£40,000 - £60,000
An outstanding mid 19th century 'Exhibition quality' kingwood, tulipwood, walnut, rosewood, ebony and boxwood 'mosaic' inlaid and parquetry centre table by Johann Martin Levien (1811-1871)
Sold upon the instructions of the Trustees of Buckfast Abbey.
Buckfast Abbey, near Buckfastleigh in Devon.
Despite extensive research having been undertaken at the Buckfast Abbey archives, the exact date of acquisition for the offered lot remains unknown.
Importantly however, the current owner is firmly of the view that the present table has been housed in this location for a minimum of seventy-five years.
A catalogue for the 1855 Exposition Universelle in Paris was published by the British committee with the support of the Board of Trade*, then led by Sir Henry Cole. Within this catalogue Johann Martin Levien's cabinet making firm features prominently in the form of a full page advertisement on page sixty-seven, which specifically mentions Levien's 'new kind of... mosaic wood-work.'.
Notably a 'mosaic table' is specifically listed therein alongside the original entry number 1686 (later inexplicably altered to number 2771 by the French committee). Although there is no evidence to suggest that this 'mosaic table' is in fact the offered lot, or indeed even a table of conforming design, it seems highly probable that the present model is nonetheless very similar to the one documented at the Paris Exhibition. Or at the very least it is a table employing a closely related type of inlay.
Of further interest, and arguably of greater significance, is an engraved plate showing an intricate pattern for a virtually identical table top to that on the offered version. This plate appears in a booklet which was published by Levien in 1861 under the title: 'The Woods of New Zealand and their Adaptability to Art Furniture, Fig. XII.
In terms of design, the present lot appears to be closely related to a drawing of circa 1847 executed by Desire Guilmard, which features in either Le Garde Meuble or L'Ameublement et Utile. This example in turn is most likely after an 1838 design for a Grecian revival centre table by Richard Bridgens that was published in Furniture and Candelabra, pl. 16.
Johann Martin Levien
Levien, who was born in Barth on the Baltic Coast (located in present-day Germany), served as a youthful apprentice to a cabinet maker there, before travelling extensively throughout much of Europe. Visiting such countries as Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Russia, his itinerant lifestyle was only made possible in that period of relative peace and stability following the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars and the 1815 Treaty of Paris.
After a voyage to Brazil in 1837, Johann Martin Levien took the bold decision to establish himself in Pernambuco as a cabinet maker and dealer in all manner of woods. Despite constantly having to battle with the excessively hot and humid climate, Johann thereafter temporarily re-located to Rio de Janeiro for the next five months in order to amass a plethora of wood samples from within the Amazon rainforest. However it appears that the trade in South American timbers, or even goods incorporating these exotic woods, was already by that time so competitive that it represented too challenging a task for a newcomer such as Levien to break into that particular market. As a consequence he chose instead to board an English ship destined for New Zealand.**
Johann Martin arrived in Wellington, on the northern island of New Zealand, in 1840. Although unable to speak either English or the native Maori language he evidently learnt the former rapidly enough to be fluent within twelve months.*** Also in the same year (1841), the assiduous German oversaw the construction of both his home and a site for his new business, the latter of which was built for the primary purpose of manufacturing furniture. During his time in New Zealand Johann expanded his collection of specimens by means of sourcing excellent examples of timber from the forests in New Zealand, which had largely remained untouched up until that time.
Even in the space of just a couple of years, his enterprise had prospered so much that a local article from 1843 informed its readers that:
'Mr Levien... has been industriously employed in proving the value of our forests, by working native woods in all descriptions of furniture. His work is beautifully executed, and his prices moderate... we are also glad to find a considerable quantity of furniture wood being shipped by all the vessels now proceeding from this port to England. Mr Levien... proceeds in the brig Victoria to London, with a view of establishing a warehouse for the manufacture and sale of New Zealand wood...'****
It is not known why, but Johann Martin never returned to New Zealand after journeying to London. However a large part of the reason for this must have been just how quickly both he and his company received such significant acclaim once operations had in fact moved to London. At New Zealand Company on Broad Street Levien not only set up workshops for the production of his furniture, but he also developed the use of the firm's main room in order to properly display their 'wares'.
