Still-life painting never became as common in Britain as it was on the Continent. The examples that were bought in Britain in the seventeenth century, particularly by the middle classes, were generally supplied from the Netherlands, where such works were extremely popular. The objects depicted here are of high status and would have been owned by the educated and wealthy.
Collier was a Dutch artist who specialised in still lifes and produced works for both the Dutch and the English markets. This picture is clearly intended for a British customer, since it includes manuscripts and texts written in English. The letter propped up above the tray of writing equipment is inscribed 'Mr E. Collier ¦ Painter at ¦ London' which confirms that the artist was active there during the late 1690s.
This is one of several still lifes by Collier to include a globe, a circular box of seals, other writing equipment and books, although the arrangement of the objects varies slightly in each composition, and differing documents - in some cases, in Dutch - are shown.
A folded vellum document on the velvet-covered table bears a wax seal that hangs down. A stick of partly used sealing wax projects over the edge of the cloth, near a slip of paper protruding from a closed book and bearing the Latin text 'VITA / BREVIS / ARS / LONGA.' ('Life is short but art lasts long'). This text is a reminder of the transience of human life. This is a very common theme of still-life paintings, which appear to fix a single moment in time. The partially consumed wax-stick and candle are also symbols of the impermanence of the material world and of human endeavours. The globe, turned to the Pacific Ocean which was an area of active colonial expansion, and the raised open atlas, whose title-page bears the words ' A Description of the World' can probably be read as allusions to the necessarily limited nature of humankind's attempts to understand God's world. Works of this type are known as 'vanitas' still lifes.
A date is carefully written on another letter, inscribed 'E. Collier, 1698' and tucked under the atlas. The date shown on the printed transcript of a speech delivered by William III (reigned 1689-1702) to the British Houses of Parliament is also clearly visible: Wednesday 1st February 1698. At this period, in England, the year officially ran from 25 March to 24 March. So, in reality, this speech was given on 1 February 1699; it concerned the disbanding of the army, at the end of a near-decade of an unpopular war. The painting, therefore, must date also from before 24 March 1699.
Edward Collier, or Colyer, is thought to have been born in Breda in about 1640, and was probably trained in Haarlem. He was first recorded in Leiden in 1667, a city with a strong still-life tradition, and he continued to work in this genre for the rest of his life. His English works span the years 1693 and 1707, which is also the date of his latest known work. Collier was last recorded in Leiden on 15 January 1706 and it is not certain whether he was the 'Evert Coleyn' who was buried in Leiden in 1710.
H. Hilberry, 'Painting Illusions by Edwaert Colyer', Indianapolis Art Association Bulletin, vol. 49, February 1963, pp.12-17
Maarten Wurfbain, 'Edwart Collier', in Jane Shoaf Turner (ed.), The Dictionary of Art, London and New York 1996, vol. 7, pp.568-9