Sir Rowland Winn’s commode is considered a masterpiece of English 18th century furniture, illustrating the confidence of design and craftsmanship for which Chippendale is renowned. It is the only documented example of a carved mahogany commode by Chippendale in the neo-classical style, and is one of his earliest pieces of furniture marking the transition from his Director phase to neo-classicism (1). It is undoubtedly one of Chippendale’s most prestigious and significant pieces of case furniture remaining in a private collection.
The commode has an illustrious history; it was supplied to Sir Rowland Winn, 5th Baronet (1739-85), probably for his London house at 11 St. James’s Square in circa 1767-68. On 14 February 1769, Chippendale invoiced Sir Rowland: ‘To a neat Nest of Mahogany drawers and pidgeon wood holes with an Ivory Alphabet made to fit into a Cupboard’ (2). In 1785, and following Sir Rowland’s demise, the house was sold and the contents included in a sale arranged by James Christie. However, this commode, almost certainly lot 7, ‘A large mahogany commode chest of drawers and leather cover’, was withdrawn. The commode was moved back to the family’s principal seat, Nostell Priory, Yorkshire where it remained until sold at auction on 6 May 1807, lot 283, by Mr. Phillips. In 1952, the commode was acquired by Samuel Messer (d. 1991), one of the most significant and discerning collectors of English furniture of the mid-late 20th century, whose collection was assembled with the assistance of the furniture connoisseur and writer, R.W. Symonds (d. 1958), and sold in Messer’s landmark sale from where it was acquired by the present owner.
SIR ROWLAND WINN, 11 ST. JAMES’S SQUARE AND CHIPPENDALE
Sir Rowland Winn purchased no. 11 St. James’s Square, London in May 1766 from the widowed Lady Macclesfield (3). The move to London from Yorkshire in 1763 was almost certainly prompted by Sir Rowland’s aspiring political ambitions and the opportunity for he and his wife, the Swiss-born Sabine, only daughter of Jacques-Philippe d’Herwart, governor of Vichy, to immerse themselves in the social round. This was particularly true of Sabine, who found English rural life difficult, and had a fractious relationship with her husband’s family. In December 1763, Ann Elizabeth Winn, Sir Rowland’s aunt, wrote disparagingly to her brother, the 4th Baronet: ‘She [Sabine] loves variety, & may truly be Cald Lady Restles’ (4).
Following Sir Rowland’s inheritance of the baronetcy in 1765, the architect-designer, Robert Adam (1728-92) was engaged to complete the interiors of the library, drawing room, saloon and top hall at Nostell, although he was not employed at 11 St. James’s Square until the near-completion of Nostell’s interiors in 1774, at which date he made a design to reface the house (5). However, he undoubtedly recommended Chippendale to Sir Rowland ‘as a cabinet maker who could be safely trusted to supply high quality furniture which harmonized sensitively with the refined décor’ (6). Adam continued to advise Sir Rowland on his choice of craftsmen: an aide-mémoire, dated 1772, in Sir Rowland’s hand, entitled ‘To Mention to Mr Adam’ includes the note: ‘Who to Employ for a Cabinet Maker and what Kind of Furniture to order for Drawing Room, Saloon’ (7). By the late 1760s, Chippendale was simultaneously working for Sir Rowland in London and in Yorkshire, but it seems likely, as Gilbert suggests, that the refurbishment of London came first.
The Nostell archive comprises correspondence (thirty-five letters and memoranda) between Chippendale and Sir Rowland, estimates and bills that span 1766-85, and is the most comprehensive account for Chippendale. There is a large bill for London and a later account has entries for 11 St. James’s Square combined with those for Nostell making it difficult to identify furniture for a particular mansion. However, almost all the items billed between June 1766 and June 1767 were probably for London, as were most of what was billed for June 1767 to February 1768. From the surviving accounts, Sir Rowland’s furniture at 11 St. James’s Square appears modest, especially when compared to Nostell, and it is surprising that he and Lady Winn, who undoubtedly followed the London social season, would have been content to settle with only unexceptional or second-hand furniture at their London address, which they retained for twenty years (8).
