Timeless Stones and Bronzes: The collection of Philip Hewat Jaboor

Editorial Staff Furniture & Decorative Arts

October 2009 | Philip Hewat-Jaboor, who has formed a rare collection of marbles, porphyry, and other hardstones over thirty years, has recently built an extraordinary skylit library in which they are displayed among his extensive collection of books on all aspects of the decorative arts. Since his relatively modest house on Jersey in the channel Islands did not accommodate itself to the addition of a new room, he decided to replace an ugly garage built into the hillside with a new structure, which was to contain a wine cellar and storage—as well as space for cars and the library. During the early stages of its complicated construction, the hillside collapsed, crushing the steel and forcing a redesign that essentially required constructing the equivalent of an entire underground concrete bunker. Not surprisingly, Hewat-Jaboor is justly proud of the final product, a hidden gem that, with its sloping copper roof patinated to blend in with the hillside, comes as a great surprise to his visitors, who never guess at its existence in close proximity to his house.

As a collector and fine art adviser, Hewat-Jaboor maintains bases in London and New York, but it is at this country retreat where he carries out the research required for his work. Passionate about marbles and hardstones, he is a dedicated and single-minded connoisseur whose interest begins with the whole process of quarrying lumps of rock and stone to be turned into sumptuous objects. On numerous trips to Italy he has learned to admire the skill of those who know how to cut the hardstones to expose different types of figuring, which can be used to represent, for example, the tail of a tiger or the fin of a fish. He also appreciates the great expertise required to polish the stones to bring out their numerous subtle colors: pink, mauve, purple, golden yellow and brown, soft gray, mottled black, and deep green.

At first he intended simply to showcase a marvelous floor made by Marco Paci of the eponymous Florentine marble company in which he is a part owner. But then it occurred to him that it would be most appropriate to dedicate the entire room to the world of colored hardstones and marbles. Not only the floor but the bookcases and the doors are mounted with rare marble specimens (see Figs. 2, 4, 6). Objects already in his collection have been supplemented by rare columns, vases, and the like from several periods—Roman and Byzantine to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. That the library is excavated from the rock of the hillside is most appropriate, for the riches within are all of quarried stone.

The approach is something like that to a tomb filled with treasure. Through a door of patinated copper one enters a small lobby that continues the theme, its walls and ceiling painted with trompe l’oeil Roman ruins (see Figs. 4, 5) that bring to mind the Ruin Room of about 1765 by Charles Louis Clérisseau (1721–1820) in the convent at Trinità dei Monti in Rome.The most opulent and expensive hardstone, partly because it is so difficult to carve, is Egyptian porphyry—the purple color of which made it an imperial symbol of ancient Romans, including Constantine (306–337) and his successors. Thus, the pavement of Constantine’s early Basilica di San Pietro in Vaticano contained large porphyry roundels. Porphyry was quarried by the Romans from the late first century to the mid-fifth century in the mountains east of the Nile, northeast of Luxor. Oddly, it was seldom used by the ancient Egyptians themselves, who preferred other indigenous stones, such as granite, basalt, and alabaster. Hewat-Jaboor’s collection is rich in all these materials as well as porphyry.The Roman site of the porphyry quarries in Egypt, the Mons Porphyrites (today Gebel Abu Dukhan), was forgotten for centuries after it was abandoned between about 350 and 450. As a symbol of light, wisdom, virtue, and power, however, porphyry again came to be appreciated by medieval and Renaissance patrons (particularly the Medici in Florence), whose designers used miscellaneous fragments and ruined and excavated column shafts for panels and revetment slabs, sawing up the material to serve as architectural veneers and inlays and incorporated into bishops’ thrones.

The oldest object in Hewat-Jaboor’s collection is a predynastic andesite porphyry vase of about 3000 bc, an object that had no function in life but was made for a tomb. It is fourth from the left on top of the bookshelf in Figure 12; to its left is an Egyptian alabaster canopic jar of about 600 bc with a lid carved to represent the head of the deity Imsety, one of the four sons of Horus and guardian of the liver, which would have been placed in this jar after the body had been embalmed. Both of these objects have the exceptionally beautiful coloring and polished shine of materials that will last as long as the world: to contemplate them is intensely moving.

