The dining-chairs, originally a set of 14, were almost certainly supplied by Thomas Chippendale to the Earl of Shelburne for his London house on Berkeley Square, later called Lansdowne House, as part of a commission fulfilled between 1768 - 76. They admirably represent Chippendale’s early Neo-Classical style and the set is one of a distinct group of six recorded sets of similar chairs, including sets for Harewood House, Goldsborough Hall and Newby Hall, all in Yorkshire, David Garrick’s, apartment at the Adelphi, London, and Brocket Hall, Hertfordshire.
In 1765 William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne (d.1805), purchased the mansion on Berkeley Square that Robert Adam had started building for Lord Bute three years earlier. The house would provide an appropriate base from which to further his political aspirations, a career that culminated in his appointment as Prime Minister in 1782 - 83, and his elevation to the Marquess of Lansdowne.
The decoration and furnishing of the house is well recorded, not least in the diaries of Lady Shelburne who evidently played an important role, and consulted with Adam on many aspects of the work. The furnishing must have been underway by August 1768, since Chippendale’s first invoice was dated 4 August, 'to taking down a Bookcase in Hill Street and moving to the new house’, while on 10 August Lady Shelburne wrote of the 'Hall, Antichamber, & Dining Room, which are quite finished except for the glasses, the window curtains & chairs’. On 22 August 1768 she recorded a visit to Buck and Swan to buy furnishing silk, and reported discussions with Adam regarding 'furniture for our painted antichamber’ and a design for a stand for her 'best Japan Cabinet’. On other occasions she described visits to Messrs. Mayhew & Ince’s workshop and to the studios of Zucchi and Cipriani (A.T. Bolton, The Architecture of Robert & James Adam, London, 1922, vol, II, pp. 1 – 17).
The role of Robert Adam in recommending Chippendale is highlighted by Christopher Gilbert, who compares the commission for Lord Shelburne with that for Sir Lawrence Dundas at 19 Arlington Street. Noting that both commissions favour seat-furniture, good quality bedroom and library furnishings, but not expensive upholstery, magnificent carved and gilt wall furniture, nor marquetry, Gilbert has speculated that Adam may have recommended that this work be executed by others (C. Gilbert, The Life and Work of Thomas Chippendale, London, 1978, vol. I, p. 254). However the arrangement worked in practice, Chippendale was employed to supply furniture for many of Adam’s finest interiors, not only in London at 19 Arlington Street and Shelburne House, but also at Nostell Priory, Harewood and Newby, all in Chippendale’s home county of Yorkshire.
The Earl of Shelburne’s account with Chippendale includes a range of furniture items, lanterns and blinds, largely in a period between August 1768 and December 1769. The dining-chairs supplied for Lansdowne House were included in a bill dated 20 January 1769, described as:
'14 Mahogany Chairs with Antique backs & term feet very richly Carvd with hollow seats stuffd and coverd with Red Morocco Leather & double Brass naild’,
and they were invoiced at £51. 9s, or £3. 15s per chair.
The contents of Lansdowne House were dispersed in 1806 after the death of the first Marquess and none of the Chippendale commission was retained among the residual family heirlooms, nor do they appear in photographs at Lansdowne House. However at least six (probably seven)of these chairs may subsequently have come into the possession of the London dealer Moss Harris who illustrated one chair (unprovenanced) in M. Harris & Sons, The English Chair, London, 1937, p. 142, pl. LXXIIA. It is highly likely that he also supplied the eighth chair offered here when the set was acquired in 1946.
CHIPPENDALE’S DESIGN AND RELATED CHAIRS
When, owing to changing fashions, Chippendale adopted the Neo-Classical style championed by Robert Adam and other leading architects he evolved a repertoire of basic chair types suitable for drawing-rooms, dining-rooms, libraries and halls. The designs were available in either utility, standard or deluxe versions, depending on the taste and purse of patrons; all reflected the firm's distinctive house style.
The six recorded sets of Chippendale's early Neo-Classical mahogany dining-chairs, commissioned for Harewood House, Newby Hall, Goldsborough Hall, Brocket Hall (sold from the Private Residence of Henry Francis du Pont at Winterthur, Christie's New York, 14 October 1994, lot 125, $321,500 including premium), Lansdowne House, and for David Garricks apartment in the Adelphi, London between 1769 and circa 1774 conform to a basic pattern. All have frames of rectangular design, leather-covered seats, fan splats, blocked paterae with leaf caps on the shoulders and square tapered front legs faced with hollow panels and spade feet. Differences are expressed in the degree of elaboration in the carved enrichment, the Brocket set (of eighteen chairs) being the most elaborate with foliate wrapped top rails and husk swags suspended across the full width of the back and down the stiles, while the Newby, Goldsborough and Lansdowne sets are almost identical to each other. The Harewood set of twenty chairs are a slight variant of the model with a horizontal top rail and dished seat.
Christopher Gilbert, in his article for Christie’s International Magazine, July 1996 prior to the sale of the Goldsborough chairs, highlighted that Chippendale, at this time in his career, made use of so-called 'pattern' chairs rather than drawings to guide workmen and for customers to choose from, noting that the 1766 sale of stock which followed his partner James Rannie's death included 'a Variety ... of fine Pattern chairs'.
In 1931 The Metropolitan Museum, New York, acquired two major English period rooms including the Lansdowne House dining room, following a trend that had started in the 1890s. The Lansdowne House room was purchased following the sale of the house by the Bute family and the imminent demolition of part of the building. The room, designed by Adam with the character of a sculpture gallery to give the impression of 'dining with the gods', was not only valuable exhibit in its own right, but provided an appropriate backdrop for the Museum's collections (surprisingly the rooms remained crated until 1951 when they were reassembled) (Jeremy Musson, 'Borrowed Rooms', Country Life, 16 October 2013, pp. 62 - 66). It was to be another 45 years before the Museum acquired an appropriate set of dining-chairs to furnish the rooms, but in 1996 they did acquire the set of fourteen supplied by Chippendale for Goldsborough Hall (Christie’s, 4 July 1996, lot 340, £859,500 including premium), a set directly related to those commissioned by the Earl of Shelburne.