These handsome chairs with cabriole legs terminating in pad feet have a ‘Windsor’ saddle seat and a chamfered back, the latter richly fretted in the French manner with an arcaded ribbon-guilloche of paired pilasters tied by lozenge compartments. While Windsor chairs are generally associated with provincial makers using local materials, these chairs are of more elegant and sophisticated form and the design relates to fashionable chairs produced in settled urban workshops, sometimes using imported timber. Other such Windsor chairs include a mahogany chair with a pierced vertical splat and a fruitwood and elm armchair with joined serpentine crest rail and outswept arms, both illustrated in Michael Harding-Hill, Windsor Chairs, Woodbridge, 2003, pp. 52 and 76.
The chairs offered here were formerly in the collection of John Mercer-Henderson, 8th Earl of Buckinghamshire (d.1963) at Hampden House, Hertfordshire, sold by Curtis & Henson, 'Hampden House', 17-22 April 1939, lot 1221, 'A set of 6 open armchairs, English early 18th century, of walnut wood'. They also correspond closely to the two near-identical sets of six commissioned as part of the refurbishment of the ancient Hampden family mansion at neighbouring Hartwell House, Buckinghamshire. These were recorded in the handwritten Hartwell inventory of 1910 in the Staircase Hall, they were illustrated by Country Life in the Great Hall in 1914 and ultimately sold at the sale of contents of Hartwell House, Sotheby’s, London, 26-28 April 1938, lots 172 and 173 (illustrated plate XI).
The Earls of Buckinghamshire were distantly related to the Hampden and Lee families of Hartwell House. In 1824, the 5th Earl of Buckinghamshire inherited Hampden House, and its estates from the heirless Hampden family. His ancestor, Sir John Hobart, 3rd Bt., had married Mary Hampden, a daughter of the house in circa 1655; the 5th Earl then joined the Hampden name to his own. Furthermore, from the late 15th century until 1618-19, Hartwell Manor was owned by the Hampden family until it passed to a kinsman, Thomas Lee Senior of East Claydon (d.1626).
The Hartwell armchairs were almost certainly commissioned around 1740 as part of the transformation of the magnificent Stuart banqueting hall, carried out by Sir Thomas Lee, 3rd Bt. (d.1749) and his wife Eleanor, née Hampden. They employed the Rome-trained architect, James Gibbs (d.1749), for the embellishment of their estate and house, which was undertaken in a ‘Roman’ fashion fused with antiquarian elements in celebration of ancient British liberties and their warrior-parliamentarian ancestor, John Hampden.
The chairs’ architecture harmonized with Hartwell’s arcaded and turreted hedges, as well as the hall’s ‘British’ chimneypiece featuring caryatids following Gibbs’ design in A Book of Architecture, 1728, pl. 93. The same pattern was featured in Batty Langley’s Treasury of Designs, London, 1745, pl. LXIII, and it is possible that the chairs were already at Hartwell House as early as 1737 when Frederick, Prince of Wales (d.1751) viewed Sir Thomas’s gardens. Interestingly, the Hampden family’s prominent role in government affairs continued several decades later as Hartwell became home to the exiled French King Louis XVIII, from 1808 -1814.
While the present chairs cannot be positively identified from 18th or 19th century inventories at Hampden House, it seems very possible given the family ties that a set of chairs was supplied, perhaps by a local chair-maker, for Hampden that corresponded to the distinguished Hartwell sets, particularly so if the latter were indeed made of valuable and fashionable mahogany or walnut. Alternatively, it is not inconceivable that Mercer-Henderson acquired one of the Hartwell sets at the 1938 sale. Given the apparent confusion in misidentification of the timber used in the Hartwell chairs, either scenario is possible.
At least one of the Hartwell House sets must have been broken up since a number of chairs identified as being from Hartwell have been sold occasionally at auction. A single 'mahogany' chair (without provenance) was sold by Lord Robert Crichton-Stuart, Christie’s, London, 16 July 1970, lot 53 (290 gns); another was sold anonymously Christie’s, London, 6 April 2000, lot 154 (erroneously described as 'walnut', and revised to 'mahogany' prior to the sale) (£35,250 including premium), and a matched pair, one of which was 18th century, the other a modern copy, was sold anonymously, Christie’s, New York, 14 October 2009, lot 205 ($37,500 including premium, sold after sale).