The first major client of the Broad Street establishment was Johann's compatriot, Christian Charles Josias von Bunsen (1791-1860). The latter, who served as the Prussian ambassador to the Court of St. James and was later honoured with the title Baron von Bunsen, became a close acquaintance of the revered cabinet maker*****. The impact of Levien's output must have been significant since Johann Martin was subsequently recommended by the Baron to provide some furniture for Frederick William IV, King of Prussia.
At about the same time - 5 August 1846 to be precise - a Royal appointment was bestowed upon Levien by Queen Victoria, and this privilege was triumphantly documented by "The London Sun" on 22 August in the following way:
'"We are happy to announce that Her Majesty has been pleased to confer upon Mr Levien the appointment of cabinet-maker to her Majesty, in token of the very elegant specimens of workmanship made by him... Her Majesty the Queen was the first to patronise him. And he has secured great favour with Her Majesty by his workmanship, his skill, and his woods."'
Then, in 1848, Johann Levien received both a gold medal and a Royal appointment from the King of Prussia. Such honours clearly drew the attention of various distinguished people including those holding influential positions, as well as attracting a wealthy and sophisticated clientele. His most important patrons, aside from foreign ambassadors and members of the Prussian court, largely comprised noblemen and affluent individuals resident in England such as Baron Rothschild, Stewart Marjoribanks, Lord Ilchester, John Abel Smith and Lord Ingestre. Indeed 1848 was an especially successful year for the Levien company which meant that they were able to re-establish themselves at 10 Davies Street, in Grosvenor Square. Significantly this address is the one which appears on the two maker's stamps on the offered table.
The German aristocrat, Baron von Stockmar (1787-1863)******, who was a confidant of Prince Albert, wrote a letter on 14 June 1858 to Johann Martin upon behalf of the former Princess Victoria who, by the time of this particular correspondence, was engaged to Prince Frederick William, Crown Prince of Prussia. It communicates Princess Victoria's sincere gratitude for, and genuine appreciation of, a piece of furniture presented by the cabinet maker. Clearly it was something so revered that Her Royal Highness instructed it to be among those treasured objects formally accepted upon the day of her official marriage to Prince Frederick William.
Despite his prolific output and wide renown, very few recorded or stamped examples of furniture made by the Levien firm are known to exist or remain. However by the time the German ebeniste had retired and sold the business in 1868, hundreds of pieces must have been produced in his name. Yet, it does seem highly likely that a great deal of furniture was left unsigned or unmarked, whilst much of it went on to be sold by retailers such as R. Lucas & Co., located on South Audley Street.
Unfortunately there seems to be virtually no available information regarding Johann Martin Levien's private life, or even his personality, except for one wonderful snippet from an 1861 newspaper which perhaps explains why this is indeed the case anyway:
'Mr Levien, we were pleased to see, is one of those quiet unassuming men whose sole pleasure consists in carrying out a favourite idea, regardless of reward, and the frowns and the smiles of the world.'*******
* The catalogue presented at the 1855 Paris Exhibition by the British committee was bilingual; being printed in French as well as English which was highly unusual at that time.
** Sir Henry Brett, White Wings, published 1924 and 1928, Auckland; Brett documents twelve immigrant ships arriving in New Zealand in 1840 with a total of 1,400 passengers, who were mainly of Scottish descent.
***+**** M. Levien, The Connoisseur, January 1986, Vol. 191, Issue 767.
***** Baron von Bunsen was a pre-eminent scholar in philology, comparative religion and linguistics. He was chosen personally by Queen Victoria to be the Prussian ambassador to the Royal Court.
****** His full name was Christian Friedrich Freiherr von Stockmar and, as well as being closely acquainted with Prince Albert, Stockmar was physician to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha during the period of the latter's marriage to Princess Charlotte, who was William IV's only daughter.
******* Illustrated News of the World, London, 4 May 1861.
We would like to thank Christopher Foley for his extensive research on this table.