The Chair Puzzle

The Chair Puzzle

November 4, 2019

This magnificent chair is certainly one of the most special items in our collection, admired by many connoisseurs and fellow dealers alike. We fell in love with it the moment we first saw it and we knew instantly that it was going to be an exciting discovery. The flow of its splendid design, the delicacy of its carved decoration and its sleepy, untouched surface make it a dream for anyone who can see the beauty.

But while such things as its outstanding design, superb craftsmanship and original condition appeared quite clear, its provenance and maker remained a mystery, so we had no choice but to embark on a research project with hope to cast some light on its earlier history.

 

Without doubt an excellent specimen of the mid-18th century Rococo fashion, this chair displayed various decorative elements, typical of that short-lived style, inspired by nature and earlier French designs.

Detail of a related chair design from Thomas Chippendale's 'Director', 1761–62.

Notable simplicity of the back, compared to the Chippendale's design, is explained by the fact that our chair is a much earlier example, dating to early 1750's, when the newest 'French' style was not yet in full bloom.

Commissioned by an extremely forward-thinking patron, a suite of these chairs was undoubtedly the ultimate statement  not only of tremendous wealth, but also of great taste and acquaintance with the latest fashions.

 

Our research revealed few other chairs of identical design, including three open armchairs illustrated in various sources in the 1920's, of which one was in the collection of Percival D. Griffiths as early as 1912, and a further identical example from the collection of Walter P. Chrysler Jr. A pair of armchairs with the same legs and arms but having upholstered backs was found at Nemours, the duPonts' mansion in Wilmington, Delaware (below).

Definitely made by the same hand and almost certainly belonging to the same long suite of seat furniture, these magnificent chairs graced the most important collections of the 20th century.

An open armchair en-suite, formerly in the Percival D. Griffiths collection, illustrated in R.W. Symonds, English Furniture from Charles II to George II (London, 1929), p.175, fig.169 

The above armchair, photographed by Country Life in situ at Percival Griffiths' home, Sandridgebury, Kent. 1912.

Another armchair en-suite, identical to the Percival D. Griffiths' example, formerly in the possession of Walter P. Chrysler Jr., sold Sotheby's, New York, 24 October 2019, lot 569 ($30,000).

A three-quarters view of the Walter P. Chrysler Jr.'s armchair. The back leg feet have spliced repairs hence look different from other chairs of this suite.

 

The chair was sold at Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, The Walter P. Chrysler Jr. Collection of English Furniture, Part One, 29-39 April 1960, lot 122, and was subsequently sold at Sotheby's New York, 13 December 1986, lot 204. According to the 1960 auction catalogue, the armchair was exhibited in Louvre, Paris, in 1954.

The Percival D. Griffiths' chair, illustrated in R.W. Symonds, The Present State of Old English Furniture (London, 1921), fig.82

A front leg detail of the Sotheby's chair, displaying the distinctive stylised foliage carving to the knees (echoing the design of the splat) and a boldly scrolled foot with central fluting, also typical of the workshop of the Soho Square cabinet-maker and tapissier Paul Saunders (d.1771). Unfortunately, the knee return seems to be a replacement.  

A close-up of the Griffiths' chair front leg. Its flowing design is simply amazing and the quality and crispness of the carving is second to none.

Foliage, stylised to resemble shells, was a popular theme in Rococo fashion, inspired by nature. Adopted by Chippendale for chair backs, it was widely used by furniture designers and makers. 1761-2.

In the third edition of The Gentleman and Cabinetmaker's Director, 1762, Thomas Chippendale notes, that 'The seats look best when stuffed over the rails ... usually covered with the same stuff as the window curtains ... most commonly done with brass nails ...' 

Following his advice we chose the finest hand-loomed silk by Gainsborough Weaving, dyed in the most magnificent, 18th century shade of blue, finished with toned brass nails. The upholstery was restored according to the original examples by Chippendale's workshop.

Another chair from the suite, with later castors, illustrated in M. Harris & Sons, A Catalogue and Index of Old Furniture and Works of Decorative Art, part II, p. 212, no. F21988 (London, 1932).

A further virtually identical armchair of unknown provenance, illustrated in H. Cescinsky and G.L. Hunter, English and American Furniture, New York, 1928, p. 123.

 

However useful and reassuring was finding all these examples, it helped very little in our research due to their lack of provenance. Then, all of a sudden, we came across a pair of Gainsborough armchairs sold by Christie's New York in 1998, and that was just what we wanted.

Estimated $120,000–$180,000, this splendid pair of armchairs made 'only' $107,000, but that was not the point.

Having identical front legs with their distinctive foliage carving and bold scroll toes, these armchairs formed part of an extensive suite of seat furniture supplied in the mid-18th century to Hinton House, Somerset, and sold from there by the Countness Poulett, sold Lawrence of Crewkerne, 24 May 1984, lot 149.

An advert of the Hinton House contents sale in Country Life, May 3, 1984, featuring two side chairs from a set of fourteen and one of a pair of kingwood commodes by Pierre Langlois.