The Westminster Fire Office Chairs
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.