A Fine Sand Painting by Benjamin Zobel Showing a Deer Being Attacked by a Boa Constrictor. The Source Taken From a Zoological Specimen in William Bullock’s Museum at 22 Piccadilly London

18th July 2022

Provenance: Probably one of a pair of “highly finished marble dust paintings” sold by the auctioneer William Seaman of Great Yarmouth on the 8th of October 1823 in successive lots. Lot 62 in the sale was described as “Zobel’s highly-finished marble dust painting-Boa constrictor. Framed and glazed” and was consigned by “Crow”. It sold for 1 Pound and 11 Shillings to “King”.

A Fine Sand Painting by Benjamin Zobel Showing a Deer Being Attacked by a Boa Constrictor

The subject of this exceedingly fine sand painting is very interesting indeed. Zobel is probably most famous today for his sand pictures depicting pastoral scenes and animals and the present image shows what appears to be a very typical English forest and the deer appears to be a fallow hind-a breed that, though native to Asia, had been and continues to be the most common breed of deer in Britain. Against this background, the presence of a Boa constrictor appears to be shocking and out of place and it is only through our discovery of the source for the piece that we have been able to begin to understand what Zobel was creating in his painting.
A print in the British Museum (registration number 1860, 0728.93) shows a deer and Boa constrictor in precisely the same composition as in our painting but the forest background is very different. This is unsurprising as the title of the print is “The Boa Constrictor of Surinam…”
The print was made by the prolific and important 19th century British printmaker Frederick Charles Lewis but the publication line makes no mention of there having been a painting from which this piece was made. Instead, the inscription mentions that it is “from the one in Mr Bullock’s Museum, 22 Piccadilly. Length 32 feet, circumference 2 feet 7 inches” and the inference is clear-there must have been a stuffed specimen of a snake, possibly also with a deer, on display in the museum. Zobel in turn must have interpreted the Lewis image for his clients by superimposing the snake and deer on to the type of English pastoral scene he was most used to producing, in turn creating a very interesting fusion of East and West.
Lewis’ print is one of a series of images of zoological subjects all taken from Bullock’s museum but most of the other animals are depicted as single specimens-not in a tableau like this. The discovery of the print and the link to William Bullock’s museum (see below) makes this not only a very fine work of art in its own right but also a means by which we may study one of the early museums of curiosities in England and the way that its specimens of natural history were arranged and images of those specimens disseminated. Lewis’ print must presumably date to between 1809 and 1812 as Bullock’s London museum was opened in 1809 and by 1812 was renamed the Egyptian Hall Museum as its focus turned increasingly in that direction. It is very likely that our Zobel painting dates from this same period.

William Bullock and his Museum
William Bullock initially trained as a goldsmith and silversmith, returning to metalwork later in his life when he created a range of interesting lighting. The designs for these lamps and other items seem to have come from his brother George Bullock the most and famous and important furniture designer of the early 19th century in England and whose clients included Sir Walter Scott and Napoleon-he was selected by the British government to furnish the Emperor’s home on the island of St Helena.
Having established his career in Liverpool, opening a museum there in 1795, William Bullock moved his operation to London in 1809 and the museum at 22 Piccadilly became a popular and important attraction in the city. The collections encompassed items as diverse as an important collection of Mexican artefacts, acquired by Bullock personally when he visited the country in 1822 and 1823, the aforementioned specimens of natural history and other curiosities which Bullock thought would appeal to his paying customers. It is probable that, in common with his competitors such as Thomas Weeks who ran a museum in Tichbourne Street, Bullock also used the museum to retail items that would have been made to complement the exhibits on show.
Bullock left England for a life in America where he bought an estate in the Cincinnati area in 1827 and then founded a town at Ludlow Kentucky in 1828 which he had designed by the celebrated architect J. B. Papworth. The failure of this enterprise led to his return to England in 1836 and he lived the rest of his life back in his country of birth.

Benjamin Zobel (1762 – 1830) 
Zobel was employed by the Prince Regent’s chef Louis Weltje, and became a `Table Decker’ at Windsor Castle. The custom of `Table Decking’ had been introduced into England by George III, where the table cloth at dinner was elaborately decorated with designs of coloured sands, marble dust, powdered glass or bread crumbs. Zobel became a skilled confectioner and was entrusted with the pictures made in coloured sugars that decorated the huge tarts served at banquets. The method he employed for making sugar patterns was identical to that which he used to make his sand pictures; that is the sugar, or sand, was shaken through a cut and pleated playing-card. 

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