It is most unusual that so much detailed documentary information exists regarding any English piece of 18th century furniture. In the case of the present chairs, their entire history has been retained intact through the records of the Westminster Fire Office, including details of the original owner, the price and date of the commission, the cabinetmakers, and the origin of the design, as well as several in situ images.
The present set of chairs was supplied to the directors of the Westminster Fire Office by leading cabinetmakers William Ince and John Mayhew in 1792-3, to furnish the offices the Duke of Bedford had custom built for them in Bedford Street. “It was for this office that Ince and Mayhew made, in 1792, the chairs which are amongst the most prized possessions of the Company.”1 They are of mahogany and the original commission comprised three armchairs and twenty-one single chairs, and furnished the boardroom of the Fire Office (figure 1).
The Westminster Fire Office, the leading fire insurance society in London, was founded in 1717 as a result of the secession, for logistical reasons, of the Westminster members from the original ‘Amicable Contributors for Insuring from Loss by Fire,’ also known as the Hand in Hand Society. Apart from providing compensation for losses from fire, “in the absence of any satisfactory public provision for extinguishing fires, these early fire Offices were compelled to form their own individual brigades of firemen trained in the use of primitive fire engines and appliances.”2
The majority of the Westminster Fire Office’s insured members were tradesmen and artisans, and its board of directors “comprised many leading architects, builders, ‘carpenters,’ and master masons.”3 John Mayhew himself was serving as a director and other notable directors included Henry Flitcroft, Henry Holland and William Vile.
Interestingly, the Prince of Wales, the future King George II, also served on the board of the society. Not only did he insure six of his buildings with the Office in its first year, but he also actively assisted in extinguishing fires, such as the conflagration of the French Chapel and Library in Spring Gardens in 1716, where he “[turned] out in person with the watermen.”4
The Badge of the Office, the portcullis and feathers, was adopted on September 3, 1717 from a design of Roger Askew, a Director. The portcullis was taken from the Arms of the City of Westminster, and the Feathers were used “out of compliments” to the Prince of Wales (figure 2).” This dignified and attractive badge” was used for the seal, the policies and other documents and was placed on all Office property. An office’s symbol became know as a fire mark, which, cast in lead and then gilded, was fixed on every building that was insured. A house was not considered to be secure until the mark was in position, and it served as an advertisement of the Office.
The chair backs are composed of the Office’s ‘Badge’, while the rest of the design reflects Mayhew and Ince’s ability to produce furniture “in the most startlingly advanced Neo-classical taste,”5 combining a linear businesslike quality, with fluting and baluster shapes that fall in line with the taste of the period.6
The partnership between Mayhew & Ince (circa 1758-1804) is one of the longest lived of any 18th century firm, and their reputation as makers of the finest furniture is equal in rank to that of Thomas Chippendale and William Vile. They employed a variety of materials and techniques including proficient use of marquetry and gilt metal mounts, and were “capable of working simultaneously in a number of distinct styles, in some instances in the same commission.”7 Some of their more notable projects include the furnishings of Croome Court for the 6th Earl of Coventry, the extensive refurbishing of Burghley House for the 9th Earl of Exeter, and the prestigious order of several residences for the 4th Duke of Marlborough, to whom the firm dedicated its 1759-63 volume The Universal System of Household Furniture.
The Westminster Fire Office moved it’s headquarters from Bedford Street to King Street Covent Garden in 1810 (figure 3), and at that time Messrs Hurley & Grant of Piccadilly were commissioned to supply six additional chairs “of the same pattern as those at present in the Board Room.”8 Four of these form part of the present set.
As far as is known, the chairs are unique in being the only examples to include a corporate logo within its design in the 18th century. This, combined with their austere “modern” lines, renders them important as being 18th century precursors of the mid- to late-20th century design aesthetic.
This painted arabesque panel is almost certainly the same one designed by John Gregory Crace and exhibited at the Great Exhibition in 1851. The panel was illustrated by Matthew Digby Wyatt in “The industrial arts of the nineteenth century: a series of illustrations of the choicest specimens produced by every nation, at the Great Exhibition of Works of Industry, 1851,” Plate CXLI (figure 1). Messrs. Jackson and Sons. executed the border of composition ornament that surrounded the panel.
As seen in the illustration, the carotouche at the bottom of the panel is painted with a faux purple marbelized decoration, but left blank. On the present panel that same plaque reads Emie A. Shields. Decorator, London. 1914. While we have not as yet found a record of this decorator, it is almost certain that Shields acquired the panel and found the space too tempting to leave blank, altering it for their advertising purposes.
