These serpentined chairs - with removable 'a chassis' frames - formed part of a large suite of seat-furniture, originally painted white with gilt enrichments in the French manner, supplied for the Great Room and its adjoining withdrawing-room, known as Lady Spencer's Dressing-Room at Spencer House, London. While the Palladian mansion had been built by John Vardy (d. 1765), architect to King George II's Board of Works, these rooms were decorated in the Grecian or antique manner by the architect James Stuart (d. 1793), partly under the guidance of the Society of Dilettanti, a group of connoisseurs/antiquarians who were also assisting Stuart with his publication of Grecian monuments entitled The Antiquities of Athens, 1762. Stuart, whose proposals for the furnishings of Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire in the late 1750s had demonstrated his interest in chair design, is likely to have directed the design of these chairs, whose fluted rails and Grecian palmettes correspond directly to the rooms' architecture (L. Harris, Robert Adam and Kedleston, London, 1987, pp. 26 and 27).
The chairs were originally upholstered with green acanthus-patterned damask, corresponding to the wall-hangings put up in the rooms about 1764, and Roman acanthus also provides ornament for the chair-frames, where it wraps the arms and husk-enriched backs, while its buds are displayed in the crest-rails' central cartouches. Of the original suite of Spencer House Great Room seat-furniture, comprising four sofas, twenty-six armchairs and eighteen chairs, the majority remains at Althorp. However, two pairs of armchairs have been sold: one pair is now in the Victoria & Albert Museum (nos. W.51 & A.1984) and the other was sold from the Sarofim Collection, Christie's London, 16 November 1995, lot 149.
AN ATTRIBUTION TO JOHN GORDON?
The chairs are likely to have been executed by the carver and chairmaker John Gordon (d. 1777) of St. James's, who may well be the 'Mr Gordon upholder....to Sir William Chambers' listed as a subscriber to Chamber's Treatise on Civil Architecture, 1759. Moreover, they almost certainly reflect his association with William Gordon, who was a subscriber to Chippendale's Director in 1754. Surviving documents show that the firm of Gordon and Taitt, with whom John Gordon formed a partnership in 1767, was supplying furniture and carrying out repairs for the Spencers by 1772, including the 'repairing and gilding' of the hall lantern at Spencer House and the making of 'loose covers' for Stuart's Painted Room suite. Although no documentary evidence survives for this suite, the theory of a longstanding relationship between Gordon and Earl Spencer's steward, Thomas Townsend, suggested by such comprehensive repairs, is confirmed by the appointment of the latter as Gordon's executor. Finally, the documented Gordon Furniture supplied to the 2nd Duke of Atholl for Blair Castle in 1748 provides close stylistic affinities with the Spencer House suites (P. Thornton and J. Hardy, op. cit., p. 448). It is the combination of these factors that allows for the confident attribution of the suite to the Gordon workshops.
In discussing Stuart's interior decoration, the architect Robert Adam (d. 1792) acknowledged 'Mr Stuart with his usual elegance and taste has contributed greatly towards introducing the true style of antique decoration' (R.and J. Adams, The Works in Architecture, 1773). Arthur Young, writing of Lord Spencer's house, noted - 'The hangings, carpets, glasses, sofas, chairs, tables, slabs - everything are not only astonishingly beautiful, but contain a vast variety. The carving and gilding is unrivalled. The taste in which every article throughout the whole house is executed is just and elegant'.
An apparently identical suite of chairs was supplied to Simon, 1st Earl Harcourt (d. 1777) for Nuneham Park, Oxfordshire in the early 1760s. The common thread seems to be the Society of Dilettanti - Harcourt being a founder member in 1736, Stuart proposed in 1751 and Spencer ultimately joining in 1765. Although the papers for John, 1st Earl Spencer are tantalisingly lost - having been destroyed by his widow - the Harcourt papers provide conclusive evidence that Stuart designed furniture. Thus, on 4 April 1764, John Adair invoiced 'The Rt Honble Earl Harcourt' for ' 2 Rich Oval Burnish gold Glass frames, Newnham 11 14 To 2 Bracket Tables under Do.: by Mr Stuart 16'. The account was evidently not settled and was resubmitted at the end of the decade - with the tables more clearly described as 'after Mr Stuart's design'. It is unclear if Adair was acting as an agent or actually supplied the Nuneham furniture - but he was a carver and gilder working from St. Ann's Court, Covent Garden from 1749 - and from Wardour Street, Soho from 1763. Moreover, he seems to have found favour at other Stuart commissions - carrying out works 'by order of Mr Stuart' at Bowood and at Shugborough.
In his 1930s inventory of furniture at Althorp, the 'Curator' 7th Earl Spencer notes correspondence from Philip Hardwick to Frederick, 4th Earl Spencer on 4 November 1847: "I have this morning been to Mr. Wakeling, the upholsterer and examined the furniture which has been removed from the principal rooms of Spencer House - it is very fine old furniture - the carving of the large sofas very good, and also altho' it will require a good deal of repairing, yet it appears to me to be well worth doing. I received from Mr. Wakeling the enclosed estimate of repairing and regilding it, which amounts to £580. It is very difficult to form a judgement upon these estimates, but to have the furniture well done and restored in white & gold as it was formerly, it does not appear an excessive estimate altho' the amount is large." Based on this the current scheme would appear to be at least the chairs' fourth.