These magnificent library armchairs are part of a suite that was reputedly supplied to Robert Clive ('Clive of India'), 1st Baron Clive of Plassey for Walcot, his principal home in Shropshire. Their form and decoration exemplify the 'picturesque' style invented by artists, architects and ornamenistes such as Juste-Aurle Meissonier (d.1750) and Gilles-Marie Oppenord (d.1742) and praised by the artist William Hogarth in his Analysis of Beauty, 1753. They correspond to Chippendale's design for 'French Chairs' illustrated in plate XX of the 1754 edition of his Director and reproduced here.
Robert Clive (1725-1774), commonly known as 'Clive of India,' was the son of an unsuccessful Shropshire squire who went to India in 1744 as a junior clerk for the East India Company. After little more than twelve years, from 1743-53, 1754-60 and 1765-7, Clive's military genius consolidated the British position in India and laid the foundations for the British Raj. Clive's personal fortunes had an equally dramatic change, as he managed to parlay an initial £40,000 made from a diamond investment into an estate worth over £500,000 at the time of his death. Reputedly the wealthiest man in England, he was created Lord Clive of Plassey in 1760 and purchased Walcot and its 80,000 acre park in 1764. He commissioned Sir William Chambers (d.1796), architect to King George III, to redesign the house entirely. Chambers spared no expense and employed master craftsmen such as the carver Sefferin Alken and the ornamental plasterer Joseph Wilton to create the interiors. Intriguingly, Chambers' work at Walcot coincides with another of his commissions, Pembroke House, where he is known to have collaborated with Thomas Chippendale. The two men worked together again in 1774 when they were commissioned by Lord Melbourne for Melbourne house.
Although a Chippendale attribution is tempting, particularly as the design of the chairs adheres closely to his patterns, they lack certain constructional elements such as cramp cuts and batten holes to the frames. This opens up the possibility that they are the work of an equally talented but currently unknown maker. One candidate presents itself in a documented suite of seat furniture commissioned by Clive for his Berkeley Square townhouse in the 1760's which has since been attributed to the London cabinet-maker Charles Arbuckle of St. Alban's Street, Pall Mall. This suite shares the same profile and scale but differs in its more flatly carved crestrail ending in distinct corners as well as scrolled feet. (O. Fairclough, "In the Richest and Most Elegant Manner; A Suite of Furniture for Clive of India," Furniture History, 2000). Part of this suite remains at another Clive residence, Powis Castle, while a pair of armchairs and six side chairs were recently sold from the Collection of Saul and Gayfryd Steinberg; Sotheby's, New York, 26 May 2000, lot 268.
A third almost identical suite was probably commissioned by Charles Moore (1711-1764), 1st Earl of Charleville, likely for a large house near Tullamore Harbor, County Offaly, Ireland. The suite then moved Charleville Forest where they were illustrated in situ in the 27 September 1962 issue of Country Life. Their needlework covers are worked with an Earl's coronet below a cipher of entwined C's, and four chairs were sold by a descendant, Rex Beaumont Esq., at Christie's, London, 23 November 1967, lot 105. A pair of these chairs was most recently sold anonymously at Christie's, London, 6 July 2000, lot 44.
The Walcot connection was first cited when a pair from the set was sold at auction by Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt in 1936 but subsequent research in the Clive archives has yet to find concrete documentation. Walcot inventories of 1788, 1830 and 1904 contain no mention of the suite nor do they appear in the sale of the effects of Walcot which Harrods held from 22-26 July 1929. However, household inventories in the 18th and 19th centuries are frequently incomplete, and as with the Bruton Square suite moving to Powis, it is very likely that considerably more furniture moved between the Clive's various homes which also included three further residences in Shropshire: Styche Hall which was his original family seat, Claremont and Oakley Park.
At least ten chairs from the suite have been identified, including the first pair from the 1936 Vanderbilt auction. All have had their frames stripped of their original gilding, stained and polished. Of the group, the majority had contemporary needlework covers and comprise:
Two pairs, with needlework covers with Charles of London, New York. Mrs. George L. Mesker; 'La Fontana,' Palm Beach, Parke Bernet Galleries, New York, 27-29 October 1943, lot 767 and 768 (cited as part of six with Messrs. Dawson, Inc.). One pair: Baron and Baroness von Seidlitz; Parke Bernet Galleries, New York, 3 May 1947, lot 110. Anonymous Sale; Christie's, New York, 13 April 2000, lot 93.
A pair, with needlework covers, with Symon's Galleries, Inc., New York, (illustrated in J. Aronson, The Book of Furniture and Decoration: Period and Modern, New York, 1936, plate opposite p.112). Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt; Anderson Art Galleries, New York, 31 January-1 February 1936, lot 405. Anonymous Sale; Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, 19-21 February, 1942, lot 489. Anonymous Sale; Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, 1-2 February 1952, lot 354. Now in a private collection, New York.
A pair, with needlework covers, with Edward I. Farmer, Inc., New York. Mrs. Elmer T. Cunningham, Parke Bernet Galleries, New York, 14 March 1959, lot 114.
A pair, with Mortlake tapestry covers, illustrated in A. Coleridge, Chippendale Furniture, New York, 1968, pl.185, with Symons, Inc. New York. Robert J. Dunham; Parke Bernet Galleries, New York, 9-10 May 1947, lot 370. With Frank Partridge Inc., New York, Walter P. Chrysler, Parke Bernet Galleries, New York, 6-7 May 1967, lot 372.
It is certainly possible that the present lot, as well as a pair recently sold at Sotheby's, New York 22 October 2001, lot 216, could be newly discovered pairs. However, as it has been decades since some of the pairs have appeared at public auction, they could also be one of the five listed above, stripped of their needlework covers and regilt.