THE SPENCER HOUSE FUSTIC SOFA
The distinctive model of this sofa was made in several sets in the late 1750s/early 1760s. The largest, painted white and gold on frames of mahogany and lime, and comprising twenty-six armchairs, eighteen plain chairs and four sofas, was supplied to John Spencer (created Earl Spencer in 1765) for the Great Ball Room at Spencer House, his fashionable new townhouse overlooking Green Park (built 1756–65; P. Thornton, J. Hardy, ‘The Spencer Furniture at Althorp – II’, Apollo, June 1968, pp. 442–46, figs. 6–7; two armchairs from the set are in the Victoria and Albert Museum, W.51-1984). Part of this set was sold at Christie’s, London, 8 July 2010, lots 1016–17 (two pairs of armchairs) and lot 1018 (four plain chairs), and the majority of the set remains at Althorp.
Lord Spencer commissioned another set of seat-furniture of this model but in polished hardwood – at least nine armchairs and eight stools of varying size, as well as the present sofa; part of this set was likewise sold at Christie’s in the same 'Spencer House Sale', lots 1005-1006 (two pairs of armchairs), lot 1007 (a pair of stools), lots 1008-1009 (two long stools) and lot 1010 (the present sofa). Interestingly, this set was made in a mixture of fustic and satinwood: on the sofa, fustic has been used for the front and side seat rails and the front legs, and satinwood for the top rail, arm facings, back seat rail and back legs. Like the white and gold set, it was probably supplied to Spencer House, perhaps for the family Drawing Room (now the Library), situated between the family Dining Parlour and the Great Eating Room, which led to the celebrated Palm Room, the climax of the ground-floor apartments. The original Drawing Room suite including this sofa may have been removed to Althorp during alterations to Spencer House carried out by Henry Holland from 1785. Parts of this suite can possibly be identified in an inventory of Althorp taken in 1814–19 (six ‘Large [Mahogany] Elbow Chairs’ dispersed between the Great Library, the New Library and Lady Spencer’s Sitting Room). The suite is first securely recorded at Althorp in 1874, when an armchair was photographed in the Picture Gallery. Photographs taken from 1892 onwards show more of the suite in the same room (and some in other rooms), and by 1921, including the present sofa.
This sofa was altered and redecorated in the 19th century, perhaps to be displayed alongside the white and gold set at Spencer House, which had been repaired and regilded in 1847 by a Mr. Wakeling, possibly Giles Wakeling, ‘Upholsterer to the Admiralty’, of 36 Gerard Street, Soho, or a relative. In his 1930s inventory of furniture at Althorp, the 'curator' earl, Albert, 7th Earl Spencer (1892-1975) notes correspondence from Philip Hardwick to Frederick, 4th Earl Spencer (1798-1857) on 4 November 1847:
‘I have this morning been to Mr. Wakeling, the upholsterer and examined the furniture which has been removed from the principal rooms of Spencer House - it is very fine old furniture - the carving of the large sofas very good, and also altho' it will require a good deal of repairing, yet it appears to me to be well worth doing. I received from Mr. Wakeling the enclosed estimate of repairing and regilding it, which amounts to £580. It is very difficult to form a judgement upon these estimates, but to have the furniture well done and restored in white & gold as it was formerly, it does not appear an excessive estimate altho' the amount is large.’ (Hardwick’s letter transcribed in Spencer, Furniture, Althorp, Vol. II, 1960s). The traces of white paint to the underside of the seat-rail of this sofa together with remains of an underframe for a new sprung seat and the consequential heightening above the front legs that this required (subsequently removed) would appear to date from Mr. Wakeling's intervention in 1847.
By the early 20th century the sofa was in the Patchwork Bedroom at Althorp, as noted by the 7th Earl in his manuscript catalogue: ‘A fifth sofa, similar but in mahogany [sic] was in the Patchwork Bedroom, covered in chintz’. In 1911, it was upholstered in red velvet and together with the rest of the suite photographed in the Picture Gallery by Country Life. By 1921, its polished wood frame was revealed again, but presumably stained to its present mahogany colour. The paint may have been stripped in 1911, or perhaps long before then since the 7th Earl makes no mention of this surface. Since the 2010 Christie's sale the 19th-century palm frond additions have been removed and the upholstery re-constructed to restore the sofa’s 18th-century profile.
JAMES ‘ATHENIAN’ STUART AND JOHN GORDON
The neo-classical design seems to be the result of a collaboration between James ‘Athenian’ Stuart (1713-1788), who replaced John Vardy as architect of Spencer House in 1758, and John Gordon (fl. 1748-d. 1777), cabinet-maker and upholsterer, later in partnership with John Taitt. James Stuart’s involvement in the design is endorsed by the survival of a suite of the same pattern, possibly oil-gilded originally, from Nuneham Park, Nuneham Courtenay, Oxfordshire, presumably made for Simon Harcourt, 1st Earl Harcourt (1714-1777; six armchairs from this suite sold Sotheby’s, London, 3 July 2003, lots 104-107; the single chair in lot 104 was thought to retain its original oil-gilt surface). Stuart was engaged by Lord Harcourt at Nuneham from 1760 to 1764 – coinciding closely with his work for Lord Spencer. Lord Harcourt and Lord Spencer, and indeed Stuart himself, were all members of the Society of Dilettanti; it was under the Society’s patronage that Stuart travelled with Nicholas Revett to Athens in 1751, resulting in the publication of Stuart and Revett’s The Antiquities of Athens (1762-1794). The earliest record of Lord Spencer employing the firm of Gordon and Taitt dates from 1772. However, it seems likely that Gordon had long been retained by the family, not least since Lord Spencer’s steward, Thomas Townsend, acted as Gordon’s executor in 1777. Moreover, another set of chairs at Althorp (probably originating at Spencer House) is very closely related to a suite supplied by Gordon to the Duke of Atholl at Blair Castle in 1756-7 strengthening the evidence that he was involved in furnishing Spencer House from the beginning. It seems likely that Gordon contributed to the development of the design, or that in executing a design by Stuart he freely interpreted it in his own idiom.
The use of both fustic and satinwood on this suite is extremely unusual - and perhaps underlines the involvement of a specialist carver. The use of both woods as well as limewood is consistent throughout the white-painted and giltwood suite - although elsewhere identified as Honduran mahogany rather than fustic (S. Weber Soros, ed., James "Athenian" Stuart: The Rediscovery of Antiquity, New Haven and London, 2006, p. 432, fig. 10-52, p. 446).