THE MOOR PARK ARMCHAIRS
These magnificent golden chairs belong to the remarkable suite of seat-furniture designed in 1764 by Robert Adam (d.1792), architect to King George III and commissioned by Sir Lawrence Dundas (1712-1781) for the Banqueting Hall at Moor Park, Hertfordshire. Supplied by the cabinet-maker James Lawson of Chandos Street, Covent Garden who flourished from 1763-78, they were delivered on 24 October 1764. Remarkably, as with so much of Dundas' furniture commissions from the 1760s, the original invoice, dated 26 October 1764, survives in the Zetland papers at the North Yorkshire County Record Office (ZNLX 1/7/26-30, 72). The suite was invoiced as:
'2 carved and gilt sophas on casters cover'd with blue Turkey
leather cusheons & 2 bolsters for each at....£36 £72-0-0
6 carved and gilt chairs on casters cover'd with blue Turkey
leather.... at.... £12-10 5 £75-0-0
2 large carved and gilt scroll stools on casters cover'd with
blue Turkey leather....at £20-2-6.. £40-5-0'
The Moor Park Suite was, therefore, amongst the most expensive suites of seat-furniture executed in the 18th Century and, at £12-10-5 each armchair, was only marginally less expensive than Thomas Chippendale's second most expensive suite of seat-furniture, the rococo seat-furniture also supplied to Dundas in 1766 for the Great Room at Arlington Street at a cost of £13 per chair. Remarkably, Chippendale's most expensive suite was also commissioned by Dundas, from which a pair of armchairs and a sofa is included in the present sale as lots 4-5. This suite was also designed by Robert Adam and was supplied at a cost of £410-4-0 in total, each armchair costing £20.
SIR LAWRENCE DUNDAS AND MOOR PARK
Sir Lawrence Dundas, 'The Nabob of the North', was the outstanding merchant-venturer of his day and has the distinction, perhaps uniquely, of employing virtually all of the greatest exponents of the cabinet-makers art during George III's reign. Perfectly complimented in all things aesthetic by his 'dear life' Margaret Bruce of Kennet (1715-1802), Dundas' account books reveal that he patronised no less than Samuel Norman, Fell and Turton, Chippendale and Rannie, Vile and Cobb, France and Bradburn, Mayhew and Ince, James Lawson and Pierre Langlois in the 1760s alone.
Financial success and political ambition have always been inextricably linked with architectural patronage, and the 1760's saw an unprecedented burst of building activity by the Dundases. It was in 1763 that Dundas acquired not only Arlington Street but also Moor Park. The latter, a princely mansion designed by Giacomo Leoni in 1720 for Benjamin Styles, was in need of some improvements and it was to Robert Adam, a fellow Scot, that Dundas turned, at first in the house and, from 1766, to 'ornament the Garden, farm and park'. Restricted, unlike at Arlington Street, by the superb baroque interiors painted by Francesco Sleter and Giacomo Amiconi that survived at Moor Park, Adam was engaged to aggrandise the interiors in the fashionable 'antique' taste, overseeing the design of the furnishings and alterations to the Gallery to allow for the hanging of Neilson's celebrated suite of Gobelins tapestries, which were shipped from Paris in June 1769.
These magnificent golden chairs were designed by Adam for the Banqueting Saloon at Moor Park. Conceived to harmonise with the Arcadian deities painted around the walls of the villa's great room of entertainment, the beribboned ram's-masks recalling ancient festivities honouring the wine-god Bacchus, this suite reflects the robust 'antique' style that was to earn the architect the title of 'Bob the Roman'. Adam's reputation for introducing the 'true taste for the antique' was further consolidated with the appearance of his sumptuous publication, 'The Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro' of 1764, which revealed the fruits of part of his Italian studies, before the establishment of his London practice in the late 1750s.
Adam's sketch for the suite's scroll-ended stools, whose prototype was the 'triclinium' couch upon which Romans reclined at Banquets, now in the Sir John Soane Museum, having survived in an album of his working drawings (Soane's Museum, Adam, vol. 54, series 1, no. 66). It is from this pattern that the armchairs evolved, their frames, with Ionic volutes rising from a foliated rail, corresponding to Roman pier-capitals, such as featured on Apollo's Temple at Didyma (M. Lyttleton, Baroque Architecture in Classical Antiquity, London, 1974, fig. 35). Accompanied by a detailed study of flowered ribbon-guilloche of Roman acanthus foliage that forms an elaborate fretwork over the seat-rail's upholstery, the principal sketch displays alternate treatment for the stool's end-scrolls, but it is accompanied by a further sketch illustrating the choice of ram's heads. These ram's heads were inspired by 'antique' sacrificial altars, and it is therefore extremely pertinent that Adam himself displayed such a marble altar, acquired in Rome, at his house in Grosvenor Square, surmounted by a bronze replica of the celebrated antiquity, the Farnese bull. However, the stool's sculptural composition, with ram's heads hung above ram-monopodia emerging from flower-voluted trusses, most clearly reflects Adam's Roman style learnt through friendship with the architect Giambattista Piranesi (d.1778) and the latter's study of furniture assembled from antique fragments.
