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Masterpieces of the Zuloaga family courtesy of a Middle-Eastern millionaire

From gunmakers to silversmiths

London

The damascened trinkets sold on the streets of Toledo today lead to the popular belief that Spanish metalworkers have excelled in this intricate decorative technique since the Middle Ages. An intriguing exhibition in the Silver Galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum (until 11 January 1998) sets the record straight. Lost for centuries, the art of damascening (which involves inlaying precious metals with a wavy design) was reinvented in the nineteenth century by the Zuloaga family of Eibar in the Basque region of Spain.

Now almost forgotten, Placidio Zuloaga was once a household name whose work won prizes at the great international exhibitions of the 1850s and 1860s. Furniture and decorative trinkets made in this technique became so popular that several factories sprang up in Spain—Toledo being one of the principal centres of production after Eibar—and Zuloaga’s products were exported all over the world.

The Zuloaga family had been associated with gun-making since the seventeenth century and the Royal Armoury at Madrid contained one of the most important collections of medieval and Renaissance armour in Europe. Joseph Bonaparte’s decision to turn the armoury into a ball-room during the French occupation of Spain meant that the collection had been stored in inadequate conditions for thirty years, and Placidio and his father Eusebio were called upon to restore it in the 1840s.

Placidio learnt his craft through studying these fine Renaissance pieces and by spending several years in Paris with Lepage, the leading gunmaker, and Michel Liénard, the designer and sculptor. He returned fully versed in the neo-Renaissance style, which, together with the Spanish Moresque style, was the dominating design source for his work.

At the 1862 International Exhibition held in London, Zuloaga landed a major patron, the collector and connoisseur. Alfred Morrison, whose patronage guaranteed the success of his new workshop.

With the exception of a few pieces belonging to the V&A, purchased directly from Zuloaga in the nineteenth century, most of the works in this exhibition are drawn from the collection of Iranian-born, London-based, David Nasser Khalili, better known for his huge collection of Islamic works of art. But Mr Khalili has also revealed a taste for highly wrought decorative works from other cultures, and he recently exhibited his late, Meiji-period Japanese works of art in the British Museum. Zuloaga’s work has the attraction of being both ornate and in a style which often derives from Islamic ornamentation. Mr Khalili owns the two virtuoso pieces made by Zuloaga for Morrison: the so-called Fonthill Casket, a massive chest based on a Renaissance cassone (it takes three men merely to lift the lid safely) and a large pair of vases in the Moresque style and based on the so-called Alhambra vases.

Whether or not such intricate examples of high Victorian historicism fit with today’s taste, these objects look superb in the setting of the restored Silver Galleries. Their elaborately painted ceilings recall the international nature of design in the Victorian period, when Renaissance ornament was much-imitated all over Europe.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'From gunmakers to silversmiths'