The Messer bookcase is a true masterpiece of early neo-classical design, a fashion which Thomas Chippendale (d. 1779) helped to establish at the start of George III's reign with his highly influential The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director of 1762. Its eclectic Franco-Italian ornament applied to an essentially Palladian structure is represented in a pattern for a 'Desk & Bookcase' in his first edition of the Director in 1754 (pl. LXXVIII; and pl. CVIII in the 1762 edition). The serpentine voluted pediment framing a bust-plinth is in the revived antique manner of the celebrated architect Inigo Jones (d. 1650), while the inlaid drawer panels derive from a Louis XIV commode in the antique style designed and engraved by the ornamentalist Jean Berain (d. 1711) (L'Oeuvre Complet de Jean Berain, n.d., pl. 88; reproduced in Messer sale, lot 130). The fretted 'triumphal arch' and tablet-form glazing bars and inlaid medallions correspond to the neoclassical style introduced by the architect and designer Robert Adam (d. 1792).
The Messer bookcase shares many design traits with other documented pieces from Thomas Chippendale's workshop. A most notable comparison is the celebrated 'violin' bookcase (and its two companion bookcases) supplied to the Earl of Pembroke for Pembroke House in circa 1760-62 and now at Wilton (C. Gilbert, The Life and Work of Thomas Chippendale, New York, 1978, vol. II, pl. 66, 68, 78). Also of a shallow breakfronted and stepped form, the many shared traits include: the use of contrasting ebony inlay, the imbricated underside of the scroll pediment, the pierced hexagonal galleries and a central oval in the glazing pattern (a favored Chippendale devise, it may have contained a mirror on the violin bookcase). The stepped form also corresponds to the sensational gilt-ornamented Dumfries House bookcase supplied in 1759 (Gilbert, op. cit., fig. 63). As a further parallel, the 'noble' pair of library bookcases commissioned in 1764 by Sir Lawrence Dundas for 19 Arlington Street exhibits carved foliate spandrels which echo the ebony inlay on the Messer bookcase, as well as the imbricated scroll. The Dundas bookcases were invoiced separately -- at £80 and £73, they were by far the most expensive pieces commissioned from Chippendale. One of the pair sold at Christie's, London, Exceptional Furniture, 18 June 2008, lot 6 (achieving £2,057,250, it remains the fourth most expensive piece of English furniture sold at auction). Lord Dundas's fall-front secretaire bookcase with fret-patterned waist and the Messer pattern brasses was also supplied in the same year (Gilbert, ibid, p. 56, figs. 87, 265). Chippendale's distinctive arched and tablet glazing bars characterize a similar cabinet supplied to Sir Robert Burdett, 4th baronet for Foremark Hall, Derbyshire between 1766-1769 (see A. Coleridge, 'Thomas Chippendale and Foremark Hall', Furniture History, 1997, pp. 136-152, figs. 2-5).
A spectacular commode in the Messer sale (lot 130), with similarly bold geometric ebony inlay and carved details, further demonstrates Chippendale's early embrace of classicism and may provide another clue to the date of the bookcase. The commode corresponds to a pattern for 'A French Commode' published in 1762 (Director, pl. LXVIII). At the time of the sale, Christopher Gilbert proposed that the commode might be identified as "the large mahogany commode chest of drawers" supplied to Sir Rowland Winn, 5th baronet for the bedroom at his London house and sold by Christie's in 1785 (lot 7, but apparently withdrawn; no lot corresponds to the Messer bookcase in the sale). Chippendale's earliest work for Sir Rowland was likely destined for 11 St. James's Square which had been purchased in May of 1766, the first year in which Chippendale figures in the records. Lucy Wood discusses this piece in her Catalogue of Commodes, London, 1994, group 20, p. 189, figs. 178-179). Interestingly, the Messer commode features nearly identical pattern brasses.
The Messer bookcase displays the refinements of execution and construction for which Chippendale is justly renowned. The luxurious use of precisely executed cross-grained fiddleback mahogany borders contributes greatly to its striking effect. These borders recur throughout Chippendale's work, such as on the marquetry commode supplied for Lady Winn's Bedchamber at Nostell Priory in 1770 (Gilbert, ibid, fig. 221). The fitted top drawer is of exactly the same pattern as those with 'double rising slider' found on the library tables at Dumfries House (1759) and Pembroke House (circa 1760-62) which follow a diagram on a pattern plate for a 'Library Table' in the Director, pl. LXXXII.
The hinges of the fitted top drawer bear the H. Tibats stamp which has been noted on a number of distinguished pieces of case furniture dating from the third quarter of the 18th century. The stamp almost certainly refers to Hugh Tibbatts, "hinge and sash fastening maker" of Bell Street Wolverhampton, listed in the Directories in 1781.
THE MESSER PROVENANCE
In 1991, this Chippendale bookcase highlighted Christie's extraordinary sale of the Samuel Messer Collection, brought together at his Regency-style home at Pelsham in Sussex. The Messer collection of furniture, clocks and barometers epitomized the Chippendale period of furniture-making. In one way the sale marked the end of the great English furniture collections formed in the early years of the 20th century in the Britain, while on the other hand it raised the appreciation for fine English furniture to new heights inspiring a new generation of collectors.
Samuel Messer was a part of the very small, elite group of connoisseurs of Georgian furniture - including Percival Griffiths, J. S. Sykes, Fred Skull and James Thursby-Pelham - who formed the nucleus of their collections under the guidance of R. W. Symonds (d. 1958). Messer's superlative collection concentrated on the Chippendale period with particular attention being paid to untouched condition, original patination and fine quality of timber, combined with good proportions, an elegant line and a balanced use of crisply carved ornament, the touchstones of Symonds's influence.
The purchase of the Messer bookcase is first referred to in a letter from Samuel Messer, 4 June 1957. As he did not have the space for it in his London house he arranged for it to be placed on loan at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Arrangements were well under way by the end of June as in a letter, 27 June 1957, Samuel Messer wrote to R. W. Symonds about the design and wording of the display label for the loan. There is a certificate from R. W. Symonds dated 12 August 1957 attributing the bookcase to Chippendale and drawing attention to the links with the violin bookcase at Wilton. After his purchase of Pelsham, Samuel Messer was able to accommodate the bookcase and so presented a George III marquetry dressing-table (W.14-1959) to the Museum as compensation for the removal of the bookcase (M. Tomlin, Catalogue of Adam Period Furniture, London, 1972, p. 163).