Research Forum report, June 2007
Sarah Burke’s presentation:

“Variety is the very principle”: Thomas Gambier Parry’s Decorative Arts


Thomas Gambier Parry


Thomas Gambier Parry (1816-1888) was a Victorian collector, many of whose paintings and objets d’art came to the Courtauld Institute in 1966. This essay will focus on his decorative arts using information gleaned from Gambier Parry’s archives: his journals, his receipts, and lists kept for his own records. All of these records belong to Thomas Fenton, Gambier Parry’s heir, and it is with his permission that Caitlin Silberman and I have been able to re-examine the collecting habits of this fascinating man.


Gambier Parry had eclectic interests and a strong sense of civic commitment. A wealthy orphan, he bought his estate at Highnam when he was only twenty-two years old; his art purchases were made with Highnam in mind. He founded a school, a children’s hospital, and a poorhouse for the neediest of his neighbors in Gloucester. He was also on the boards of the local prison and lunatic asylum, and was an active member of the archaeological, choral, and photographic societies. He was president of the local literary and scientific society. Gambier Parry’s lifelong interest in botany demonstrates both his passion for collecting and his interest in variety. He collected pinecones, conifers and ferns, and he founded a pinetum on the Highnam estate. In his journals he often comments on the local flora. For example, he enthuses over multiple discoveries on an 1854 trip to Scotland – “Found phagopteris, holly-fern, oropteris, cystoperis and woodsix!” – with joy similar to his reactions, elsewhere in the journals, to music and art. And, as was the case with art, it was not enough for Gambier Parry to see the ferns: a great part of his joy stemmed from having acquired them. His experimentation in developing the so-called “spirit fresco” technique, through which he hoped to replicate the results of Italian frescoes in the damp English climate, was also a source of pride and pleasure. His son Ernest recalled,


He did it all himself, and great and glorious was the fun when father had a brew in hand of spirit fresco medium. He used to make it out of doors, on the upper or lower terrace, or on the big flagstones outside the garden door near the billiard room. There was risk of the various highly inflammable materials catching light, and only charcoal was used so that there might be no flame. But even then the mixture caught sometimes while he stirred with a long spoon, and then father used to call out – “Mind your eye!” and in fits of laughter himself beat it out.


One of Gambier Parry’s greatest achievements was planning and funding the Church of the Holy Innocents at Highnam; in April 1851 it was dedicated to the memory of his first wife, Isabella, and several children they had lost before her untimely death. Gambier Parry painted the nave of this church, as well as subsequent commissions including the nave and octagon at Ely Cathedral, using the spirit fresco technique. His curiosity about churches was fed by his frequent trips to continental Europe. In his journals, Gambier Parry often remarks on local practice and mentions that he is reading commentary on the continental manifestations of Catholicism (Gambier Parry considered himself an Anglo-Catholic and was a member of the Ecclesiological Society). He also pays close attention to religious architecture. After his graduation from Cambridge in 1836 he traveled with a friend, Robert Bateson, and wrote the first of the journals in this archive. A twenty-year-old Gambier Parry enthusiastically records and critiques various European cathedrals. About Strasbourg Cathedral he writes, “It is a perfect…model, inside and out, of elegance and taste; it is composed of many parts of different styles, but all combine to make the whole more beautiful and pleasing from the consequent variety.” This early interest in cathedrals surely informed his decision to construct his own church. The diverse array of decorative arts in his collection attests to Gambier Parry’s continued interest in “variety”.


Collecting Habits



Standing in Room 1 of the Courtauld Galleries it would be easy to consider Gambier Parry primarily a collector of fine trecento and quattrocento Italian paintings; some of his best ivories and enamels are also on display in that gallery, tributes to his excellent taste. But Gambier Parry also showed an early interest in what can best be described as curiosities. For example, price lists for his 1851 travels show that, in Germany, he purchased “2 curious wooden spoons small with quaint animals.” And in Italy he bought “a curious fork and spoon all in one (silver).” The collection still contains an elaborate medieval silver spoon that may have been used for taking Eucharist (O.1966.GP.38).


O.1966.GP.38, a curious medieval spoon


Especially in the earliest years of his collecting, Gambier Parry collected many unique objects that amused or fascinated him – and he seems to have had a minor interest in peculiar silverware!

Gambier Parry’s interest in curiosities was surely connected to his interest in the picturesque. His collecting habits were informed by his travels, and his collector’s eye was the same eye he used to paint watercolors wherever he went. For example, on one undated sheet of paper in the archive we find a quick list of some purchases, with prices. On the same sheet he has made a list of “picturesque places” in the vicinity – places that I believe he hoped to sketch.


Short list of purchased objects

List of  “picturesque places” from the same sheet of paper as previous image


This is an elegant example of how Gambier Parry traveled to one place to do multiple things, and it is representative of how his curiosity about the world is manifested both in his many sketches and in his varied collection. For example, he did not want just one representative example of a particular type of work. Rather, in many cases, he tried to buy a variety of similar objects, often in a short period of time. This “bulk” purchasing is exemplified in his 1858 purchase of at least seven Veneto-Saracenic scadelotti, or bowls, during a trip to Italy. If he trusted a dealer and thought highly of the merchandise, he would readily buy several examples of similar work at one time. These multiples lend depth to his collection and make it all the more useful to modern scholars.


