This magnificent George III commode is designed in the 1770s 'Roman' style, after the French manner, appropriate for the celebrated French rococo interiors of Chesterfield House, London. It was almost certainly commissioned to celebrate the marriage of the 5th Earl of Chesterfield to Anne Thistlethwaite in 1777. The chest's rectilinear architecture would have harmonised with the elegant antique style introduced by the Rome-trained court architect, Robert Adam (d. 1792).
MAYHEW & INCE: THE ENGLISH MARCHANDS-MERCIERS
The Chesterfield commode can be attributed to the celebrated partnership of John Mayhew and William Ince of Golden Square, London, which was one of the leading cabinet-making firms in the latter part of the 18th century. In 1762 they issued their book of designs entitled, The Universal System of Household Furniture, written in both French and English, so their Parisian bent is clearly apparent at this early stage, when they were no doubt keen to appear cosmopolitan and attract clients with French tastes. They were amongst the leading 'artificers' employed to execute Robert Adam's furniture designs, and were responsible for the handsome pair of satinwood inlaid commodes, of 'chest' form, supplied in 1764 for a bedroom apartment designed by Adam at Croome Court, Worcestershire (illustrated in L. Wood, Catalogue of Commodes, 1994, fig. 12).
THE ATTRIBUTION TO MAYHEW & INCE
The Croome commodes are important to our attribution of the present lot, as the 'boxy' nature of their design, clearly apparent in the present commode, is a characteristic of the firm that can be seen on other commodes executed by them. These include the Douglas commode, circa 1773, now in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, and the pair of commodes at Burghley, supplied to the house in 1767 with a pair of corner cupboards en suite (ibid., pp. 195-201, figs. i-x and 189-192). The Burghley commodes were designed by Mayhew & Ince as a vehicle for displaying some superb 17th century floral marquetry panels, with the doors placed at the ends, like the Douglas commode. This approach to furniture, namely incorporating earlier elements into an overall design, seems to have been another of the firm's trade marks, seen again in the Warwick cabinet which reused Louis XIV marquetry panels (the cabinet is now in the Bowes Museum). Indeed, included among the furniture supplied to the 5th Earl of Chesterfield and attributed to Mayhew & Ince, is a group of pieces that incorporate old German marquetry, no doubt bought by the Earl when he was a student at the University of Leipzig in the early 1770s (ibid, p. 209 and note 18 and Hon. V. Gibbs (ed.) The Complete Peerage, London, 1912, vol. II, p. 184). A pair of cabinets from this group is now in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Other furniture thought to have been supplied by the firm to the Earl include a magnificent commode also in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, a drum table and a pair of satinwood and marquetry bookcases, all of which appear in the Bretby Heirlooms sale at Christie's in 1918 (Wood, op. cit, pp. 208-209). The Lady Lever commode, one of Mayhew & Ince's most splendid examples of their work, can be firmly dated post 1775 as it is an adaptation of the Derby House commode, supplied by the firm to Adam's design in 1775. This therefore adds further weight to the assumption that the 5th Earl was commissioning furniture from them around the time of his marriage to Anne, daughter of Rev'd Thomas Thistlethwaite of Norman Court, Hampshire, in 1777. It is also possible that the Thistlethwaites were among Mayhew & Ince's clientele as a 'boxy' breakfront commode attributed to them, was among the furniture at Southwick House, Hampshire, a house owned in the 18th century by Francis Thistlethwaite of Norman Court and sold by his descendant, Mrs. E. S. Borthwick-Norton, Southwick House, Purbrook, Hampshire, Christie's house sale, 17-18 October 1988, lot 127.
