the Volume of Sacred Law and the Compasses, the Square forms part of the Three Great Lights, the universal sympbols without which, unless they are present and displayed, no Masonic Lodge is allowed to operate." It just so happens that I have a bureau bookcase in my inventory that has such a pattern in the central section of the bureau which also happens to pull out to reveal a locked door with drawers behind it.

Peter Lang, who used to work at Sotheby's was interested in the patterned floor as he told me that he came across several other bureau bookcases with the same parquetry floor. He said that he was almost certain that all of the bureau bookcases were by Gillows of Lancaster, but he did not know just what it signified. Now we do. The semiotics of any given secret society are always interesting to those not in the society as they represent something hidden and potentially, something powerful. They are also somewhat like a rebus offering clues about that society and, in an odd way, represent an elitism that is seldom justifiable. (I refer to Groucho Marx on that score.)

What is interesting to me is that my bureau was undoubtedly bespoke which accounts for the oddities of it, the Gothick arched glazed doors, the neoclassical urn and the fact that it is solid mahogany, not veneered.

The power of those symbols is largely lost today, but it certainly makes for interesting history.