LITERATURE FOR THE SUITE:
D. Fitzgerald, Georgian Furniture, London, 1969, no. 16.
W. Rieder, 'Eighteenth-Century Chairs in the Untermyer Collection', Apollo, March 1978, pp. 183 and 185, figs. 4 and 5.
N. Penny, Catalogue of European Sculpture in the Ashmolean Museum, vol. I (Italian), Oxford, 1992, no. 216-218, pp. 275-277).
L. Wood, The Upholstered Furniture in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool, 2008, vol. II, pp. 812-813, figs. 493-495.
These remarkable chairs - currently identified as seventeen in total - actually comprise two distinct groups which exhibit variations in construction, proportion and execution as detailed by Professor Truesdell in his 1984 Furniture History article. The date and origin of manufacture of each group has been studied by various top scholars in the field over the past forty years resulting in a wide spectrum of opinions. Lucy Wood in her recent two-volume book (cited above) surmises that the chairs' unusual design points to a Continental origin (probably Italian) designed all'inglese, of a mid-18th century date and utilizing English construction techniques; she dates the copies to the first half of the 19th century. It is worth noting that none of these chairs displays a history that pre-dates the early 20th century.
The 'Ashmolean' group (the earlier set) is so named because there are three side chairs in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (one on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London). Their history can be traced as far back as their acquisition by Colonel Claude Lowther in 1913 for Hurstmonceaux Castle, Sussex (B. Rieder, op. cit., p. 185; a photograph of one of the chairs shown in situ at Hurstmonceaux has been kindly provided by Jeremy Garfield-Davies, independent scholar). The 'Untermyer' group (of a later date) includes four chairs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, part of the generous bequest of Judge Irwin Untermyer in 1974, of which we only know that they were purchased from a dealer in 1969. Two further side chairs are in a private collection in Chicago.
The chairs compare to the well-known suite, gilt on walnut frames, comprising chairs, settees, stools and a pair of side tables thought to have been supplied for Stowe House, Buckinghamshire (W. Rieder, 'A Gilt Gesso Set of Furniture Traditionally from Stowe', Furniture History, 1978, pp. 9-13, pl. 21-23B). The suite includes at least four chairs that date to 1720. These four were purchased by Sir William Ward, 1st Earl of Dudley in the celebrated 37-day Stowe sale of 1848, lot 338. It is probable that Lord Ward subsequently made later copies to match. Further chairs from the suite are in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle, having been acquired in various auctions in the 20th century. A settee (at the Metropolitan Museum of Art), a pair of stools (now at Parham Park, Sussex) and a pair of tables (most recently sold Christie's, London, 9 July 1998, lot 100 where the suite is fully discussed) all descended from purchasers in the Stowe sale (the Duncombe and Lowndes families, respectively). Most recently, a pair of later chairs was sold at Sotheby's, New York, 16 October 2008, lot 190. Other chairs that have been compared to the Truesdell model include: a set at Beningbrough Hall, Yorkshire (H. A. Tipping, 'Beningbrough Hall', Country Life, 3 December 1927, p. 823, fig. 6) and Hever Castle, Kent; and a further suite which includes a single chair in the collections at the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight (see L. Wood, op. cit., for a discussion of all relevant examples including the Truesdell model, no. 79, pp. 806-815).
The magnificent golden parlour chairs are designed in the George II Roman fashion, richly sculpted in bas-relief to evoke love's triumph. Their ornament, inspired by that adopted for French park fountains, is intended to recall the water-birth of the nature-deity Venus, who was drawn by dolphins in a shell chariot to the land, where flowers sprang at the touch of her foot. Here, the 'India backs' are crowned by the deity's shell badge borne by addorsed water-spouting dolphins; these are raised on reed-banded pilasters that terminate in sunflowered wave-scrolls on altar plinths that are imbricated in dolphin scales. Their trellised 'vase' splats, wrapped by water-leaves, bear the heads of Cupid above dolphins displayed in flower-festooned cartouches. More dolphins emerge in antique fashion from acanthus foliage on the rails' lambrequined tablets; while palms and laurel flower the scaled tablets embellishing the truss-scrolled columnar legs, which terminate in embowed dolphin heads. The latter featured on a parlour chair pattern issued in First Book of Ornament (1741) by William de la Cour, who provided 'designs for all sorts of trades' as well as the theatre, before his move to Dublin and Edinburgh in the 1750s.