The pattern for the parlour chairs from Shirburn Castle reflects the picturesque and eclectic George II 'Modern' style of Thomas Chippendale's, Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director (1754) and was invented in 1754 by the connoisseur, antiquarian and author, Horace Walpole, later 4th Earl of Orford (d. 1797) for his villa at Strawberry Hill. They are first documented at Shirburn Castle in an engraving made in 1823 by J. Skelton of the Ancient Entrance Hall, in which the arched double doors and vaulted ceiling evoke a strongly Gothic interior.
THE SHIRBURN CASTLE GOTHIC CHAIRS
Shirburn Castle in Oxfordshire, seat of the Earls of Macclesfield, originally constructed circa 1377, was extensively rebuilt and modernised following its purchase by Thomas Parker, 1st Earl of Macclesfield (1667-1732). His son, George Parker, 2nd Earl of Macclesfield (d.1764), was an amateur of the sciences and arts, a Fellow of the Society for Antiquaries from 1752 and President of the Royal Society between 1752 and 1764. His antiquarian tastes mark the beginning of the family's interests in this area, an interest which prevailed in subsequent generations and epitomised in their ownership of chairs such as these.
THE STRAWBERRY HILL GOTHIC CHAIRS
The original high-backed banqueting seats, designed by Horace Walpole with assistance from the artist Richard Bentley (d.1782), were executed by the St. Martin's lane cabinet-maker William Hallett (d.1781). They matched the ecclesiastical architecture, as well as the sideboard-table and other furnishings of Walpole's Great Parlour or Refectory, in the castellated Library extension of his Strawberry Hill villa at Twickenham. The mediaeval gothic frets, in part derived from B. Langley's, Gothic Architecture improved by Rules (1747), were perhaps intended to pay homage his ancestor Ralph de Walpole, Bishop of Ely (d.1302). Their triumphal arch form and lancet niched legs being related to the frame of the Bishop's brass monument tablet depicted in an engraving in the Strawberry Library. Conceived as Modern Elizabethan back-stools, with reed enrichments, matted bottom seats and ebony-black japanning, they also harmonised with Walpole's Chinese lacquer desk and the Etruscan urn garniture of his Westminster patterned hearth. Their gothicism also served to recall Walpole's Saracenic family crest. Walpole proposed that their arched and pinnacled crest-rails, supported by black sticks pierced through, should be flowered in ecclesiastical window-tracery quatrefoils, while the trefoiled lilies that crown the splats, and the cusped lambrequins of the cushion-rounded seat-rails appear to derive from Langley's publication (pl.34). In T. Kirkgate's guide-book entitled Description of the Villa of Horace Walpole, 1767, it was noted that 'The chairs are black of a gothic pattern, designed by Mr. Bentley and Mr. Walpole'.
PUBLICATION OF THE STRAWBERRY HILL CHAIRS
The Strawberry Hill chairs, with their original chequered patterning featured in a watercolour of Walpole's Great Parlour made around 1784, the year of the second and illustrated edition of Kirkgate's Description. Appearing two years after the fourth edition of Walpole's celebrated gothic novel The Castle of Otranto, (1st ed. of 1764), this may have encouraged the commissioning the manufacture of replicas for Shirburn Castle. However G. D. Harding made a watercolour of one of Walpole's set of eight chairs about 1801, and the Shirburn chairs seem more likely to have been made at this period. They are first documented at the Castle in an engraving made in 1823 by J. Skelton of the Ancient Entrance Hall, in which the arched double doors and vaulted ceiling evoke a strongly Gothic interior.
THE DISPERSAL OF THE STRAWBERRY HILL CHAIRS
Although Walpole died in 1797, the contents of Strawberry Hill remained intact until 1842 when they were famously sold in an auction ordered by the 7th Earl Waldegrave. This monumental sale lasted 23 days and was well documented at the time in newspapers and periodicals; the catalogue was published in seven editions. The set of eight gothic chairs was offered as four pairs, lots 49-52 and sold thus: lots 49 and 52 were bought by 'Piggott, Richmond', probably a dealer, and lots 50 and 51 were bought by The Earl of Charleville of Charleville Forest, Co. Offaly, a spectacular Gothic house in Ireland. It is almost certain that one of the 'Piggott' pairs was bought by the American collector of Walpoleana, W.S. Lewis (purchased from Major T.B.C. Piggott in 1953): this pair is now in the Lewis Walpole Library in Farmington, Connecticut. Lewis bought a second pair in the same year in Ireland, from Henry Naylor, a dealer. It is therefore likely that this pair was acquired from descendants of the Earl of Charleville and this pair is also now at Farmington. The second pair of Charleville chairs was with the London dealer Christopher Gibbs in 1987, and while the second pair of 'Piggott' chairs is untraced it seems highly likely that one chair from that pair (in beechwood) is that bought by the Victoria & Albert Museum from Simon Redburn in 1979 and which had previously been owned by David Hicks (sold Britwell House, Sotheby's house sale, 20-22 March 1979, lot 11). If this is the case then only one chair remains missing.
The differences between the Shirburn Castle and Strawberry Hill Gothic chairs:
The Shirburn Castle chairs are distinctive for having less carving on their back uprights and the legs being fully carved only on their front faces, whereas the Strawberry Hill chairs are carved on all sides of the legs and also have fully-realised ring-turning on the splats.
A. Chalcraft and J. Viscardi, Strawberry Hill, London, 2007, pp. 31 and 29 .
The Walpole chair acquired in 1979 by the Victoria & Albert Museum is discussed in C. Wilk (ed.), Western Furniture 1350 to the Present Day, London, 1996, p. 108.
C. Wainwright, The Romantic Interior, 1989, pp. 71-107.