Among the objects made of Egyptian porphyry are a Roman amphora of about 1700 (atop the column in the foreground of Fig. 11); a late eighteenth-century Italian green diorite covered urn (atop the column in Fig. 8); and a rare Byzantine tapering colonnette in green porphyry from Greece, known as serpentine, of the fourth or fifth century (on top of the bookshelf to the right of the door in Fig. 2). One of the most eloquent objects of imperial Egyptian porphyry is a large irregular fragment taken from a quarry in the second century but never turned into an object, so that it brings alive the whole story of the use of porphyry from the stand on which Hewat-Jaboor displays it (see Fig. 2, far right on shelf).

There are also Roman funerary objects of the first or second century here (see Fig. 4), including a marble columbarium tablet inscribed “Publicia Chrestina, freedwoman, set this up for herself and her husband … a money collector”; a funeral altar, or stele, inscribed “To the departed spirits of Secunda Pious, mother of Saturnus, made by freedman of Augustus”; and a white marble cinerarium with a lid of two triangular pediments carved with birds eating fruit from a tree, a familiar theme on monuments connected with the afterlife (see Fig. 13). Also ancient Roman is a column of brèche violette marble and a pair of columns of grayish pink fior di pesco marble, probably reworked in the seventeenth century (visible in Figs. 2, right, and 8, left, respectively). Early Christian objects include a fifth-century green serpentine capital carved with palm fronds (Fig. 9), and, visible above the door in Figure 2, an Istrian eighth-century carved basanite lintel for a church with a frieze of birds and animals among scrolled foliage.

Hewat-Jaboor’s collection includes two fascinating survivals from the seventeenth century. The first is a pair of sumptuously bound books containing samples of rich marbles, jaspers, alabasters, and hardstones assembled by Leone Strozzi (1652–1722), a passionate collector of stones, that was included in the recent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Art of the Royal Court: Treasures in Pietre Dure from the Palaces of Europe.1 The other is a Roman ebony and pietre dure house altar of about 1640, an architectural frame originally designed to hold a devotional picture in a private oratory but now containing an amethyst panel (Fig. 7). Incorporating lapis lazuli, agate, jasper, and colored marbles, it also contains inlaid silver stringing, engraved gilt brass, rock crystal, tortoiseshell, and golden yellow jasper from Sicily. The similarly polychromatic effects of the now lost marble interiors of imperial Roman buildings can be appreciated from a re-creation in the crypt of Santi Luca e Martina near the Arch of Septimius Severus, designed by Pietro da Cortona (1596–1669) at the same time as Hewat-Jaboor’s house altar. Its walls are lined with numerous different marbles in a rich variety of colors and patterns, an effect the more powerful for being in deliberate contrast to Cortona’s white stucco interior of the church above.Turning to the world of the eighteenth-century grand tour, we find, on the bookshelf at the right in Figure 2, a handsome white marble bust of Bacchus attributed to Bartolomeo Cavaceppi (c. 1716–1799) and incorporating ancient work, such as the finely drilled hair interspersed with bunches of grapes associated with the god of wine, but possibly dating entirely from the seventeenth century. A late eighteenth-century Roman two-handled vase of porfido laterizio marble, visible at the far right in Figure 12, displays an amazing range of mingled mauves, browns, and grays. No less striking is another Roman vase, this one dating to about 1800 and made of Africano marble with its mottled blend of subtle colors (see Fig. 6). A small marble version of the so-called sarcophagus of Marcus Agrippa was acquired in the early nineteenth century for Scone Palace, seat of the earls of Mansfield near Perth, Scotland (Fig. 12, far left on the bookcase). The original “sarcophagus” was an ancient red porphyry bath that was in the piazza and then the portico of the Pantheon but was taken to San Giovanni in Laterano in 1734 to serve as the tomb of Pope Clement XII.