A 'GRAND TOUR' SOUVENIR
The superb scagliola top is no doubt a Grand Tour souvenir, bought by the Earl on his travels on the Continent (he was in Switzerland in 1773 and in Turin in 1785; J. Ingamells, A Dictionary of British and Irish Travellers in Italy 1701-1800, London, 1997, p. 201). He then commissioned Mayhew & Ince to incorporate it into a French style commode, appropriate for the 'French' rococo interiors of Chesterfield House. Several spaces would have recently appeared at Chesterfield House owing to the removal of two ormolu-enriched commodes and other furniture by Melusina, widow of the 4th Earl of Chesterfield. It is typical of the firm that they should mimic the top in the ivory-inlaid foliate panels to each side with their own interpretation. Sometimes the piece of furniture they designed was in a consciously retardataire style in order that it should sit happily in its earlier setting; this is clearly the case at Burghley. A commode attributed to Mayhew & Ince and designed to display a serpentine-shaped coloured scagliola top with rounded front corners, was sold by Mrs Nora Prince-Littler and the late Prince Littler, Chestham Park, Henfield, Sussex, Christie's house sale, 18-19 April 1977, lot 182 and was, like the present commode, designed to display a Grand Tour souvenir.
THE MARQUETRY & THE MOUNTS
Mayhew & Ince were especially noted for their skill as marqueteurs, in particular engraved marquetry, and the Chesterfield commode has many of the leitmotifs associated with their work. The ribbon-entwined rose garlands can be compared with those gracing the top of the pair of pier tables supplied by them to Richard Myddelton for Chirk Castle, Wrexham, circa 1782 (Wood, op. cit., p. 221, figs. 212-213). Another device used by the firm is the trompe l'oeil tying of marquetry ribbons around the border stringing (see for example the commode sold from Longleat, 13 June 2002, lot 345), thereby bringing the central decoration right out into the crossbanding of the borders, and in this case appearing to suspend the laurel wreaths hung on either side and the rose garlands on the drawers. Wreaths were commonly used by Mayhew & Ince and the oak leaves on the sides of the present commode are clearly paralleled by those on the Douglas commode (ibid., fig. 22.vi).
Like the Parisian marchand merciers, Mayhew & Ince composed their furniture incorporating not only earlier elements, but also various mounts. The superb French mounts may have been acquired for the commode during one of the visits that John Mayhew made to Paris to see ébénistes and marchand merciers. Mayhew is known to have visited Paris before 1786 (ibid., p. 190). The ribbon-entwined reeded border mount around the base of the commode can be compared with those on the Douglas, Burghley and Derby House commodes (ibid, figs. 22.ii, 189 and 197).
Further detailed information about the provenance; the design and iconography of the commode; the scagliola top; the mounts and the marquetry is available in the online catalogue.
CHESTERFIELD HOUSE AND THE PROVENANCE
'I am at present in the process of ruining myself by building a fine house... which will be finished in the French style with abundance of sculptures and gilding.'
So wrote the famous man of letters, Philip, 4th Earl of Chesterfield (1694-1773) to Madame de Monconseil in July 1747, concerning his great London residence, Chesterfield House. The house, in South Audley Street, was completed in 1749 to designs by Isaac Ware, a protégé of Lord Burlington and the author of The Complete Body of Architecture, 1756. Ware devoted a whole section in his book to the house entitled 'The construction of a town-house of the greatest elegance'. The Chesterfield commode was almost certainly supplied to the 4th Earl's cousin and heir, Philip Stanhope, 5th Earl of Chesterfield for Chesterfield House, rather than Bretby Park, Derbyshire, the family's Derbyshire seat, which was actually hated by the 4th Earl (the 5th Earl was even induced to demolish it in 1780). Given that there were spaces in Chesterfield House (as discussed above) it is entirely appropriate that the 5th Earl should commission this commode in the French style to celebrate his marriage and fill a vacant space in what his predecessor had called 'Hôtel Chesterfield' (C. Simon Sykes, Private Palaces, Life in the Great London Houses, London, 1985, pp. 115-128). In the early 19th century, both Bretby and Chesterfield House underwent architectural changes, with much of the late 18th century furniture being moved to Bretby, however the commode, like the Lady Lever one, cannot be positively identified in either house in the 1817 inventory by Thomas Tatham (Wood, op. cit., p. 208). The commode then passed by descent (see provenance above) to the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, Chesterfield House having been sold in 1870. The Earl of Carnarvon was the celebrated excavator of Tutankhamen's tomb. The Carnarvons sold it as part of the Bretby Heirlooms, at Christie's, London, 29-30 May 1918, lot 23, where it was described as:
'AN OLD ENGLISH COMMODE, in the French taste, with four drawers, inlaid with festoons of flowers, oak-wreaths and trophies in marqueterie on satin-wood ground with mahogany borders, mounted with or-molu handles and corners chased with foliage and a frieze of running scroll-work, with a mask in the centre, the top formed of a slab of Italian mosaic-work with Bacchanalian figures in black and white - 4ft. 8 in. wide - 18th Century'.
