Intaglios, Intaglios, Oh My
Well, once again Steven Gambrel hurls me into a rabbit hole of inspiration. He does that from time to time. This particular occasion, I was perusing his book Time & Place when I stumbled upon the below image and couldn’t overt my eyes. Just about every interior designer in the world has displayed intaglios in frames on the wall, but I’d never seen a side table collection.
My young eyes first encountered framed intaglios in my childhood home. My parents had a few framed in their master bathroom. But it wasn’t until I took my first Art History class (which I later pursued a degree in) that I really learned what they were all about.
Intaglio means “carving” in Italian, and is often used to describe a little engraved stone or plaster keepsake collected by travelers during the Grand Tour in the 17th and 18th centuries — a period of time when young well-to-do boys (and sometimes girls) would leave the nest and travel Western Europe.
On this sort of “educational rite of passage,” often accompanied by a tutor, they would learn about music, art and architecture, rub elbows with other affluent individuals — and collect intaglios along the way. These hand-carved souvenirs, usually illustrating scenes from Greek or Roman mythology, or historic events or figures, were believed to attract good luck and health. My dad’s architectural firm published a fascinating two-part series on the Grand Tour here, if you’re a history lover.
A. Tyner Antiques wrote a nice summary of Grand Tour intaglios: “The travelers would mount the intaglios into books and then make notes corresponding to each one as to his adventure that resulted in his buying or obtaining that stamp. By the end of the trip a traveler would have books filled with intaglios and notes that would last a lifetime, and were perfect tools for telling children stories about their adventures in the world beyond the county line.”
In the design world, they’ve been popular since…well, forever. Many well-known designers have used framed intaglios throughout their designs – Suzanne Kasler, Phoebe Howard, and Alexa Hampton, just to name a few. Just by perusing the internet, you can see that framed intaglios were definitely having a moment in the early 2000s — you’ll see a lot of design blogs ooh-ing and ahh-ing over them starting around 2009, when blogs were becoming mainstream. I stumbled upon another blog post published in 2011 that poses the question “Are Intaglios Still Trending?”. (The answer was yes).
Today, Tiberian Design, who possesses one of the largest known collections of 18th and 19th century intaglios, consider themselves “the pioneer of the modern framed intaglio.” Lately, I have not seen an overabundance of these little classical plaster reliefs being used, but if I were a betting (wo)man I’d say they’ll have their moment again (and again and again), like all things timeless.
These timeless, versatile, intricately detailed pieces are a beautiful way to add interest to any space, but admittedly can get pretty pricey. People shell out thousands for genuine historic pieces on Christie’s, 1stDibs and Sotheby’s. You can purchase framed, museum-quality (reproduction) intaglios from Tiberian Design on Etsy. You can also find them sold by Ballard. Locally, you can usually find a beautiful assortment at Paloma & Co. If you’re a little crafty and think you can handle the display aspect yourself, Plaster Craft sells sets of reasonably priced great looking reproduction Grand Tour intaglios.
And when these little gems of plaster are no longer enough to satiate your love of antiquities, you turn into “Master Plaster Caster” Peter Hone — known for his eclectic hoard of carvings, marble busts, urns, architectural fragments, Roman and Greek statues and various stone sculptures.
More on Peter Hone some other time. You just KNOW he’s got a story to tell…