The Goût Rothschild
Beautifully carved and of an unusually grand scale, these palatial armchairs have retained their original silk-stich embroidery covers in vivid colours, a rare survival and document. Miraculously, the original damask-patterned stamped leather dust-covers have also survived, and together with the chair-frames they form a unique historic ensemble encapsulating the goût Rothschild.
The backs and seats are embellished with superb embroidery depicting exuberant flower bouquets issuing from precious vases resting on a ledge, which are related to flower still lives executed in Florence but also in Rome by Northern and Italian artists active in the second half of the 17th Century. This includes the Maastricht artist Karel Vogelaer (1653-1695), who executed a series of paintings in Rome with tall and densely-filled flower bouquets similar to those on the present embroidery. The oeuvre of Francesco Mantovano, active in Venice and Rome between 1636 and 1663, also includes very similar flower vases issuing colourful and fantastical flower bouquets in a dense composition (G. and U. Bocchi, Pittori di Natura Morta a Roma, Viadona, 2004, Artisti Stranieri, pp. 175-197, Artisti Italiani, p. 215). In addition, they are also related to the flower pictures by the Florentine artist Andrea Scacciati (1642-1710), which are looser in composition and with more surrounding elements but still similar in arrangement of the flowers (M. Gregori, La Natura Morta, Milan, 1989, pp. 589-590).
The 1873 exhibition catalogue entry describes the chair as 'Large carved Elbow chair of Florentine needlework, with 5 covers from the Palace Capponi, needlework by the Lady Zeni Capponi'. The following item in the exhibition (no. 97) was another chair from a large set at Mentmore (Sotheby's house sale, lot 846) also covered with needlework by ladies of the Capponi family. In the Mentmore 1884 catalogue this set was recorded on the Gallery. Whether or not the covers were indeed made by a member of Capponi family is uncertain; the scale of the commission was large and ambitious, the quality of the embroidery extraordinary; both of which would point to the involvement of a professional workshop. The mention in the museum entry might therefore be based on family tradition rather than factual information.
The Leather Covers
Leather covers were not unusual in the grandest houses to protect precious items of furniture when the house was not lived in or when rooms were shut during the winter months. Few of these survive and have generally been seperated from the pieces to which they belong. At Ham House near Richmond, the seat of the Dukes of Lauderdale and Earls of Dysart, some leather covers have survived and are listed in the 1677, 1679 and 1683 inventories (P. Thornton, 'The Furniture and Decoration of Ham House', Furniture History Society, XVI(1980), pp. 50, 57 and 88). At Burghley House near Stamford, the seat of the Marquesses of Exeter, leather covers have also survived for a Boulle longcase clock and a coffer-on-stand no longer at Burghley, which are now at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, and in the collection of the Dukes of Marlborough at Blenheim Palace (G. Wilson, 'A Clock, a Coffer and their Covers', Furniture History Society, XLIII(2007), pp. 237-243).
Palazzo Capponi delle Rovinate, Florence, located across the Arno River from the Galleria degli Uffizi, was completed in 1411 for Nicolo da Uzzano, and was inherited by the Capponi family in 1435. The last surviving branch of the family - famous for the spirited challenge made by their ancestor Piero Capponi to a French invasion in 1494 - still resides in the palace to this day.
The art collections at Mentmore were among the most outstanding of their kind anywhere in the world, prompting Lady Eastlake to comment: 'I do not believe that the Medici were ever so lodged at the height of their glory'. Mentmore was built between 1852 and 1854 by Baron Mayer Amschel de Rothschild, who needed a house near to London and in close proximity to other Rothschild homes at Tring, Ascot, Aston Clinton and later Waddesdon and Halton House. The plans for the mansion imitated Wollaton Hall in Nottingham and were drawn up by the gardener turned architect Joseph Paxton, celebrated for his Crystal Palace, completed the year earlier. Sumptuously furnished with extraordinary works of art in every field, on his death in 1874, Baron Mayer left Mentmore and a fortune of some £2,000,000 to his daughter, Hannah de Rothschild. Four years later Hannah married Archibald Philip, 5th Earl of Rosebery, who added considerably to the collections assembled by his father-in-law and it remained intact until the dispersal of the contents in 1977.