It was bought by Crogan & Boyd who were presumably buying on commission for Viscount Lascelles, later the 6th Earl of Harewood K.G., as they were responsible for the 1926 Chesterfield House inventory on behalf of Viscount Lascelles. In autumn 1919 Viscount Lascelles bought Chesterfield House, shortly before his marriage in 1922 to Her late Royal Highness, The Princess Royal, the daughter of King George V and Queen Mary, however he may have had the idea in his mind for some time because in 1918 he had also bought the set of portraits from the library, which had been taken to Bretby in 1870, and other items in The Bretby Heirlooms sale are marked down to Grogan & Boyd (J. Cornforth, London Interiors from the Archives of Country Life, London, 2000, p. 104 and Auctioneer's book for the Bretby Heirlooms sale). The commode was recorded in the 1926 Inventory of Chesterfield House (see Literature above).
THE EVOLUTION OF THE DESIGN OF THE COMMODE
Its form demonstrates an evolution from the earlier sarcophagus-scrolled marriage chests and the 'French Commode Tables', such as Thomas Chippendale illustrated in The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Directors, published in three editions between 1754 and 1762. It was intended to furnish the window-pier of a fashionable reception/dressing room, where its marble-top evoked the 'Roman' altar-table. Its incorporation of figurative tablets and medallions reflects Adam's revived Roman decoration illustrated in his Works in Architecture, 1773. The publication also discussed the introduction of his 'Etruscan' style, inspired by Roman columbarium chambers and Grecian black vases and considered appropriate for bedroom apartments ornamented around the theme of marriage as a 'sacrifice at love's altar', and embellished with 'Roman marriage' vignettes, such as the celebrated antique painting known as the Aldobrandini Marriage. Here the Etruscan-black scheme is provided by an antiquarian 17th century Italian slab that is scagliola-inlaid with scenes celebrating Love's Triumph, and focused around a medallion of Venus and Cupid. Its flower-wreathed cartouche of Roman foliage whose 'shell' crown recalls the nature deity's triumphal water birth, while bouquets with Love's lilies flower the spandrels. Shell-scalloped cartouches, of embracing cupids accompanied by festive music-making companions fill the spandrels of the marble's figurative border that celebrates the water Element, with Neptune's mer-retinue accompanying the Cupid-driven triumphal chariots of the sea-nymph Galatea and her love, the faun Glaucus. A golden ribbon of satinwood wreaths the tablet and ties it to end tablets of ebony that are ivory-inlaid with festive vine and pearl-wreathed medallions of cupids.
The commode top is cut with French-fashioned projecting corners and wreathed by an antique-fluted ribbon band of golden bronze (ormolu).
