The inspiration for Rupert Hobbs' range of 14 limited-edition table lamps, the finest in London, came when his father, John, one of the city's leading antiques dealers, bought his dream house in Kensington.
The early-19th-century mansion, overlooking 13 acres of private gardens, had everything. Everything, that is, except table lamps.
John recalls spending weeks hunting for late-18th and early-19th-century candle and oil lamps, in marble and gilt bronze, to convert to electricity. "I found to my horror that I was being asked $9,500 to $16,000 for a single lamp. Anything in the affordable $3,000 to $5,000 range was just antique rubbish."
Rupert, 27, who has inherited his father's eye for fine objects, was recruited as light-bringer: "My father put it to me bluntly: 'I need a load of lamps—kindly make me some.' So I got busy."
That was nearly three years ago. Since then the project has become a major investment of time and money for both Rupert and his father. The result is an effulgent display in the Hobbs' vast Pimlico showroom of new lamps for old—classical, Romanesque, baroque, Regency, Art Deco, topped by a splendid Victorian-style, gilt-bronze owl lamp.
Priced between $2,500 and $16,000, the lamps are on the same grand scale as the perfectly lit gilded leviathans displayed all around them: Hobbs senior's antiques—vast neoclassical mirrors, towering 18th-century marble chimney pieces, original Napoleonic giltwood furniture, as well as a massive 19th-century English gilt-bronze and pietra-dura casket valued at $3,270,000.
"We appear to have located a gap in the market," states Rupert. "Three or four people with outstanding collections of furniture have purchased six to ten lamps each to complement their antiques. It seems they were having the same difficulty finding originals as my father."
To call the table lamps reproductions would be to underestimate the individual craftsmanship and ingenuity of design that go into them. Some of their components (such as an owl, two lions, and three grotesque medieval figures) are painstakingly cast from antique bronzes. Others are taken from photographs or adapted from dusty 19th-century makers' manuals that Rupert seeks out with a diligence surprising in one who was expelled from his school art class.
All have been designed into lamps by the "Hobbs Committee"—Rupert, John, and their restorer-draftsman, Stephen Groves—a trio given to arguing over proportions as tiny as one-hundredth of an inch. It was Rupert who chanced upon the 19th-century original of the gilt-bronze owl, the best-selling lamp in the range. A dealer charged him $32,700 for a 20-inch-tall pair of them. "I'm sure if I sat on the phone for six months I would never find such a fine pair again," he admits, "no matter how much I had to spend."
The original owls have no backs, having apparently been fixed to a piece of furniture. As table lamps, the casts had to be free-standing, so backs were added.
That is where Groves and his small Essex workshop come in. The 40-year-old restorer is an indispensable adjunct to the Hobbs family enterprise—"the only person we would ever allow to mend a broken chandelier," according to John.
"Stephen's castings of that owl are one hundred percent as good as the original," says Rupert. Groves' practice is to cast a first, second, and occasionally third mold for each piece. When the first cast is returned from a foundry in Birmingham, he makes a new mold from it, in which he sculpts finer detail. When the cast of that comes back, he sometimes does the same again.
Rupert scoured pattern books in library archives to discover the original drawings of four miniature bronze griffins, which act as bearers at the foot of a marblelike scagliola column of a lamp. (They're known to have been made ca. 1804 by the celebrated royal craftsman Benjamin Vulliamy.) A woodcarver was engaged to transform the faded drawings into a minutely detailed boxwood griffin from which to cast. Groves used the "lost wax" method: A liquid rubber mold is made of the wood carving, peeled off when set, and its cavity filled with molten wax. Once hard, the wax cast is taken out and immersed in a box of liquid plaster. The plaster is baked, and the hot wax runs out, leaving a cavity into which molten metal is poured. Then the plaster is broken open to reveal the finished cast. It is time-consuming: Only two can be made in a day.
After all the research and the expense of carving, Groves was amazed to discover in his workshop a perfect bronze griffin of the same size, but in a different style, sitting at the bottom of a box that held 15 years' accumulation of junk. He has made casts of that too. So now, for the same price—$4,273—you can choose between a lamp with royal griffins and a lamp with griffins from a box of junk in Essex. Judging by their similarly stoic expressions, griffins will adapt to anyone's home.
For more information or to order, contact Rupert Hobbs, 107 Pimlico Road, London; 44-171-823-5052; fax 44-171-730-0437. Checks only.
John Windsor wrote about Charles Rennie Mackintosh in our November/December 1996 issue.