In 1763, having not long returned from a fashionable Grand Tour of the Mediterranean, the Scottish architect Robert Adam (1728-1792) was commissioned to remodel 19 Arlington Street in London’s St James’s for the wealthy businessman Sir Lawrence Dundas. To realise his vision for the interior of the mansion’s piano nobile, Adam hired the foremost English furniture maker of the day — Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779).
In the only known instance in which he worked to an Adam design (all of which are now housed in London’s Sir John Soane Museum), Chippendale produced four sofas and eight chairs in total, each decorated with motifs from the ancient world which Adam had sketched while travelling. These included Ionic and Corinthian column capitols, wall decorations from Pompeii, and confronted sphinxes lifted from the Roman Temple of Antoninus and Faustina.
Carved from Chippendale’s material of choice — lime wood — the four sofas cost £54 each, and the eight chairs cost £20 each, making it the most expensive suite Chippendale ever produced. Adam’s design cost £5.
‘These were the first ever pieces of Neoclassical furniture made in England,’ stresses Christie’s UK chairman Orlando Rock. ‘You have this incredible, sinuous Rococo shape of a sofa and grafted on to the top of it is the richest, classically inspired ornamentation.’
Of the eight chairs, seven remain in private hands, while one is in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. One sofa remains in private hands, and one is in the Museum of Fine Art in Houston, Texas. The remaining two are being sold by Christie’s to mark the 300th anniversary of Thomas Chippendale’s birth. They last appeared together at Christie’s in 1997, when they were sold to the Marquess of Zetland.
‘The Dundas sofas are to me among the most voluptuous and exciting bits of furniture ever made,’ states Rock. ‘The amazing thing is that we know who made them, we know when they were made, we know how much they cost and where they have been ever since.’
‘Winn’s commode illustrates the great flowering of British design and craftsmanship at a moment in British history of great change and advancement’ — Charles Cator
Adam and Chippendale continued to work together, with Adam recommending the furniture maker to his clients as ‘a cabinet maker who could be safely trusted to supply high quality furniture which harmonised sensitively with the refined décor.’
One of those clients was Sir Rowland Winn (1739-1785), who happened to be a neighbour of Sir Lawrence Dundas in St James’s. Just months after completion of the Dundas suite, Winn commissioned Chippendale to produce a mahogany commode with alphabetised pigeon-holes in the new, Neoclassical style for which he was becoming famed.
The resulting commode, which exhibits fashionable Etruscan key-pattern inlays and carved acanthus leaves, marked Chippendale’s full arrival at Neoclassicism. ‘It's got incredible presence and power — [Chippendale] never gets it wrong,’ says Christie’s International Deputy Chairman Charles Cator. ‘It illustrates the great flowering of British design and craftsmanship at a moment in British history — with the Enlightenment and the beginnings of the industrial revolution — of great change and advancement.’
The commode also highlights Chippendale’s accomplished craftsmanship, adds Cator. 'He was brilliant at design but brilliant at the technical side, too. One of his specialities was having access to incredible timbers. The colour, the patination, the figuring of the timber, which is one of the great glories of this commode, is all something which is very, very special to Chippendale.’
Coincidentally, Chippendale and James Christie (1730-1803), the founder of Christie’s, were friends, and when Winn died Christie was appointed to auction his furniture. However, this commode was withdrawn from the sale at the last minute and transferred to the Winn family’s estate, Nostell Priory in Wakefield, Yorkshire. In 1991, it finally returned to Christie’s, where it was last seen in public before being sold to a private collector.
Christie’s Education offers short courses which focus on introducing beginners and art enthusiasts alike to the art world and art-related issues