As a member of the prominent Crace family of London interior decorators, John Gregory was the grandson of John C. Crace, who conducted extensive work at Carlton House, and the son of Frederick Crace, who carried out numerous decorative works at the Royal Pavilion and Windsor Castle. J.G. Crace made several trips to the Continent between 1826 and 1830, at which time he entered into a formal partnership with his father.
Although he is well known for designs in the eclectic gothic taste associated with A.G. Pugin, with whom he worked on the Medieval Court at the 1851 Exhibition, J.G. Crace “enthusiastically admired art from all centuries,” and his tastes were influenced by Classical, Gothic, Renaissance and ‘Old French’ (Louis XIV) styles.
In 1838 an opportune meeting with the 6th Duke of Devonshire earned J.G. Crace commissions for the Duke’s London residence at Devonshire House and his country home at Chatsworth in Derbyshire. It was at Chatsworth where he executed the Lower Library, which “ranks as [his] first masterpiece.” For this project, Crace employed a group of artisans from Paris to execute the ceiling and wall decoration of foliate scrolls in pastel colors. The present panel is closely related to the painted panels separating the bookshelves of Chatsworth’s Lower Library (figure 2), which are also on a gold ground.
This manner of decor is reminiscent of the wall panels at the 18th century Café Véfour in the Palais-Royale, which, in turn, were inspired by Pompeiian frescos. Crace may have seen this interior when he visited France in 1837. It also recalls the Louis XIV wall decoration of the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, built circa 1658 outside Paris for Nicholas Fouquet, King Louis XIV’s finance minister. The decoration was carried out by Charles le Brun in the 17th century, and is characterized by fanciful grotesques derived from ancient Roman decorations.
The central roundel of the present panel depicts a classical scene of Venus seated in a shell, wrapping a strand of pearls (one of her attributes) about her neck and brow, while fabric billows around her. A pelta-shaped reserve at the top of the panel depicts a putto riding a dolphin. Both of these subjects are pictured in a fresco on the rear wall at the House of Venus in a Shell in Pompeii (figure 3), providing another connection between Crace’s work and the ancient motifs adopted in the decorative arts of later centuries.
Goedhuis Contemporary, which specializes in Chinese contemporary art as well as Chinese works of art from the Neolithic period to Modern, recently mounted the exhibition, “Beyond China,” at Carlton Hobbs’ London premises at 16 Bloomfield Terrace. Director Michael Goedhuis’ aim is “to participate fully in restoring important works to committed institutional and private collections in China, as well as continuing to stimulate interest amongst museums in the West.”
We are delighted to share some photographs from the exhibit…
In Italy carved and gilded furniture of the finest quality was often executed by highly trained sculptors, rather than furniture makers and it is very likely that this superbly-drawn table is a product of this long-standing tradition. Notable sculptors who created pieces of furniture, for example, were Filippo Parodi (1630-1702) from Genoa, Agostino Carlini (circa 1718-1790) who was also from Genoa, but worked both for the courts in Holland and in England and Andrea Brustolon (1662-1732), who worked in Venice. An example in the neoclassical period is Antonio Landucci, who had been commissioned by Principe Marcantonio Borghese, to supply furniture to the Palazzo Borghese in the 1770-80s.
The present table is inspired by ancient Roman marble tripod tables of the type found at sites in Pompeii and Herculaneum. In line with these prototypes, a bust (or more usually an animal mask) emerges from an acanthine flourish, which terminates into zoomorphic legs and feet. The designer of this piece clearly had knowledge of sculpted artifacts from the ancient world and it is, therefore, interesting that he chose to depart from precedent by employing four monopodiae instead of the classical three-leg tripod form. This close formation of powerfully-sculpted supports imbues the table with an unusual sense of density rarely seen in neoclassical furniture.
In the case of the present table, the busts, with their paired butterfly wings, represent Psyche, who in Greek mythology, was the deification of the human soul. Born too beautiful for her own safety, she incited Venus’ jealousy, but as a direct result of the latter’s devious plans, Psyche gained both Cupid’s love and immortality. The word psyche in Greek means spirit or life, and is also the word for butterfly and she was portrayed in ancient mosaics as a goddess with butterfly wings.
The legs of the table do not follow the more typical leonine form, but are modeled as goats’ cloven hooves. The goat has strong associations in mythology with masculinity, lust, and fertility, creating an unusual harmony of opposites within the table. Interestingly, Antonio Landucci is credited with having carved a pair of jardin?res based on a similar design idea, with a male and female figure jointly supporting the top, both emerging from leafy foliage and both terminating in cloven feet.