Although the Moor Park Suite is amongst the earliest examples of Adam designed Neo-classical seat-furniture, and may have served as a prototype for the other celebrated Dundas suite, executed by Thomas Chippendale to Adam's design in 1765 (lots 4-5 in the present sale), much of the ornament had already entered the cabinet-makers vocabulary. Thus the serpentined cresting, accompanying back-swept and Ionic-scrolled arms, had already featured in Thomas Chippendale's 1759 engraving for an antique-herm footed sofa issued in his The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director, 1762 (pl. 30), while the ram-headed monopodia featured in his 1762 'commode table' pattern (pl. 67) and the ram's-head on a 1760 'busto term' pedestal, a bust bracket, a candle-stand pattern (pls. 148, 161 and 145) and a pedestal pattern of 1761 (pl. 150). The name 'couch' was also a contemporary term. Moreover the guilloche-ribboned arm and seat-rail with bust-enriched corners also featured on a sofa-pattern issued by Messrs. Ince and Mayhew in their Universal System of Household Furniture, 1762 (pl. LXII) who also depicted ram's-masks and reed-gadrooned borders on an acanthus-wrapped candlestick pedestal.
The Moor Park Suite is the first profoundly Neo-classical suite of seat-furniture to survive as a legacy of Sir Lawrence Dundas' enlightened patronage. It is, however, lamentable that so little is now known about its maker. James Lawson, working in partnership with his brother Peter until 1767, was clearly a cabinet-maker of exceptional reputation and ability. Patronised by Dundas at Moor Park, Aske Hall and Arlington Street from June 1763, he appears to have received payments amounting to 'about £1100' by 1770, according to Sir Lawrence's account books. That Lawson worked closely with Adam throughout the Moor Park commission is confirmed again by the correspondence, 'Mr Adams' visiting Lawson's workshop on 10 January 1765 to inspect the newly-arrived 'large glasses' from Paris. The Moor Park suite was undoubtedly his masterpiece, however the majority of the furniture he supplied to Dundas, as indicated by the bills, was on a more utilitarian level.
Moor Park, together with the suite of seat-furniture, was sold on three occasions in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. Firstly, in 1784, it was acquired by Thomas Bates Rouse (d. 1799) of the East India Company. Subsequently bought by Robert Williams (d. 1814), M.P. for Dorchester, in 1801 it was sold by his son, another Thomas Williams to Robert, 2nd Earl Grosvenor, later Marquess of Westminster (d. 1845) in 1828. Inherited by Westminster's third son, Lord Ebury the suite remained in situ until 1919, when the house passed into the hands of arguably the greatest collector of English furniture - the 1st Lord Leverhulme. The suite of seat-furniture, however, was retained by Lord Ebury, and though the pair of sofas and a pair of armchairs were acquired by Lord Leverhulme at Sotheby's London, on 6 July 1923, lots 154-5, the remaining four chairs, together with the pair of scroll-ended seats, were not sold until 1942. They were then auctioned by Lord Ebury at Christie's on 5 May, lot 97 (£97-39-18 to
Wolff). Purchased from the decorator Dolly Mann circa 1942-3, this pair of armchairs remained in the same private collection, until they
were offered at Christie's, London, 13 November 1997, lot 50 (purchased by a private collector following the sale, in whose possession they
have remained). One of the Leverhulme chairs, photographed in situ at The Hill, Hampstead circa 1920, as well as the sofas, were subsequently in the Leverhulme sale, Anderson Galleries, New York, 9 February 1926, lots 90-91. Today the rest of the suite, excepting one of the scroll-ended couches and one armchair, whose present whereabouts are unknown, is now at Kenwood, having been assembled from as far afield as The White House, Washington and Ireland.
THE UPHOLSTERY AND GILDING
While seats designed for banqueting halls were generally executed in mahogany, those for a banqueting saloon, which served as a combined eating and withdrawing-room, were generally gilded. Also, whereas such grand frames might normally be expected to be damask upholstered, it was considered that leather or horsehair were more suitable for eating rooms. It is therefore, relevant that when restoring the armchairs at Kenwood, English Heritage discovered traces of the original 'blue Turkey leather' upholstery.
A close comparison between the Kenwood chairs and the present pair reveals not only identical webbing and the remains of the original tufting with blue twining or stuffing ties - the precursor of button-back upholstery - but also the fact that the hoof-feet originally disguised castors. These chairs are also identically constructed to those at Kenwood, although there are inevitable minor variations within the suite itself, one of the Kenwood chairs and one of the Scroll-couches being constructed without any angle-brackets.
A note on the upholstery 'The chairs retain a very finely woven 'over' scrim on their arms, secured with hand-forged tacks of the period. This fine scrim is of a very similar nature to that found on the Houghton Satyr-Mask suite. The chairs also retain their original 'under' scrim which is of a coarser nature, and bands of striped webbing (on the arms, underneath the stuffing but visible within the arm cavity) (written communication, Spink Restoration, 16 January 1998).
Unusually moreover, an analysis of the gilding of the present chairs at the time of the 1997 sale revealed that, beneath two later layers, probably 19th Century, one of gold paint and the other of gold leaf, the original 18th Century oil-gilt surface on a thin layer of yellow mordant survives. Of the suite, therefore, these chairs are in the most original state. In 1998, the later gilded surfaces were removed down to the earliest layer of gesso, which had been identified as a restoration layer following the loss of much of the original preparation layer. Various minor restorations were carried out, foliate tips and floral scrolls were carved to match and the surface prepared with a pale yellow size and then water-gilt and toned with water-colour.
The gilding analysis was undertaken by University College London in 1997 and the chairs were regilded by Carvers and Gilders and restored by Spink Restoration in 1998.
We are grateful to Treve Rosoman of English Heritage and Stephen Astley of the Sir John Soane Museum for their help in preparing this catalogue entry.