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A rare set of twelve Elizabethan sycamore painted roundels

From the forthcoming auction of Fine Interiors including Selected Furniture from Hotham Hall – this rare set of twelve Elizabethan sycamore painted roundels, from the late 16th – early 17th century, (est. £8,000-10,000 +fees) take us back to an era when dining at home would be followed by a spot of entertainment. Roundels from this period were usually made from beech or sycamore, it is thought that the undecorated, plain side was used as a serving plate or trencher, for perhaps sweet meats, marzipan sculptures or sugar creations. With the meal over, the roundel could then be turned over to reveal verses, which here are enclosed within a gilded, scrolled and floral border. Diners might read or sing the verse or poesie with further discussion possibly taking place around the significance and meaning of the text and the accompanying images.

However, J. Levi in Treen for the Table, 1998, notes that he has seen many sets, and none of them bear evidence of knife marks, stains or patination, as might be expected had they been used as platters during a meal and observes that the paintings and decorations on the reverse do not seem to be designed to withstand washing or cleaning. Levi adds that whilst their use is open to speculation, roundels ‘remain rare and precious objects’ which provide insight into life in the first Elizabethan age.

Roundels might be made in sets of eight or twelve, and occasionally may number as many as twenty four. It is unusual to come across a full, complete group as with this example, which comes with a turned beechwood box bearing traces of decoration to the lid and sides.

The Arte of English Poesie, published in 1589 and attributed to George Puttenham (d. 1590), gives us a contemporary account of roundels, which were ‘sent for NewYeare’s gifts or be printed or painted on banketting dishes of sugar plate’, furthermore, amusingly, it was noted that the poesie ‘never contained above one verse, or two at the most, but the shorter the better’.

A set of four roundels with a painted box, decorated with a Royal Coats of Arms, was donated to the Metropolitan Museum, New York, in 1964 by Irwin Untermyer, the American attorney, jurist and civil leader. Whilst a similar set of ten roundels, which had belonged to Lady Shaw of Bushy Park, Ireland, was sold in 2014 at Bonhams; the accompanying box also bore a pre-1604 Royal Coat of Arms. It has been suggested that the Coats of Arms in these sets could be those of Elizabeth I, and that she gave roundels as New Year’s gifts to her loyal followers amongst the nobility. The traces of paint to the lid of the box of our set may indicate that it was produced by the same maker working under Royal Warrant and that originally it was decorated with a Royal Coat of Arms.

This set of twelve roundels also boasts exceptional provenance having formerly belonged to Charles Babbage, MA, FRS, (1792-1871) – the mathematician, philosopher and inventor. He is considered by many to be ‘the father of the computer’ and his Calculating Machine is displayed in the Science Museum, South Kensington. Following the early death of his wife, Georgiana, in 1827, Babbage focused on his life in science centred around his London mansion, on Dorset Street in fashionable Manchester Square. The roundels remained in the Babbage family until November 1934 when they were sold at auction by Sotheby’s. It is fascinating to imagine how and why these exceptional Elizabethan vestiges appealed to the Victorian polymath, and to consider how they might have been displayed in Babbage’s home, or even used on the dining table for special occasions.

Rare set of twelve Elizabethan sycamore painted roundels or fruit trenchers with original box

The turned beechwood box, bearing traces of decoration to its lid and sides

The set of twelve roundels within the original turned beechwood box

Charles Babbage M.A., F.R.S (1792-1871) previously owned the set of roundels

The Analytical Engine - the first fully-automatic calculating machine, conceived by Babbage in 1812 and housed in the Science Museum, London