The eagle/lion griffin was considered sacred in antiquity to the sun and poetry deity Apollo. They can be found serving as winged couches for figures depicted on Etruscan urns, while other griffin monopodiae are sculpted on Roman marble furniture of the Flavian period. In particular, the model for this pair of giltwood canapés reflects the study of antiquities by scholars such as the architect, Jean-Guillaume Moitte (d. 1810), and Percier and Fontaine, authors of Recueil de Décorations Intérieures (1801). The closest design, however, is one illustrated in Dionisio and Lorenzo Santi's, Modèles de Meubles et de décorations Interièures, pour l'Ameublement (1828, pl. 41, no.5; E. Colle, Il mobile Impero in Italia: arredi e decorazioni d'interni dal 1800 al 1843, Milan, 1998, p. 14).
The present canapés are closely related to a celebrated suite of seat-furniture formerly in the collection of Cardinal Fesch (d. 1839), Napoleon’s uncle, and from 1803-06 the Emperor’s ambassador to the Holy See. The suite was almost certainly commissioned for Fesch’s Roman Palazzo del Buffalo-Ferraioli.
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In circa 1806, Fesch moved much of his furniture from Rome to the rue du Mont Blanc, Paris, and on 17 June 1816, the collection was sold anonymously after the fall of Napoleon. Interestingly, the agent of the triumphant ‘Iron’ Duke of Wellington was among the largest buyers at the sale, and a large group of Fesch’s furniture survives to this day at Stratfield Saye, Berkshire. The connoisseur William Beckford (d. 1844), who is known to have been in Paris at around the time of the Fesch sale, acquired a set of griffin seats, which correspond precisely to lots 445 and 446 in the Fesch sale. They were displayed in the Grand Drawing Room at Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire, where they are illustrated in John Rutter's, Delineations of Fonthill (1823, pl. 5). The chairs were later offered at the Phillip's Fonthill Abbey sale, 9 September and following days until end of October, 1823, lots 1534-40, ‘A splendid suite of SALOON FAUTEUILS, richly carved and gilt, and designed from the ANTIQUE, stuffed and covered in purple damask’. Other armchairs of this comparable model were: in the collection of the Marquesses of Londonderry, Wynyard Park, Co. Durham; a further group of chairs on loan to Duff House, Banff, and a single armchair from Malmesbury House, sold Christie’s, South Kensington, 18 February 2007, lot 214; this group undoubtedly comprises the Beckford chairs.