Only three pieces of significant furniture feature in the surviving ‘Town Account’, including: on 21 June 1766, ‘To a large bedstead with Mahogany feet posts fluted…’ that together with hangings and bedding came to over £50. The description of this bed corresponds exactly to one sold from the principal bedchamber in the Christie’s sale of the contents of 11 St. James’s Square, 9 and 11 April 1785, p. 9, lot 1. On 23 June 1766, ‘A very large mahogany bookcase with Glass doors and a pediment top £38’ is recorded in the accounts; this is possibly a bookcase listed in the 1785 sale, in room ‘No. XIV. The Study’, p. 10, lot 3, £24 3s, described as: ‘A mahogany library BOOK CASE with glass doors, 12 feet 3 wide by 9 feet high’. Finally, and again in the accounts, on 24 June 1766, ‘A Mahogany Lady secretary made of very fine wood, a bookcase at top, panelld doors with pidgeon holes and drawers in the uper case and a scrowl pediment £25’. Notably, there is no bill for ‘A large mahogany commode chest of drawers and leather cover’, p. 9, lot 7, in the 1785 sale, which was withdrawn, as noted in Christie’s auctioneer’s book.
THE DISCOVERY OF CHIPPENDALE’S BILL
The crucial link associating Sir Rowland Winn’s commode to Chippendale was the identification of a bill in the Nostell papers at the time the commode sold from the Messer collection in December 1991. On 14 February 1769, Chippendale invoiced Sir Rowland: ‘To a neat Nest of Mahogany drawers and pidgeon wood holes with an Ivory Alphabet made to fit into a Cupboard’ (9). As Christopher Gilbert noted in 1991: ‘This almost certainly refers to replacing one of the original drawers with a two-unit sliding letter-rack made of mahogany with a pigeon wood façade inlaid with an ivory alphabet [now 'ivorine']. It is implausible that Chippendale would have modified a piece of furniture made by one of his rivals’ (10). This adaptation of the commode evidently signifies a change of use, and is an invaluable insight into the status and use of the commode. The identification of the use of 'pidgeon wood' in the spandrels to the pigeon-holes is key to Chippendale because it so aptly describes the interior fittings of this commode including the identification of the two contrasting woods. Furthermore, several of Chippendale’s bills mention the use of pidgeon wood; in 1765, Chippendale invoiced Sir Lawrence Dundas (1710-81) for ‘a large 8 leg Mahogany table border’d with Pidgeon wood’, and a year later, Sir Rowland Winn was in receipt of two rosewood card-tables inlaid with pidgeon wood for Nostell (11).
Furthermore, the overwhelming evidence of the presence of this commode in the collection of Sir Rowland is a sale (no. 629) held by Mr. H. Phillips, 68 New Bond Street, on Wednesday 6 May 1807, lot 283, a copy of which is preserved in the Nostell archive: ‘A mahogany chest, inlaid with ivory, and ebony, and leather case’ that achieved £6 5s. A subsequent sale held on 20 May 1807 by the same auctioneer, sale no. 631, and also in the archive, is described as ‘the property of A NOBLEMAN removed from his mansion in Yorkshire’; the presence of both sale catalogues in the Nostell archive underlines that the contents of both sales were from Nostell.
This commode is closely related to a design by Chippendale, circa 1762, from the Chippendale Albums, no. 174, held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; another comparable design also in this collection, no. 173, was engraved for the 1762 edition of the Director LXVIII (12). This second design is described thus: ‘The Ornaments may be Brass; that on the Right hath two Doors, which represent Drawers, and a long Drawer above’. Chippendale was in turn perhaps inspired by a design by Jean Bérain (1638-1711), the artistic force in Louis XIV’s Royal office of the Menus-Plaisirs du Roi, who published a design for a commode with a closely comparable foot in L’Oeuvre Complet de Jean Bérain, Paris, n.d., pl. 88. Chippendale’s design was also probably influenced by a knowledge of Adam’s recent work; the commode’s ebony inlay reflecting the influence of Adam’s Etruscan style that became fashionable particularly for bedroom apartments in the late 1760s.
The commode is highly important in the history of English furniture-making because it signifies Chippendale’s transition from his Director phase to an early neo-classical style, which he was developing in the second half of the 1760s. This phase is fully illustrated in Chippendale’s commission for Nostell Priory from 1766, and reflects Sir Rowland’s preference for ‘richly styled, but not overtly opulent, furnishings’ (13). In spirit, Sir Rowland Winn’s commode echoes the more masculine furniture supplied to this patron for his library and dressing room at Nostell, which is fully documented; this notably includes the magnificent library table, invoiced in 1767, at Nostell, considered the pinnacle of Chippendale’s mahogany phase of the mid-1760s, a gentleman’s dressing table and a commode clothes press. The success of this commode lies in the quality of the mahogany, which together with the superb but subtle carving and mouldings and ebony inlaid borders in the gout grec manner allows the lustrous woods to govern the ornamentation.
