When Christie’s specialists were presented with a parcel-gilt and blue-painted chair in New York, they knew they had discovered something out of the ordinary — although what it was, exactly, remained harder to discern.
‘The chair was found in the American Midwest,’ recalls Christie’s International Head of Furniture, Robert Copley. When photographs of the piece appeared to show royal insignia, it was shipped to New York, before travelling to Christie’s offices in London for further research.
The journey marked the beginning of a 10-month process for Christie’s Furniture Department, whose research took them deep into the collections of Europe’s museums and Royal Archives. ‘We knew we had something amazing,’ continues Copley. ‘The chair is very elaborate, and the fact that it was decorated with a royal crown and cypher meant it must have been made for someone significant. It was just a case of working out who.’
Initial research in America confirmed that the crown was not English. ‘We went to the College of Arms in London, which confirmed that it related to another European monarchy,’ explains Sharon Goodman, a Specialist Researcher. The College of Arms believed it could be Dutch — a theory that was confirmed through further research.
‘I recognised the crown from an engraving in the Rijksmuseum, which depicts William of Orange in 1688-89 at the time of the Glorious Revolution,’ Goodman continues. Made before William’s official coronation as King of England, the image shows him being crowned by a celestial figure, who places a newly-created Dutch crown on his head — almost identical in appearance to the crown on the chair.
‘It was a breakthrough,’ says Goodman, who compared each crown’s closed form, only found on royal crowns, and strawberry-leaf and fleur-de-lis decoration. ‘Up until that point, we hadn’t found anything that appeared to indicate provenance quite so conclusively.’ The discovery raised the intriguing possibility that the ornate chair had been made for William of Orange between November 1688, when he first arrived in England, and his coronation as William III of England in 1689.
While the specialists were able to identify the crown, however, the origin of the cypher, or royal monogram, remained unclear. ‘We’ve never managed to establish who this cypher was created for,’ says Copley. ‘Its central letter might be read as a ‘G’ for Guillaume, or an ‘O’ for Orange. What is clearly visible are two R’s for Rex, or King.’
If the chair had been made to celebrate William and Mary’s arrival, it seemed highly likely that its maker would have been English. Such discerning clients, too, suggest that its maker would have been one of the period’s most significant. ‘Thomas Roberts was the most important chair-maker of his time. He was Royal chair-maker under James II and, after his deposition, continued to work for William III and Mary,’ says Copley.
Stylistic similarities to other works by Thomas Roberts were striking, with the most compelling found on the state bed, armchairs and stools ordered to furnish James II’s apartments at Whitehall Palace in August 1688. Among the most spectacular and historically important pieces Roberts made, these pieces featured a number of motifs that found their echo in the chair — from carved lions to celestial figures. Here, too, the chairs made by Roberts featured zoomorphic, or animal-like feet.
The find was promising: if the chair was a Royal piece, made by Roberts, it was very likely it would have been listed in the Royal Archives — which could in turn reveal the identity of its original owner. ‘We searched all of the records from 1676 to 1696, but couldn’t find the chair,’ says Goodman. Its absence, however, didn’t necessarily mean the piece hadn’t been made for a future monarch. ‘If the chair had been made before William was crowned King of England, it is quite likely it wouldn’t have been listed in the Royal Archives.’
Upon a monarch’s death the most senior officer in the Royal household was the Lord Chamberlain, who had the right to choose his favourite furnishings and take them for his own property. When Queen Mary died, the notoriously avaricious Lord Chamberlain made extensive lists of the pieces he wished to take from her quarters, writing in the back of the same notebook in which he recorded her funeral arrangements.
But the Lord Chamberlain’s hurried notes offered little elucidation. ‘Although a number of the descriptions could refer to the present chair, none are precise enough to identify it with certainty,’ comments Goodman. The closest description the experts found was of a ‘Dutche chaire’, listed in the Lord Chamberlain’s warrants for an ‘Oyled case’, or protective cover ‘for the King’s chair’ which, if it were proven to refer to this item, would identify it as having belonged to William III beyond doubt.
While so much of this chair’s history remains unknown, those who have worked closely with it have become captivated by the complexity of its design, and the skill of its maker. ‘It’s in amazing condition,’ says Copley. ‘The original 17th-century water-based parcel gilding is still intact, with only small areas of retouching’ — something which might not have been the case, Copley points out, had it succumbed to a mid-20th-century trend for renovation.
Similarly, research into the chair’s upholstery by Lucy Wood, former curator in the Furniture, Textiles and Fashion Department of the Victoria and Albert Museum, revealed an object made with exceptional attention to detail. ‘The cushion pads are skilfully constructed,’ she comments, citing a complex system of stitched panels which has kept layers of fine feathers in plump order for more than 300 years.
‘The trail continues,’ says Peter Horwood, Head of Christie’s English Furniture department. ‘If we could pin down the cypher and determine the exact formation, that would offer conclusive proof.’ For Horwood, however, one thing is certain: ‘It’s an incredibly interesting object’.