Love's Triumph and the lyric poetry of Ovid's Metamorphoses is also recalled by the French ormolu bas-relief on the commode's frieze, which displays the head of an Arcadian satyr emerging from a shell-crowned cartouche of Roman foliage. This cartouche is tied by a 'Vitruvian' wave-scrolled ribbon-guilloche that garlands the 'table' frieze and suspends from French goût Grec ormolu console-brackets, which are imbricated with pearled and scalloped paterae and festooned with Apollo's laurels. The nest of drawers display garlands of Venus' sacred roses that are ribbon-tied with sacred veil drapery and inlaid in golden tablets of ripple-figured satinwood that are enwreathed by black and white chequered fillets. At the sides beribboned pastoral trophies of musical instruments, enwreathed by Jupiter's sacred oak, also celebrate Lyric Poetry. Here roses entwine Pan pipes tied with wind instruments, while a laurel-wreathed lyre, overlaid on a trumpet, serves to recall Apollo's triumph in his musical contest with the satyr, Marysus. Pan's sacred reeds, in ormolu bas-relief, also wreath the chest-stand, which is supported on stump-pilastered and herm-tapered feet that are flowered with bas-relief tablets of Roman acanthus and inlaid with trompe l'oeil flutes. The commode's lambrequined apron is likewise flowered with a French ormolu bas-relief of Roman foliage.
THE SCAGLIOLA TOP
The scagliola slab is very similar to one in the Cassa di Risparmio, in Carpi which has been linked with the Modena scagliola-manufacturer, Simone Setti (active 1659-1668). Setti made another table top, with white decoration on a black ground, which is signed and dated 1668, and now in the Museo Civico in Carpi, although this is not as close to the Chesterfield commode top as the one in the Cassa di Risparmio which could almost be its pair (see G. Manni, I Maestri della Scagliola, Modena, 1997, pp. 58-59 and 63). Another table top, attributed to Setti, has an identical group of merfigures on one side of the border (ibid., p. 61). Some of the merfigures, which relate to those of engravings issued in the 1640s by Giovanni Andrea Maglioli, also appear on a scagliola table top formerly owned by the D'Aeth family, Knowlton, Kent, and offered by the Trustees of the Callaly Chattels Settlement, Callaly Castle, Alnwick, Northumberland, Christie's house sale, 22-24 September 1986, lot 114. It was inset into a mid-Georgian mahogany table. Other merfigures appear on a remarkable harpsichord that was exhibited in Rome's Gallerie Armon Matematica, following its establishment in the 1650s by Michele Todini (d. 1690) (the harpsichord is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art).
The Vitruvian-scrolled mounts, the angle mounts, the apron mount and foot mounts are all French, from the late 1760s and early 1770s and probably reused; part of the Vitruvian scroll is French and extended in England. The satyr-mask cartouche is particularly associated with that featured on the lambrequined stand of the commode section of a marble-topped and richly inlaid secretaire, commissioned for the 'cabinet interieur' of Marie Antoinette's Petit Trianon apartment at Versailles and delivered in 1780 by Jean-Henri Riesener (d. 1806), who had been elected Maître Ebéniste in 1768.
The handles, however, are English, as are the three border mounts: the fluted border around the top, the foliate moulding around the base of the frieze and the ribbon-tied reeded moulding around the base. Mayhew and Ince also had dealings with Boulton & Fothergill, so it is also possible that the English mounts were supplied by the Soho factory in Birmingham. Boulton & Fothergill actually supplied ormolu-mounted vases to the 5th Earl of Chesterfield's London 'mansion' in 1780 (Wood, op. cit., p. 208).
The drawers' rose garlands relates to a pattern featured in A New Book of Festoons after ye French Taste issued by Robert Sayer in his Ladies Amusemen'. The commode's floral inlay reflects the French fashion popularised in the 1750s by the Tottenham Court Road ébéniste Pierre Langlois (d. 1765), and by his successor in Tottenham Court Road, the Paris-trained 'inlayer' and cabinet-maker, Christopher Fuhrlohg, who around 1780 was appointed Ebéniste to George, Prince of Wales, later George IV. Related ormolu-enriched and chest-shaped commodes with marble tops were supplied by Langlois for the Marquess of Tavistock at Houghton House, Bedfordshire, while Fuhrlohg has been credited with the manufacture of a related flower-inlaid secretaire with grand ormolu mounts, that is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.