THE MAHOGANY FORERUNNER
This commode is the prototype for a select group that includes: a pair of commodes, 1775-80, reputedly presented by Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) to his campaign chaplain, the Rev. Thomas Cooke (1791-1874) (14). This tradition can be traced back to its sale by the collector Leonard Clow at Christie’s, London 10 June 1914; one of these commodes sold Christie’s, London, 6 July 1995, lot 152, the other is in the Lady Lever Art Gallery. The third commode from this group is the Harrington commode, circa 1770, from the collection of the Earls of Harrington, formerly at Elvaston Castle, Derbyshire (15). The association with Sir Rowland Winn’s commode to late Palladian furniture, the carved detailing and the ebony inlay treatment together with its close relationship to the Chippendale design in the Metropolitan Museum coupled with the existence of the bill indicates that this commode was the first of the group. These related commodes share attributes found in Chippendale’s other documented furniture. The distinctive rectilinear form with concave sides recurs in two celebrated commodes at Harewood House, Yorkshire: the Diana and Minerva commode and the 'Three Graces' commode (although these are break-fronted) and also the Panshanger cabinets, formerly in the collection of Lord Melbourne at Melbourne House, Piccadilly, and now at Firle, East Sussex. The carved lion’s head masks of Sir Rowland Winn’s commode are replaced by gilt-metal ram’s head mounts on the Wellington and Harrington commodes; a comparable but not identical mount is found on the library table from Harewood, now at Temple Newsam. Ram’s head masks also feature on the Panshanger cabinets. Both the Wellington commodes and Sir Rowland Winn’s commode bear near-identical feet although in this instance the mahogany is embellished with carved ‘Greek key’ mouldings. Another marquetry commode at Heaton Hall from the Manchester City Art Galleries is of similar form although with a different door and drawer configuration, and has similar gilt-metal ram’s head mounts to the Wellington commodes.
Interestingly, this commode and the Wellington pair still have the original brass locks stamped ‘E. GASCOIGNE’. Mrs. Elizabeth Gascoigne, a specialist metalsmith working in London in the mid-18th century, produced locks, mechanisms and other hardware for furniture made by several leading cabinet-makers at that time. Her locks are usually found on furniture by Chippendale and other makers of the highest quality. They feature on this commode, as well as on a jewel cabinet supplied to Queen Charlotte in 1762 by William Vile at a cost of £138 10s, and on locks and hinges of several doors supplied to Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire by Mayhew & Ince in 1776-77 and 1787 (16).
In 1991, this commode was the highlight of 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 a generation of great English furniture collections formed in the 20th century in 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, Geoffrey Blackwell, J. S. Sykes, Fred Skull and James Thursby-Pelham - who formed the nucleus of their collections under the guidance of R. W. Symonds. 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.
(1) C. Gilbert, ‘A Supreme Piece of English Furniture’, Christie’s International Magazine, Spring, 1992, p. 16.
(2) C. Gilbert, The Life & Work of Thomas Chippendale, London, 1978, vol. I, p. 188.
(3) K.A.C. Bristol, ‘A Tale of Two Sales: Sir Rowland Winn and No. 11 St. James’s Square, London, 1766-1787’, History of Retailing and Consumption, May 2016, p. 6.
(4) Ann Elizabeth Winn to Sir Rowland Winn, 4th Baronet, 9 December 1763, NP WYW1352/1/4/11/8 quoted in Bristol, ibid., p. 5.
(5) ‘Soane Museum, St James's Square, number 11, London: executed design for refacing the house, for Sir Rowland Winn, 5th Baronet, 1774’: the surviving drawing at the Soane Museum is one of two alternative designs provided to Sir Rowland. The façade was executed in accordance with the extant drawing in 1774-76, and included Adam's Spalatro order columns.
(6) Gilbert, op. cit., vol. I, p. 166.
(7) C. Gilbert, ‘New light on the furnishing of Nostell Priory’, Furniture History, 1990, p. 58.
(8) Bristol, Ibid., p. 22. Sir Rowland and Lady Winn also purchased second-hand furniture from the Macclesfield sale for no. 11 although their intention may have been to display ‘the finery of a previous owner of higher social status’ in anticipation of Sir Rowland’s elevation to a peerage, an aspiration that remained unfulfilled.
(9) Gilbert, The Life and Work…’, op. cit., vol. I, p. 188.
(10) Gilbert, ‘A Supreme…’, op. cit., p. 16.
(11) A. Bowett, Woods in British Furniture Making 1400-1900, Wetherby, 2012, p. 186.
(12) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1920 (20.40.2 60, 61).
(13) Gilbert, The Life and Work…’, op. cit., vol. I, p. 169.
(14) L. Wood, Catalogue of Commodes, Liverpool, 1994, pp. 180-185, no. 20.
(15) Sotheby’s, London, 7 December 2010, lot 69 (£3,793,250 inc. premium).
(16) Ibid., p. 184.