Shell Grotto Chairs. Englsh. Circa 1740.

From the 16th century onward, grottoes were constructed as fanciful retreats from reality. They appeared throughout Europe, from the Buontalenti Grotto at Palazzo Pitti in Florence, to the Grotto of Thetis at Versailles (torn down in 1684), to the Kuskovo Grotto near Moscow. These fantasy structures were “adorned with interesting rock formations, fountains, seashells, and often, matching furniture.”1 The fashion continued through the Rococo period, where scrolling C- and S-curve designs based on the shell were developed, and into the 19th century.

Inspiration for grotto furniture derived partially from mythology, particularly those myths with maritime subjects such as Venus, Triton, and Thetis. The latter featured in Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Tragédie en Musique Alceste (1674) in which the eponymous character is kidnapped. In the opera, Thetis, a sea goddess or Nereid, aids in the abduction of Alceste, Queen of Thessaly; in more general mythology Thetis was married to the mortal Peleus, after being courted by Zeus and Poseidon, and is the mother of Achilles. In a drawing for the set design of a production of Alceste c. 1674-8), Thetis is depicted riding in a shell-form chariot drawn by dolphins (figure 1).

Design for the chariot of Thetis by Jean Berain and workshop, circa 1674-8.

Like the fictional chariot, the back and seats of the present chairs are strongly carved in the form of scallop shells. They rest on legs carved in the form of entwined pairs of dolphins, a form inspired by the English Palladian movement of the first half of the 18th century, and in particular by the furniture designs of William Kent. The dolphins are connected by a stretcher in the shape of a sea serpent. The legs complete the appearance of real-life shell chariots intended to carry the sitter away, enhancing the grotto fantasy.

The form of the chair legs, particularly the flat back leg, is derived from Italian sgabelli, or stool chairs, which were popular in Renaissance and baroque Italy. The sgabello is characterized by a thin, flat backrest and usually an octagonal seat, above legs comprised of two flat and ornamented boards supported by a stretcher. They were typically used as hall chairs and, while not intended to be comfortable, they were “the medium through which the baroque carver gave vent to his most vehement fancies and decorative orgies…excessively ornamented with all the then-prevailing motifs.”2 A 16th century sgabello (figure 2) formerly in the collection of Carl W. Hamilton, early 20th century New York entrepreneur and collector, “has a lyre-shaped front support ending in dolphins, a motif commonly found in decorations”3 from that era and continuing into the Kentian phase of the present chairs.

Italian sgabello, middle of the 16th century, formerly in the collection of Carl W. Hamilton. Odom, William Macdougal. A History of Italian Furniture. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Page & Co, 1918

Interestingly, four other chairs and an extraordinary table from this group were sold by Christie’s London, 11 April 1985 (figure 3). The presence of the matching table seems to confirm that these chairs were used within a grotto setting and were not conceived as simple hall chairs.

Four other chairs and a table from this group, sold by Christie's London, 11 April 1985, Lot 58-60.