There are also superb bronzes in the collection. Several are supported on brackets in a small lobby off the far end of the library (Fig. 10) in a display inspired by that in Thorvaldsens Museum in Copenhagen that shows off the collection of ancient sculptures assembled by Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770–1844), some of which inspired his own work. Bronze masterpieces in Hewat-Jaboor’s collection include an archer with flayed skin standing with arm outstretched, northern Italian, 1550 to 1600, with a rich, reddish brown patina, at the top middle in Figure 10; and, below it to the right, a version of the Hellenistic Laocoön, made about 1700 before the restorations to the original in 1725. Also notable is (atop the cupboard) a bronze Prometheus, a late seventeenth-century French work attributed to François Lespingola (1644–1705), in which the reclining figure of Prometheus is having his liver plucked out by an eagle as Jupiter’s punishment for having stolen fire from the gods to give to mankind.

Hewat-Jaboor is unusual in not merely collecting hardstone objects but commissioning new work in this material. A stunning example is, of course, the floor of the library, ultimately inspired by the eighteenth-century floor in the Galleria degli Imperatori at the Villa Borghese in Rome. Hewat-Jaboor’s floor incorporates large sheets of Egyptian alabaster with beautiful figuring, mined about fifty years ago and most unusual because pieces of this size are easily friable. It is surrounded by panels of rare black porphyry, dark green and gray granito verde fiorito della sedia di San Lorenzo, granito bianco e nero, green verde antico, oblong panels of brèche violette, and oval-ended panels of imperial Egyptian and green serpentine. These surrounding panels are themselves divided by bands of golden yellow giallo antico, and narrow borders of black Belgian marble. The floor of the lobby containing the bronzes is formed with triangular- and diamond-shaped pieces of green serpentine, yellow giallo antico, and red porphyry, a pattern recalling Cosmati mosaics. Indeed, displayed in the main room is a small piece of Cosmati mosaic from the Early Christian Basilica di San Paolo fuori Le Mura in Rome. An inscription on it records that it was taken from the church after the disastrous fire of 1823 that largely destroyed it.
A fascinating demonstration of the revival of the art of hardstone carving in the twentieth century is a set of six libation bowls by Stephen Cox of 1989 in pegmatite, basalt, white diorite, green serpentine, imperial porphyry, and in a breccia from Wadi Hammamat (see Figs. 12, 13).

The room piles richness on richness, for rare marbles are mounted on all the doors and the friezes of the bookcases are set with samples of Italian breccias. The centerpiece of the room is a superb Roman pietre dure tabletop of about 1580 set on a base specially commissioned by Hewat-Jaboor and designed by the French architect and designer Pierre-Hervé Walbaum. And there is more richness to come, for on the table is a magnificent George III gilt- and patinated-bronze candelabrum of about 1770. Its three-legged stand is after a design by James “Athenian” Stuart (1713–1788) for restoring the tripod surmounting the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens. This and the bowl it supports are probably by Diedrich Nicolaus Anderson (active 1760–1767), while the early nineteenth-century candle branches are attributed to Benjamin Lewis Vulliamy (1780–1854). The furniture in the room also includes a French mahogany Empire sofa by Georges and François Honoré Georges Jacob-Desmalter, and a magnificent pair of gilded armchairs with sphinx arms of about 1800 to 1810 after a design by Lorenzo (1783–1839) and Dionisio Santi (active 1809–1830) (see Figs. 2, 12). In 1816 William Beckford bought the chairs in Paris at the sale of Joseph, Cardinal Fesch, and placed them in the grand drawing room of his house Fonthill Abbey, from where they were sold in 1823.2 Most appropriately, Beckford, who formed one of the greatest collections of pietre dure of his day in England, was the subject of William Beckford (1760–1844): An Eye for the Magnificent, a major exhibition held in 2001 and 2002 that Hewat-Jaboor conceived and brought to fruition.

1 Wolfram Koeppe and Annamaria Giusti, Art of the Royal Court: Treasures in Pietre Dure from the Palaces of Europe (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and Yale University Press, New Haven, 2008), No. 145.
2 William Beckford (1760–1844): An Eye for the Magnificent, ed. Derek E. Ostergard (Yale University Press, New Haven, 2001), p. 336.

DAVID WATKIN is a professor of the history of architecture at the University of Cambridge.