The marmorista thought to be the creator of the present tabletops with their interlocking geometric forms is Giuseppe Canart (d. 1791).?Flemish by birth and Roman by adoption, Canart was brought to Naples in 1738, where his known commissions were predominantly executed. There exists a group of table tops which are closely related to the present piece, including one from the Florence Court, the seat of the Earls of Enniskillen (figure 1).? The composition of the top is similar in that it incorporates marble specimens inside a complex interlaced framework, composed of overlapping and interlocking rings with a black border to the edge. The Florence Court table has been placed in Giuseppe Canart’s body of work, due to the similarity to a pair of tables in the Palazzo Reale, Naples, whose tops were known to have been constructed by Canart. They are decorated with a “grid of oval patterns” [that] alludes to the ornamental repertoire derived from the mosaic floors found in Herculaneum and Pompeii.
The present top is unusual as it is a departure from his attributed output in two ways. Because he was based in Naples, Canart would select from the wide range of very hard volcanic stones found locally. In this case, however, the top employs none from this group, and instead are all probably marble reworked from ancient Roman fragments. The shape and size also appears to be unprecedented within the Canart group, which are typically rectangular in form and one to two meters in length.
As an obvious special commission, the present table was also fitted with a finely cast gilded bronze guilloche casing mold, with integral gallery. It is the accepted wisdom that Italian table tops encased within high-quality gilt-bronze moldings are a product of Rome. This clue, combined with its ancient Roman design precedent, combines to give a strong likelihood that it was made in this important center. Furthermore, the proximity to Rome of the likely manufacture of the top in Naples lends further weight to this hypothesis.
The present table was formerly owned by the Maitland family of Loughton Hall, Essex. Loughton Hall had been built in the medieval period and was owned briefly by Mary Tudor before she became queen in 1553. The manor was later owned by the Wroth family, where it was host to an important literary circle including Lady Mary Wroth, Ben Johnson and Sir Philip Sidney. In the mid-18th century, Loughton came into the possession of the Whitaker family, at which time the hall was known as a very imposing building with an interior stone staircase said to be designed by Inigo Jones.
In 1825 Sir John Maitland, Lord of the Manor of Woodford, inherited Loughton Hall from Anne Whitaker. It passed to his William Whitaker Maitland, who spent considerable sums of money on the hall only to see it destroyed by fire on December 11, 1836.?The building as it stands today was built in the Queen Anne Style in by architect W Eden Nesfield. The entrance contained a Roman mosaic brought back from one of the Maitland’s Grand Tours. The Hall’s final owner, Sir John Whitaker Maitland, lived there “in some style” until the Second World War when the home was used as an officers’ billet.
Figure 2 depicts the table in situ on the far right on the drawing room of Loughton Hall circa 1950.
The present roundel, circa 1930, symbolic of the Bank of England, was formerly located above the main entrance to the Soane Hall, Bank of England, Threadneedle Street, London (figure 1) installed during its renovation and remodeling in the by the eminent British architect Sir Herbert Baker (1862-1946).
Baker had studied architecture in London before embarking on a journey to South Africa in 1892, where he was so taken with the city that he decided to establish an architectural practice there. In 1893 he was commissioned to refurbish Groote Schuur, the estate of businessman and diamond magnate Cecil Rhodes, which today serves as the residence of the South African president. Other important projects in South Africa include St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town (1901) and, most notably, the Union Buildings of Pretoria (1910).
In 1912 Baker departed South Africa for India, where he worked with Sir Edwin Lutyens in planning the capital city of New Delhi. He was responsible for designing the Secretariat Building and the Parliament House (1912 onward). In 1913 he began a practice back in London with the architect Alexander Scott, and was given the Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1927.
In the 1930’s, the Bank of England’s headquarters were renovated by Baker, who controversially demolished much of the building’s original 18th century interiors designed by Sir John Soane. “Everywhere the building was lavishly embellished with allegorical sculptures, marble mosaics of historic coins, Greek inscriptions and wall paintings depicting contemporary bank staff at work,” in collaboration with sculptor Charles Wheeler and artist D. Y. Cameron.
One of the principal rooms of the rebuilt bank was the Soane Hall, a double-volume banking hall based on the design style of Sir John Soane. The hall was accessed through double doors from the main lobby, above which was hung the present plaque. It depicts two lions flanking a pillar which rises from a pile of coins. A similar design is repeated on the left hand overdoor to the entrance of the bank.
The Soane Hall interior was demolished in 1986 to make way for the Bank of England Museum at which time the roundel was rescued by the museum designers for display in their London offices.