Gambier Parry would also enthusiastically pursue an object that caught his interest. For the 1860 or 1861 purchase of an enamel he describes paying “commission to two persons employed in getting it, their journey to Milan + Parma + Bologna cost me 20 pounds more”, that is, 20 pounds in addition to the 100 pound price of the object. This was no small sum and it was clearly not an impulsive purchase – rather, Gambier Parry engaged two middlemen in his driven pursuit of a piece he wanted. In other instances, his receipts reveal that multiple men were involved in one business interaction. An 1858 receipt for ceramics and metalwork reads: “per Giuseppe Dina, Federico delle Rovere pareggiato. Per conto il ordine del Sig. Gambier Parry di Gloucester alli Sig. Blumenthal F[ratel]li in Venezia”, where pareggiato means “balanced or leveled”. There were two parties (Federico delle Rovere and the Blumenthal brothers) involved in this purchase in addition to Gambier Parry and the dealer, Giuseppe Dina. Parry was traveling in Italy in 1858 so it is unlikely that he bought these objects sight unseen, but he did engage several middlemen in order to get them.


The materials in this archive are by no means comprehensive. Whether Gambier Parry did, in fact, keep records of every object he bought is unclear; in any case, although the receipts and lists cover many purchases, some of the most interesting objects in the collection – such as the fourteenth-century Tabriz brass saddlebag (O.1966.GP.209) – are nowhere to be found in these records. Given the energy that has been expended by several generations of his family to keep the artworks themselves together we should be grateful that we have these assorted papers at all. It is all the more exciting that they may lend some new perspective on Gambier Parry’s collection.


Veneto-Saracenic Metalwork

O.1966.GP.204, one of the finest pieces of metalwork in the collection


In 1858 Gambier Parry bought at least six bowls in Venice from Francesco Calzavara, Giuseppe Dina, and a dealer with the surname Marini, purchases confirmed by several receipts and by a list made by Gambier Parry. The annotations of these objects could often describe more than one of the bowls now in the Courtauld collection. For example, from Calzavara he bought a “scadelotto a coperchio metallo orientale con argento”; this could correspond to several inlaid bowls with covers, such as O.1966.GP.199, O.1966.GP.200, O.1966.GP.204, or O.1966.GP.205.



But the “scadelotto metallo orientale a coperchio a disegno” that he bought from Dina could refer to one of the same group of bowls. He also bought, from Dina, a “piatto metallo orientale con argento,” which may correspond to O.1966.GP.196, O.1966.GP.197, or O.1966.GP.202.





In the same receipts and lists in which Gambier Parry discusses Veneto-Saracenic metalwork he also lists several pieces of “oriental” ceramic. From Marini he bought three Persian vases. From Calzavarra he bought two teacups that he considered Persian; these have previously been connected to O.1966.GP.141, a set of two teacups and two saucers now considered Turkish. He also bought several European ceramic pieces, such as the “fiasca a stecca de Pellegrino,” or pilgrim’s flask (O.1966.GP.112), and the “Madonna alto rilievo” Treviso-ware plaque (O.1966.GP.142). Elsewhere in the records we find that he bought three ceramic mugs, two with a “leaden cover” in 1851. In 1857 he bought “plate, white ware, a pitcher, several dishes” from Christie’s, through the Oxford Street dealership Nixon & Rhodes; according to the Courtauld Gallery’s records the “white ware” corresponds to O.1966.GP.144. Gambier Parry’s majolica purchases are not thoroughly documented in this archive, but J.V.G Mallet’s article in the 1967 Burlington Magazine edition dedicated to the collection describes them in some detail.


Glass and Enamel


O.1966.GP.270, “1 Byzantine pyx box enamel with a gilt cross above it

In September 1851 Gambier Parry bought “2 pieces of modern glass painting” from a Nuremberg-based dealer named Kellner. These pieces are neither in the Courtauld collection, nor (according to Thomas Fenton) in the possession of Gambier Parry’s family. But they are of some interest because the Kellner family was an important producer of Gothic Revival stained glass. Gambier Parry’s interest in this type of glass, at a time when his own neo-Gothic church had just been dedicated, further demonstrates his commitment to a particular style.

During the same 1851 excursion he also bought two drinking glasses from Furtal Pickert that most likely correspond to O.1966.GP.190 and O.1966.GP.191. “3 very fine Nuremberg glass jars” in the same purchase may refer to O.1966.GP.160, O.1966.GP.161, and O.1966.GP.163. “1 Byzantine pyx box enamel with a gilt cross above it” is most likely O.1966.GP.270.

In May and June 1857, he bought a number of examples of enameled glass from Abraham Joseph, a London-based dealer. One example, the “enameled glass dish with painted arms,” may refer to O.1966.GP.187 or O.1966.GP.194. Another, “1 large painted German glass date (1590)” almost certainly refers to O.1966.GP.164.

