MAYHEW & INCE - LIBRARY STEPS FOR BLENHEIM PALACE
The library steps, finely engraved with Vitruvian scrolls and roundels, are possibly one of a pair supplied on 14 October 1785 by the London cabinet-making partnership, John Mayhew and William Ince, to George Spencer, 4th Duke of Marlborough for his Observatory at Blenheim Palace (H. Roberts, 'Nicely fitted up' Furniture for the 4th Duke of Marlborough', Furniture History Society, 1994, p. 149, f/n 121). Mayhew and Ince were employed by the Duke of Marlborough (d. 1817), from at least 1772, at Blenheim, Oxfordshire, Marlborough House, London, and other properties (G.Beard and C.Gilbert, Dictionary of English Furniture Makers, 1660-1840, Leeds, 1986, p.595). It is likely however, that the relationship was established earlier since their Universal System of Household Furniture, published in 1762, was dedicated to the Duke, acknowleging Your Grace's extensive Knowlege, in the Arts & Sciences, but more particularly in Drawing and your being ever willing to promote, and encourage Industry & Ingenuity. The introduction may well have arisen through the Duke's wife Lady Caroline Russell, daughter of John Russell, 4th Duke of Bedford (d.1771), who employed the cabinet-makers from 1767 at Bedford House, London and Woburn, Bedfordshire, as also did her nephew the 5th Duke of Bedford (ibid, p.594).
Only one bill, dated 1789, survives detailing the work Mayhew and Ince executed for the Duke of Marlborough, but the Day Book, describing furniture movements in the period 1772 - 1800 (Blenheim Muniments Room, Box XXII/74/7) is more enlightening. It notes on 14 October 1785 Came from Mayhews, A Pr. of Mehogny Steps for the Observatory, while an earlier entry from 2 August 1783, had also referred to steps 'from' John Yenn, assistant to the architect William Chambers, who supervised the remodelling and redecoration of Blenheim at this time.
The 4th Duke had embarked upon largescale alterations at Blenheim following his succession in 1758, employing Chambers as his architect, and Lancelot 'Capability' Brown who redesigned the gardens. Among the work carried out was the creation of two observatories in the south-west and south-east towers, for the Duke was a keen astronomer and owner of a 10' Herschel telescope, presented to him by George III in 1786. In 1797, a New Description of Blenheim described 'a commodious and elegant Observatory' at the eastern end of the palace 'lately erected, amply furnished with the best astronomical apparatus', and noted 'another corresponding Observatory is now fitted up, at the western angle' (W.F. Mavor, 4th edition), though neither was mentioned in a later edition in 1840. Steps such as the present lot would have been highly appropriate furnishings for the Duke's observatories.
In 1762, Mayhew and Ince included a design for library steps, corresponding closely with many features of the present lot in their Universal System of Household Furniture (plate XXII). The decoration, typically neo-classical and very much à la mode is characteristic of the Golden Square makers who were especially noted for their skill as marqueteurs, in particular engraved marquetry. Among other items atrributed to Mayhew and Ince at Blenheim are an unusual high chest on a stand displaying similar engraved marquetry Vitruvian scolls (H.Roberts, op. cit., p.136 - 137, fig. 24), while the husk swags are a common feature in their canon.
Library steps were among the fashionable accessories offered by 18th century cabinet-makers, whose patrons were busy creating remarkable libraries. The library at Blenheim occupied the entire west front and was originally intended as a picture gallery before being altered to accomodate the collection formed at Althorp, Northamptonshire, by Charles Spencer, 3rd Earl of Sunderland, and grand-father of George Spencer, much of which was moved to Blenheim in 1749. In 1766 the library was said to amount to more than 20,000 volumes and was among the best private collections in England. Since the observatories at Blenheim fell into disuse, it is highly likely that the steps were relocated to the library.
Other comparable library steps include a set supplied by Thomas Chippendale the Younger for the Library at Stourhead, Wiltshire, recorded in the firm's accounts, 19 November 1804, priced at 48 gns, a set of two-flight steps formerly the property of Edward John Peregrine Cust, 7th Baron Brownlow at Belton House, Lincolnshire, sold Sotheby's, 4 July 1997, lot 56 (£62,000 including premium), and a set almost certainly supplied to William, 4th Earl Fitzwilliam for Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorkshire. Another set, circa 1765, with a framework of Chinese fretwork, was at Dyrham Park, Gloucestershire (P. Macquoid, R. Edwards, The Dictionary of English Furniture, 1954, p. 288, fig. 3).