A SIGNED CABINET BY WILLIAM HALLETT
This extraordinary cabinet is signed by William Hallett and dated 1763, the only known piece to bear his signature. Hallett (d. 1781), established his business at Great Newport Street, Long Acre in 1730 and became the pre-eminent cabinet-maker supplying furniture to the 4th Duke of Beaufort at Badminton, 1st Earl of Leicester at Holkham, 2nd Earl of Lichfield at Ditchley Park and 7th Earl of Pembroke at Wilton House amongst others. His fortuitous second marriage in 1756 to a wealthy cousin provided him with a substantial dowry and allowed him to build a country house at Cannons, the former estate of the Duke of Chandos, thus redirecting his focus to his properties. It was at this time that he appears to have retired from furniture making, delegating his duties to his son, William Jr. (d. 1767), who carried on the business. The elder Hallett established himself as a silent partner to cabinet-makers William Vile and John Cobb, who later became Royal cabinet-makers in 1761, and whose exceptional work is often confused with that of their mentor.
The 1763 date of the signature has invited questions as to whether the piece was made in the 1750s by Hallett Senior and later signed by his son, or whether actually made in the year in which it was signed - 1763 - either by Hallett Senior or Junior. This debate was explored by Geoffrey Beard in 'The Quest for William Hallett', Furniture History, 1985. The inaccessible location of the signature (the reverse of the front board at the base; the date now obscured by a glue block) makes it unlikely that it was later added, supporting a 1763 date of manufacture despite its earlier style. Pat Kirkham published evidence that the Hallett firm was still thriving in the 1760s, citing that in 1764 William Hallett the upholder asked a fee of fifty pounds from an apprentice (P. Kirkham, 'The Craft Training: Apprenticeship', Furniture History, 1988, p. 45).
Correspondence by William Hallett Senior supports his retirement from the business in the 1750s. His letter of 1755 to the cabinet-maker James Whittle was sent on behalf of his nephew, Samuel Norman, requesting consent for him to 'visit Miss Whittle'. He wrote: 'My Nephew Saml Norman hath often applied to mee to ask your consent to Visit Miss Whittle, but as he was of the same business, I omitted it, believing it might not be agreeable on that 'Acount, but as things are now Sucomstanc'd that Objection is removed with regard to myself...' (Beard, p. 221). With his father retired, the implication is that his son was the likely author of this piece.
An almost identical cabinet attributed to Hallett was sold by the Earl of Iveagh of Elveden Hall, Thetford, Norfolk, Christie's House sale, 21-23 May 1984, lot 374. The only notable difference is the drawers in the upper section as opposed to doors. Both pieces can be compared with a pedimented bookcase of similar quality at Uppark, Sussex, for which the Hallett firm supplied furniture (illustrated in A. Coleridge, Chippendale Furniture, New York, 1968, pl. 68).
The cabinet came from the collections at Halswell Park/House in Somerset, the seat of the Tynte family. A Tudor mansion that was enlarged in the late 17th century, Halswell's magnificent picturesque park scattered with follies and temples was conceived by Sir Charles Kemeys Tynte, who became 5th baronet of Halswell in 1740 (see G. Jackson-Stops, 'Arcadia under the Plough', Country Life, 6 February 1989, pp. 82-87). Tynte was obviously a cultured man (a portrait attributed to Hogarth shows him with books and the garden bridge in the background). It is tempting to assume that the cabinet may have been ordered by Charles as part of his improvements made to the house and park over his 44-year tenure. It is particularly intriguing that Halswell sits less than 30 miles from William Hallett's home town at Crewkerne, Somerset.
Two late eighteenth century inventories for Halswell House, one dated 14 October 1785 and another undated but presumably late 18th century reveal little insight due to the cursory entries for each object. Two possible candidates for the Hallett cabinet may be the '1 Mahogany Wardrobe' listed in Lady Tynte's Bedroom, or another of the same description in the Front Bedroom (Somerset Record Office).
Lord Wharton was the last male descendant of Sir Charles Kemeys Tynte and sold Halswell after the Second World War. It is not known when the cabinet left the house. There was a sale on the premises [Halswell Park: appointments of the mansion] in 1948. Sadly, a single known copy of the house sale catalogue cannot be accessed. The cabinet does not appear in the various London sales when Lord Wharton was dispensing a small number of items.
The richly sculpted mahogany cabinet presents an elegant Ionic temple in the George II 'Roman' fashion, as popularised by Batty Langley's, The City and Country Builder's and Workman's Treasury of Designs, 1740; and Thomas Chippendale's, The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director, 1754. Its projecting temple-pedimented frontispiece has paired, projecting and antique-fluted pilasters of the Ionic Order that recall Rome's Temple of Fortuna Virilis. The pattern for their Ionic capitals relate to Langley's Treasury (pl. V), and to Chippendale's Director, (pl. III); while the cornice's festive bas-relief ribbon-fret featured in one of Langley's 'Decorations for Cabinet Works' (pl. XCIX no. X). Its dentillated, scallop-hollowed and plinth-centred pediment corresponds to that of a 1753 'Library Bookcase' pattern whose Director Preface acknowledged that: - 'Of all the Arts which are either improved or ornamented by Architecture, that of CABINET-MAKING is not only the most useful and ornamental, but capable of receiving as great assistance from it as any whatever'. Chippendale's bookcase pediment, in place of a sculpted escutcheon or author's bust, is crowned by a sacred urn (pl. LXII). The beginning of George III's reign witnessed Chippendale's publication of a third edition of The Director (1762), which coincided with The Antiquities of Athens, issued by the architect James Stuart. He too introduced a Grecian 'key' fret in frieze of a bedroom-apartment cabinet designed in the late 1750s for Spencer House, London (see Susan Weber Soros, ed., James 'Athenian' Stuart, New York 2006, Figs. 10-59 and 10-62). The present bedroom-apartment cabinet has its doors sunk with fielded tablets of silken flame-figured veneer, resembling Roman drapery; while its moldings, like that of its 'commode/table' base, are further enhanced by foliated and echinous ribbon-guilloches. While its plinth-supported chest is likewise fronted by projecting and conjoined Ionic columns; its drawers are ormolu-enriched in French 'picturesque' fashion with golden reed handles festooned from festive bacchic lion-heads.