The Chair Puzzle
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.
The chairs featured on the cover of Lawrence's of Crewkerne catalogue of the Hinton House contents sale.
The Hinton House suite of seat furniture photographed in situ in the Grand Salon in early 20th century.
There is clearly a lot more armchairs on these pictures than sold by the Countess Poulett in 1984; moreover, some furniture had dispersed from the house at different earlier stages, including the 1 November 1968 Sotheby's sale.
Although it is not 100% certain that our chair was supplied to the Pouletts for Hinton House, its close similarity to the documented examples sold from the house, makes this possibility highly likely.
The 'French' design of the suite represents the fashion of the day promoted by many of London's top cabinet-makers. While the Poulett papers are incomplete, several leading London cabinet-makers, probably working under the supervision of the architect Matthew Brettingham, can be associated with the commission on the basis of documented designs or similarities to known works, and these include Matthias Lock, Giles Grendey and Thomas Chippendale.
Current research has associated the Hinton House suite with Messrs. William Vile (d.1767) and John Cobb (d.1778), later Royal cabinet-makers to George III, who formed a powerful syndicate with William Hallett (d.1781) in St. Martin's Lane from 1753. Vile and Cobb supplied a set of related side chairs to Anthony Chute for the Vyne, Hampshire in the same year, one of which is illustrated in A.Coleridge, Chippendale Furniture, London, 1968, fig. 27.
Even more, the profile of the leg is related to a suite of chairs, wing armchairs and stools, supplied to Sir Matthew Fetherstonhaugh (1714-1774) following the remodeling of Uppark interiors. According to his account book he made payments to William Hallett, John Cobb and William Vile but unfortunately no evidence survived to allow for links to individual pieces at Uppark. Vile and Cobb also worked extensively for the 6th Earl of Coventry (1722-1809) for Croome Court, Worcestershire as well as his London houses, and figure prominently in the records at Croome from 1757 through the 1760s. '8 French pattern arm'd Chairs Carv'd and gilt in burnish'd gold with hollow backs' and matching sofas, supplied by John Cobb in 1768 feature similar legs and boldly scrolled toes (sold Christie's New York, 17 May 2012, lots 121, 122).
In addition, both Vile and Hallett were born in Somerset, within five miles of Hinton St. George, and maintained contact with their relatives there. As such, they would have been privy to the 2nd Earl's refurbishments, particularly as their neighbour Matthias Lock was supplying furniture for the house.
Whilst this magnificent group of seat furniture can definitely be linked to the 'St Martin's Lane Syndicate', it also displays strong similarities with the output of another prominent London maker, Giles Grendey of Clerkenwell. Notably, the profile of the front leg and the boldness of the scroll toe is very similar to a labelled suite of chairs, armchairs and settees, almost certainly supplied to Gunton Hall, Hanworth, Norfolk. A side chair and armchair from the suite are illustrated in P. Macquoid, A History of English Furniture: The Age of Mahogany, London, 1906, vol.II, pp.122-123, figs. 104, 105 and in C. Gilbert, Pictorial Dictionary of Marked London Furniture 1700-1840, London, 1996, p. 243, fig.437. In December 1931, R.W. Symonds refers to Grendey's chair design in an article where he states that although he did not label all of his work, it is in the case of these distinctly carved, hipped cabriole legs on scroll feet 'that one might infer that all chairs and stools with this leg came from Grendey's workshop' (see R.W. Symonds, 'More about Labelled Furniture', The Connoisseur, December 1931, p. 407, fig. VIII).
A pair of side chairs, belonging to a group of furniture attributed to Giles Grendey, sold Sotheby's New York, 9 June 2017, lot 178.
Giles Grendey almost certainly supplied furniture to the 1st Earl Poulett (d. 1743) around 1735. A set of six dining chairs (above), sold by the 8th Earl (Sotheby's, London, 1 November 1968, lot 58), displays a number of features, unmistakably by Giles Grendey, such as verydistinctive legs, which can be seen on other documented examples, as well as stamps WF to frames, also typical of Grendey's workshop. We think that it is not entirely unconceivable that the 2nd Earl would order his furniture from the same workshop when the time came to update the interiors to his taste.
Perhaps, it will be difficult to establish more certainly wether our chair and the whole group of related chairs were made by the St Martin's Lane Syndicate or by Giles Grendey, until new evidence emerges. Nonetheless, what is certain, is that they are truly outstanding specimens of the Golden Age of English design and craftsmanship. Their quality speaks for themselves, and, ultimately, is the best evidence to their historical importance.
P.S. This very distinctive knee ornament also appears on the Ditchley Park suite of seat furniture, discussed by John Cornforth in his article How the French Style Touched the Georgian Drawing Room (Country Life, 6 January 2000, pp. 52-55), linking them to William Bradshaw, but that is a different story.