In addition there are numerous miscellaneous glass and enamel purchases mentioned among Gambier Parry’s receipts, often with very few descriptive details. In 1869 he bought several pieces of cloisonné enamel (a box and a vase) from Nixon & Rhodes. “Venetian glass” is referred to on several occasions with little additional information, making it difficult to connect purchases with individual items from the collection.




There is a good deal of interest in Gambier Parry’s Gothic ivories, but unfortunately his receipts and lists have not yielded much new information about them. He purchased four ivories in 1851 – all of them seem to correspond to 18th century ivories from the collection (O.1966.GP.29, for example). There is also an intriguing mention of an ivory purchased in Lyons in either 1860 or 1861 (for 8 pounds), but Gambier Parry gives no measurements or descriptive details. So while these materials may contribute to our overall picture of Gambier Parry’s collecting habits they do not tell us much about the ivories themselves.


The Holy Innocents Triptych


I will discuss one painting in this essay, which is of interest in part because Gambier Parry purchased it from Pickert along with a number of art objects and curiosities. This triptych shows Pilate presenting Christ to the people. The left wing shows the donor with Saint Peter, and the right wing shows the donor’s wife with the Magdalene. Gambier Parry describes it in pen as “an old German painting from the convent of –” (he does not name the convent). In pencil he has added a note saying “now in the side chapel, Highnam Church,” where it remains today.


Notes on the Holy Innocents triptych


 The Church of the Holy Innocents, located on Gambier Parry’s estate at Highnam, was dedicated in April 1851, and Gambier Parry bought this triptych in the autumn of that year – probably with his Church in mind.




O.1966.GP.213, an Indian ewer

In his 1851 list of purchases Gambier Parry records “2 little books of minute engraving of the scripture History edged with silver”; and in the Courtauld collection there are 2 small books with illustrations from the Old and New Testaments, and their covers and clasps are silver (O.1966.GP.40.1 and 2).


Much of Gambier Parry’s inherited wealth came from interests in India (his grandfather was director of the East India Company), so it has been suggested that O.1966.GP.213, an Indian ewer, might have been inherited.

I am interested, however, in an 1869 receipt from a London-based dealer named H. C. Enthoven. The first item on the list is “2 Indian vases”.


An 1869 receipt from H. C. Enthoven. The first item is  “2 Indian vases”


The material is not mentioned, but the term “Indian” is unique among these records – Iznik ceramics are often referred to as “Persian” – and so I am inclined to think that this listing refers to this metal ewer and a missing partner.




A great part of my time during this project involved transcribing receipts from several folders. I began doing this for my own reference, but I have since attempted to tidy up the lists somewhat and have given my notes to the Courtauld Gallery. The original archival materials will return to Highnam and I hope that my notes may be helpful to others who take interest in Gambier Parry’s decorative arts. I expect that there are still connections to be made between objects in the lists and objects in the collection. In the archives I found about twenty-five names of Victorian dealers of decorative arts; these names may be of interest to scholars of the Victorian art trade. Furthermore, the order and location of Gambier Parry’s purchases may offer further insight into his developing taste. Those interested in his development as a painter and as a collector of paintings may gain worthwhile insights by considering his collection of decorative arts.


Thomas Gambier Parry was a deeply Christian man, as attested to by his interest in devotional art, his investment in the Church of the Holy Innocents, and the frequent ruminations on faith in his journals. His eclecticism may indeed demonstrate his fascination with, and desire to participate in, God’s creation. He returned on occasion to the theme of variety’s aesthetic and religious value. In 1851, for example, he defends his preferred form of architectural design:

Christian architecture abounds in direct adaptation of simple forms drawn fresh from the fount of all beauty, idealized indeed, so that from a type you can recognize the very species and race…Gothic architecture is more fitted for temples which are for the ministry of that sanctuary, that true tabernacle which the Lord pitched and not man. Nature is the boundless inexhaustible source of all variety. Variety is the very principle of Gothic or Christian architecture…a forest is a lovely assemblage, but no two trees, no two sprigs are alike.

I believe that this fascination with variety informed his painting, his church, his interest in botany, his many civic undertakings, and his collecting.



1. I am grateful to the Research Forum for the opportunity to participate in this project, and to Dr. Alexandra Gerstein for her supervision. I would also like to thank Dr. Norbert Jopek of the Victoria & Albert Museum for discussing 19th-century art dealers with me at a meeting in early May. For additional information on Thomas Gambier Parry and his collection, I would direct readers to the 1993 publication, Thomas Gambier Parry as artist and collector, and to the 1967 series of articles published in The Burlington Magazine on the occasion of the Courtauld bequest.

2. Anthony Boden, The Parrys of the Golden Vale, 1998, p. 80.

3. Dr. Jopek informed me of the Kellners’ prominence. See V&A numbers 2635-1845 and 2634-1845, from the 1840s workshop of Stephen Kellner. In 1854 the Kellners installed the stained glass windows in the choir of the Church of Ste. Croix at Liege; see Belgium and Holland: Including the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, Handbook for Travellers, ed. Karl Baedeker, 1897.

Chrisa Grössinger, North European Panel Paintings, 1992, catalogue number 28.