Footnote: James Peake (c.1839-1918) established his business as a carver, gilder, picture frame maker and mount cutter in 1866 (according to a label found on a pair of mirrors carved by him that were sold at auction in 2009) and his father was also a wood carver. Peake traded from a variety of premises in the Lambeth area and by the time this carving was produced he was working at 276 Westminster Bridge Road. A copy of a cutting preserved in the National Portrait Gallery’s British Picture Framemakers 1600-1950 project files, and probably dating to around 1914, refers to Peake as ‘the modern Grinling Gibbons’ and, on the basis of this piece, the comparison certainly seems to be justified.
The use of a rococo cartouche to frame the design is an unusual choice that demonstrates not only Peake’s skill as a carver but also as a designer. It seems that Peake’s contemporaries were particularly impressed by the realism of his naturalistic carvings of botanical subjects and this is demonstrated by the fact that he exhibited a selection of his wood carvings in March 1899 at Catford and District Natural History Society. A report from the Kentish Mercury on the 24th of March of that year stated:
‘Mr Peake’s wood carving, and especially his groups of fruit and flowers, formed an especially attractive feature. Botanists who inspected the work expressed warm admiration of the truthfulness to nature, exquisite delicacy of execution and artistic taste displayed in grouping.’
By 1900, Peake had attained enough of a reputation to exhibit at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. A mantelpiece that he had carved for the fair won a bronze medal – quite an honour in such distinguished company. He was obviously justifiably proud of this achievement and an article from the South London Press of the 13th of August 1904 describes it and other carved goods in Peake’s shop:
‘While I was waiting for a bus one day this week I was attracted to the window of Mr James Peake, 276 Westminster Bridge Road, by some wood carving of the most delicate and exquisite description, obviously the work of true genius and creative artistic skill of the highest order. Upstairs I found Mr Peake himself beside a mantelpiece which won the prize medal at the Paris Exhibition of 1900. This carving is of such extraordinary beauty that a mere bald description could not possibly convey an idea of it, but I wish my readers, particularly those interested in works of art, would go and see it themselves. The festoons of flowers look absolutely real but dipped in oak colour. Another mantel, but of Jacobean style, is carved in beautiful lines. I cannot understand why either of them-the former especially-has been permitted to remain in this workshop. When Kennington Palace, interesting as the home of Edward the Black Prince, was demolished some time ago, Mr Peake bought all the oak in it, and is using it for picture frames etc., which thus have a double interest. One which I saw is carved as only a master hand could carve such seasoned oak. Mr Peake is a professor in wood carving and has many pupils eager to learn the intricacies of the work, and who soon get the artist’s fire in their blood as they see the flowers and fruit grow and come to life under their hands.’