DISTINGUISHED COMMODES BY VILE AND COBB
This elegantly serpentined and bronze-enriched 'commode' chest-of-drawers was executed for a bedroom apartment and is conceived in the 'Picturesque' French antique manner that became fashionable in the 1760s. With its carved lamrequin apron, this commode is the most elaborate in a small and distinguished group attributed to the London cabinet-makers, William Vile and John Cobb, and discussed in depth by Lucy Wood in her Catalogue of Commodes, London, 1994, pp. 43-53. The commodes are characterised by their serpentined form, good quality timbers and rich ormolu embellishments which copy French Régence patterns produced some thirty years earlier. The distinctive and unusual lambrequin apron is a rare and sophisticated refinement which is only shared with the larger commode supplied to John, 4th Duke of Bedford (d.1771) at Woburn Abbey.
The fundamental model matches a commode with two short over two long drawers supplied to Brownlow, 9th Earl of Exeter for the Blue Silk Dressing Room at Burghley House, Lincolnshire; two further pairs of this same basic model, one exhibiting more exuberant rococo mounts, were also supplied and remain at Burghley. A further set of four commodes of the more restrained form was supplied to John, 2nd Earl of Ashburnham (d. 1812), for Ashburnham Place, Battle, Sussex, circa 1760-1761; sold in the Ashburnham Place house sale, 7-9 July 1953, lots 135-136, one pair of these commodes reappeared at Christie's London, 14 June 2001, lot 140 (£421,750). Other closely related commodes from this group include two pairs from Blickling Hall in Norfolk (one pair sold in 1933); and a pair purchased in 1914 by Lord Lever, later Viscount Leverhulme and now in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight. A commode from this group is illustrated in R. W. Symonds, 'English Commodes in the French taste', Connoisseur, January 1957, p. 17, fig. 1, whilst a further example almost certainly supplied to the 5th Duke of Bolton (d. 1765), for Hackwood Park, Hampshire, was sold in these Rooms, 8 July 1999, lot 62 (£199,500). There are subtle variations within the group, some commodes being of slightly less pronounced serpentine shape, having straight sides rather than moulded tops and employing ormolu carrying-handles to the sides of the case.
These commodes can be confidently attributed to the acclaimed Royal cabinet-makers William Vile and John Cobb based on their association with other related models recorded by the firm and a known working relationship between the cabinet-makers and the houses to which these various commodes were supplied. Most notably, at Blickling there is a payment by the 2nd Earl of Buckinghamshire to 'Vile & Cobb cabinet-makers' in August 1762 for £86.5s.9d which is sufficient to account for the four Régence pattern commodes and a further related example. Furthermore, this additional single commode at Blickling shares the same mounts and other distinguishable features with a documented example supplied by Cobb to James West at Alscot Park in 1766 for £16. And while Vile and Cobb are not documented at Burghley, Lucy Wood presents the possibility that they may have been subcontracted by another firm such as Mayhew and Ince. Interestingly the six commodes at Burghley display considerable variations in construction and it is certainly possible that Cobb's pupil, Henry Tatham, who established his own cabinet workshops in Stamford, may have also produced commodes of this form for his patron the 9th Earl of Exeter.
18TH CENTURY ENGLISH TASTE FOR THE PICTURESQUE
Although this group of commodes was executed circa 1760-61, they are conceived in the earlier French 'Régence' style popularised by artists such as Nicolas Pineau and Giles-Marie Oppenordt in the 1720s and 1730s. In the first half of the 18th Century, most Englishmen accepted the cultural and fashionable primacy of France. By 1735, the St Martin's Lane Academy was introducing Régence and early Louis XV designs to artists and craftsmen and until 1744, England was at peace with France, traditionally her arch-rival. This important and long period of peace facilitated England's initial acceptance of French, and specifically Rococo, designs. Despite the political and cultural obstacles between England and France of the mid-18th Century, notably the Seven Years War of 1756-1763, the enthusiasm for French fashions in England continued unabated. Most craftsmen seem to have been oblivious to the contradiction between patriotism and their work, despite the efforts of Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington (d. 1753) and William Kent (d. 1748) to introduce an 'English' style, based on a robust interpretation of Palladio's designs. The Rococo, on the other hand, besides its fashionable 'French-ness', held a more practical attraction for designers and craftsmen in that by its very nature, it was more labour-intensive than the sober English 'Kentian' style: designers were often able to charge more for their work. Somewhat ironically, defense for the French style is found in The Anti-Gallican, a novel of 1757, which noted 'let us endeavour at raising ourselves to an equal if not superior Pitch of Excellence, in every Science and Profession, to all Nations of the Globe'.
This commode's angled pilasters are ormolu-enriched with Arcadian nymph heads in French-fashioned ruffles emerging from reeded and Venus-pearled cartouches, whose reeded 'truss' brackets are wrapped by Roman acanthus and imbricated with pearls and scallops. They are tied by bubbled ribbon-guilloches to the acanthus volutes of the bracket feet. The ormolu escutcheons serve to celebrate the triumphal birth of Venus: water-deity heads accompany her shell-badge displayed on these antique-stippled and acanthus-wrapped cartouches, while the reeded and flowered handles are suspended from acanthus-flowered paterae. The French-patterned angle bronzes are inspired by a pattern that is thought to have been invented by the Parisian ébéniste Pierre Daneau (d. 1735) of the rue St. Honoré. A pair of serpentine marble-topped and ormolu-mounted commodes bear his stamp and the date 1733, and are now at Firle Place, Sussex.
Wotton House, Buckinghamshire was built by Sir Richard Temple (d.1749) and completed in 1714, the year of his elevation to the peerage as Baron Cobham and appointment as Ambassador to Vienna on the King's accession in 1714. Although overshadowed by the principal family seat at Stowe, Wotton was by equal measure a family house. If the inscription is accepted, this commode is likely to have been introduced to Wotton by George Grenville (d.1770) following his marriage to Elizabeth Wyndham in 1749 - around the time that the architect Sanderson Miller was carrying out improvements to the Park in 1758.
It is worth investigating the Stowe connection, as certain items from Wotton were subsequently moved and sold during the landmark thirty-seven day Stowe sale of 1848. Frustratingly catalogue descriptions are all too brief - although no less than eight lots describe 'Chest of four drawers', including lot 1605 in the 'Cobham Dressing Room' (£1.11.0 to Beard) and lot 1697 in the 'Bishop's Dressing Room' (to Ballersen for the considerable sum of £4.14.0).
The pencil inscription on the reverse of the commode may, however, equally refer to another Wotton, or indeed a family named Wotton or Wolton. The 16th Century Wotton House, near Dorking, the ancestral home of the Evelyn family since 1579 is one such possibility. Another is Wotton in Dorset, now lost, the home of the Luttrell family.