These gracefully sculpted chairs, conceived in the French 'picturesque' style, have long been one of the most admired English chair patterns of the George II period. They follow the Hogarthian concept of the beauty of the serpentined line in furniture design, with their sides being serpentined like the fronts. The 'unnatural' straight line was even abolished by their upholstery being rounded with trellis tufting. Their carved Arcadian ornament inspired by writings such as Ovid's Metamorphoses recalls the triumph of the Nature goddess Venus. This is represented by imbricated scales wreathing the hollow-moulded frames, and alluding to the deity's sacred dolphins that accompanied her sea-shell chariot. A favourite motif of William Kent's, the imbrications featured for instance on his throne that was illustrated in John Vardy's Some Designs of Mr. Inigo Jones and Mr. William Kent, 1744 (pl. 43). Flowers were said to have sprung up at the touch of the deity's foot, and flowers embellish the chairs' triumphal 'Gothic' cusped and pointed-arch rails, while Roman foliage emerges from the feet.
THE ATTRIBUTION TO JOHN GORDON
This picturesque chair pattern is attributed to the Westminster cabinet-maker John Gordon of Swallow Street, who may have been related to the early 18th Century Edinburgh cabinet-makers of that name. In the late 1740s Gordon adopted a chair, supported by Apollo's sacred griffin, for his shop-sign, when trading as 'LANDALL & GORDON, Joyners, Cabinet, & Chair-Makers at ye Griffin & Chair in Little Argyle Street by Swallow Street'. It seems likely that he was also in partnership with William Gordon, who responded to Thomas Chippendale's 1753 advertisement for subscribers to A New Book of Designs of Household Furniture in the GOTHIC, CHINESE and MODERN TASTE. The chairs' Gothic air would also have suited the Scottish Castle of Blair Atholl, Perthshire for which James Murray, 2nd Duke of Atholl (d. 1764) commissioned a suite of comfortable chairs, in Chippendale's 'French Chair' fashion. It was listed in 1756 as:-
'8 Mahogany Chairs, Carv'd frames in fish scales, with a French foot & carv'd leaf upon the toe'. The total cost of around 31 included a charge of 2.5.0. for 'making an addition to your Grace's [the Duchess's] needlework'.
In 1749, the Duke had married Jean Drummond, who had worked the canvas upholstery in rich floral bouquets springing from Ceres's cornucopiae or horns-or-plenty. The suite remains at Blair (see A. Coleridge, Chippendale Furniture, London, 1968, fig. 87 and The Dictionary of English Furniture Makers 1660-1840, Leeds, 1986, p. 356).
The same 'Atholl' pattern was chosen for this suite of seat-furniture, comprising some twenty four armchairs and two settees, recorded in the possession of John, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu (d.1929) in the corridors of Ditton Park, Berkshire. Peter Brown of Fairfax House, York has carried out a detailed comparison between the Atholl and Ditton chairs now at Fairfax House and considers them to be the 'same hand, same templates, same everything' - including the secondary timbers.
Interestingly, imbricated 'dolphin' scale furniture was also supplied to George, 4th Earl Cardigan at Ditton by Benjamin Goodison in 1741 - 'a carved and gilt dolphin frame to match another' (T. Murdoch et al., Boughton House, The English Versailles, London, 1992, p.135, note 27).
The first categoric reference to the suite lies in a series of late Regency watercolours of Ditton, now in a Private Collection, of which only some have been published. In these sumptuously furnished interiors, furniture by George Bullock is clearly discernible alongside earlier furniture - including the settee from the Ditton suite, then covered in green silk damask. This spectacular suite was presumably therefore part of the furnishings introduced to the earlier house at Ditton by George Brudenell, 4th Earl of Cardigan (d.1790), who was created 3rd Duke of Montagu in 1766. It must also have been amongst the quantity of furniture reported as being saved from a fire at the house in 1812.
Frustratingly the Inventories of Ditton so far traced are tantalisingly brief and inconclusive. However A Probate Inventory of Ditton Park, completed on the death of 5th Duke of Buccleuch in 1884, lists the settee from this suite: 'Library - A carved frame double end sofa with back cushions & 2 loose bolsters in silk damask'. It also records the following chairs scattered throughout the principal rooms: 'Ante Room - Six stuffed over arm chairs covered in leather' 'Drawing Room - Four stuffed over Gentlemen's arm chairs & chintz covers, bolsters etc.' 'Drawing Room - Four occasional chairs with needlework seats' 'Library - Three easy chairs in needlework' 'Library - Two carved frame easy chairs in silk' 'Library - A chair in needlework' 'Library - Seven occasional chairs in tapestry' 'Japanese Room - Two carved frame easy chairs in rep'. Clearly if the inventoried chairs include those from the suite they had been re-upholstered in an inconsistent manner.
By the early 20th Century the suite was in the possession of Messrs. Mallett of Bath. Part of the suite, comprising two settees and eight armchairs, was acquired by Arthur S. Vernay, Inc. New York and was subsequently sold in The Walter P. Chrysler, Jr. sale at Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, 6 and 7 May 1960, lots 520-525 (resold at Christie's London, 8 July 1999, lot 25 (£243,500) and in New York, 17 October 2003, lot 196). Further armchairs from the suite are in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London and in the Noel Terry Collection at Fairfax House, York.
This pair of armchairs - like all of the recently sold armchairs from this suite - displays nearly identical differences in the treatment and scale of the carving and construction between each other. This would reasonably suggest that several journeymen were working simultaneously in Gordon's workshops on this extensive suite - and that inevitably slight differences in the chairs by different makers are visible.
Ditton Park was a 17th Century house inherited by Ralph, Lord Montagu, later 1st Duke of Montagu from the Winwood family in 1688. This suite was most probably ordered by his son-in-law George Brudenell, 4th Earl of Cardigan and 1st Duke of Montagu of the second creation. Born George Brudenell in 1712, the eldest son of the 3rd Earl of Cardigan, he assumed the surname Montagu in 1749, having in the same year inherited the estates of his father-in-law, the 1st Duke of Montagu. He died without male issue, his only son John, Lord Brudenell, later Marquess of Monthermer having died of consumption in 1770. As a result much of Montagu's collection, along with some of the great masterpieces his son acquired during his short life, passed to his second daughter, Lady Elizabeth Brudenell, wife of Henry, 3rd Duke of Buccleuch. The Montagu collection, from the mid eighteenth century, was said to have been one of the finest in the country: in addition to major works by Leonardo, El Greco, Rembrandt and Murillo still in the Buccleuch Collection, it included such pictures as Rembrandt's Saskia as Flora and Rubens' Watering Place, both in the National Gallery, London, and Mantegna's Grisaille now in the Cincinnatti Art Museum.
Ditton itself was earmarked by the widowed Elizabeth, Duchess of Buccleuch (d.1827) as the seat of her younger son Henry James, Lord Montagu of Boughton. However, the latter died without issue in 1845 and thus the house and contents reverted to his brother Walter, 5th Duke of Buccleuch (d.1884), who subsequently gave it to his younger son Lord Montagu of Beaulieu. The estate was finally given up in 1917 and sold to the Admiralty for 20,000.