Ditchley Park has a remarkable history in both the 18th and 20th
Centuries. The house was largely built by George Lee, 2nd Earl of Lichfield, whose mother, Lady Charlotte Fitzroy was the daughter of Charles II by the Duchess of Cleveland. Work began in 1720 and continued until the 2nd Earl's death in 1743 at the age of 52. The 3rd Earl, responsible for adding the chinoiserie carvings, died in 1772 and was succeeded by his uncle who was killed hunting in 1776. Ditchley was inherited by his niece, Lady Charlotte Lee, who married the 11th Viscount Dillon.
Ditchley remained in the Dillon family until 1934, when the 18th Viscount Dillon sold the house and much of its contents to Mr. and Mrs. Ronald Tree. Ronald Tree was an American who had been brought up and educated in England. In 1920 he married fellow American Nancy Langhorne, and in 1926 they moved back to England where he stood for Parliament. Ronald Tree married his second wife, Marietta, in 1946; Marietta lived only briefly at Ditchley, as Tree was forced to sell it in 1947.
THE TAPESTRY DRAWING ROOM AT DITCHLEY
John Cornforth suggests that James Gibbs supplied the plans and elevations for Ditchley Park, and that the interiors were carried out by Henry Flitcroft (d. 1769), Clerk of the Board of Works at George II's London Palaces and assistant to William Kent (d. 1748), the King's 'Master Carpenter', along with Italian stuccadores. Under the supervision of the contractors, Francis and William Smith, William Bradshaw supplied much of the furniture and John Cheere the chimneypieces.
The carvings were executed for one of the principal rooms of entertainment of the Roman-style villa. The Tapestry Drawing Room featured a Roman stuccoed ceiling that was designed by Flitcroft. The hearth, which supplied the room's focal point, had a magnificent temple-pedimented marble chimneypice that was invoiced by Cheere in 1743. Its carved ornament included a central tablet bearing the head of a fertility deity; and with its 'Roman' pilaster trusses festooned with fruit and flowers, it was intended to evoke a golden age of Peace and Plenty.
THE GOLDEN CARVINGS
These richly carved pendants formed part of the chimney-piece 'sconces', introduced as part of the enrichments of the room carried out in the late 1740's by George Henry, 3rd Earl of Lichfield. Having embellished its walls with tapestry hangings, he commissioned these drapery carvings, together with ensuite girandole mirrors. The inventory of Ditchley drawn up on the death of the 3rd Earl in 1772 lists:
'No. 35. In the next Tapestry Room
A curious small Chinese figure of a Lady
A pair of Girandoles, with two India figures...'
The pair of girandoles, visible in the in situ photograph, was sold at Christie's London, 12 March 1981, lot 12. The 'India' figure from the present lot at the other end of the same room, is illustrated in situ in Country Life, 24 October 1985, p.1176, fig 7. Nancy Tree, later Mrs Lancaster, moved the carvings to Haseley Court, which she acquired in 1954, and where they remained until 1972.
The chinoiserie overmantel mirror en suite with the carvings is visible in the 1950 watercolour by Alexandre Serebriakoff (b. 1907) and is illustrated here, showing the Tapestry Room after it had been rearranged as Mrs. Tree's Sitting Room and the tapestries removed. The chinoiserie overmantel mirror, which relates very closely to the chinoiserie overmantel at Badminton by Linnell, was sold from the Estate of Marietta Tree, Christie's, New York, 17 October 1992, lot 129.
THE ATTRIBUTION TO WILLIAM LINNELL
The execution of these superb carvings has been attributed to the workshops of the London carver and cabinet-maker William Linnell (d. 1763), who had worked during the 1740's under Flitcroft's direction at Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire (J. Cornforth, 'William Linnell at Ditchley', Country Life, 15 December 1988, p. 104). It was in the late 1740's that William was joined by his son John Linnell (d. 1796), and it was shortly after the establishment of their Long Acre partnership, that the firm recieved a commission to decorate the famous 'India' apartment at Badminton House, Gloucestershire for the 4th Duke of Beaufort, which is very similar in feeling to the present carvings. Furthermore, a design for a mirror in the Victoria and Albert Museum shows a female chinoiserie figure playing a lute which is closely related to the carved chinoiserie figure here (H. Hayward and P. Kirkham, William and John Linnell: Eighteenth Century London Furniture Makers, London, 1980, vol. II, p. 94, pl. 180).
The attribution of these carvings to the Linnell workshop is further strengthened by the ties between the Dukes of Beaufort and the Lee family: the 3rd Earl was a Jacobite supporter, as were the Beauforts, and both families used the hunt as a cover for Jacobite activities (J. Cornforth, 'Ditchley Park, Oxfordshire--II', Country Life, 24 November 1988, p. 85).
It is also possible that these carvings were actually designed by John Linnell, who became famed as 'an excellent carver in wood' and had trained in the French arts through his studies at the St. Martin's Lane Academy established by William Hogarth, artist and author of The Analysis of Beauty, 1753.
Another possibility is that Linnell's carvings could have been executed under the direction of the architect and author Thomas Wright (d. 1786), with whom he worked at Badminton. Wright's publications on ornamental architecture included 'Six Original Designs of Arbours', 1755; and when he retired to Durham a few years later he decorated his Byers Green villa with an elaborate sequence of prints illustrating the faculties of human knowledge and passions. The fanciful composition of these carvings could well owe their inspiration to his genius.