In 1768, Arthur Young described the visitor's arrival in the Palm Room thus: 'Next when we entered the drawing-room, which is 24 by 21, clear of a bow-window, parted from the room only by two pillars of most exquisite workmanship, they are carved in leaves, the thick foliage of which bends round in a fine arch form one to the other, in a taste that cannot be too much admired; on each side, in a semi-circular cove in the wall, an urn in white marble with basso rilievos. Nothing can be more elagant than the chimney-piece; a border of Siena marble with a festoon of flowers upon it white; the ceiling, cornice, and ornaments of green and white gold, and in a delicate style'. Beyond the tantalising suggestion that the 'ornaments' were all 'green and white and gold', Young does not specifically describe the Palm Room suite of furniture.
THE ICONOGRAPHY OF THE PALM ROOM
The magnificent Palm Room or Drawing Room served as the culmination of John Vardy's apartments at Spencer House. The room overlooked the Royal park and was situated on the West front of the house whose Roman temple pediment displayed triumphal palms attended by statues of Arcadian deities. Here the festive goddess Flora is accompanied by Bacchus and Ceres, who recall the Roman sentiment that 'Venus [love] grows cold without Bacchus [wine] and Ceres [food]'. Likewise, love's triumph was celebrated in Vardy's elevation for the Spencers' Drawing Room, whose triumphal-arched niche could serve on occasion for a stately bed, in the 'French apartment' manner. Bacchic wine-krator vases ranged round the room's Roman-temple frieze guarded by griffins that the ancient poets associated with the sun god Apollo, leader of the Muses of Artistic inspiration on Mount Parnassus. Appropriately, these chimerical eagles also serve as supporters or guardians for the Spencer family's armorials. Ancient poetry is also recalled in the room-of-entertainment by busts of Homer and Hesiod. Their herm-posted pedestals flank the hermed-pedestals of the marble chimneypiece designed by Vardy. The room's Corinthian-columned screen was wrapped by golden palms, whose fronds arched above two wall niches displaying antique marble statues. The palm, while considered as a symbol of peace and victory, was also associated with Apollo's altars and the reward of victors at events held in his honour. Palm-trees forming arches with interwoven branches also served as a symbol of Love. It is thus possible to trace the origin of Vardy's wall-elevation, celebrating Venus's Triumph, to designs by the Italian artist Guilio Pippi, called Guilio Romano (d. 1546). It may have been Romano's image of palm-trees framing Venus's attendant Graces, that earlier informed Inigo Jones (d. 1652) in a theatre design of 1625, and this in turn inspired a 1662 design for a French-fashioned state-apartment, combining both conjugal and Apollonian meaning, for the Bedchamber of Charles II at Greenwich. This was not the work of Jones, but of his pupil John Webb, though it was subsequently chosen by Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington (d. 1753) for inclusion in John Vardy's Some Designs of Mr. Inigo Jones and Mr. William Kent in 1744. The latter was the principal source for the design of Earl Spencer's Palm Room.
The best preserved of Vardy's interiors at Spencer House, Vardy's conception can probably be dated to 1757, the year which appears on a watercolour by Vardy in the Soane Museum which shows the screen and alcove almost as they were executed. This also includes the superb standing blackamoors found in the silt of the Tiber, which were a gift to the 1st Duke of Marlborough and are now at Althorp.
THE PALM ROOM SUITE
The stools, embellished with Grecian palm-flowers emerging from Roman acanthus, were designed by Vardy to harmonise with the room. While no drawing has come to light for the Palm Room suite, Vardy's designs for the dining-room furniture, many of which bear Gray's stamp of approval, show his proficiency as a furniture designer. The design for the dining-room sideboard with pier glass inscribed Two Tables & Two Glass's at each End of Great Dining Room, Parlour Floor and on the reverse For the Honble John Spencer Esqrs Great Dining Room in St Jame's place at Each End of the Room illustrates Vardy's references to classical prototypes (J. Friedman, Spencer House, London, pp. 112-113, pl. 77-78). It appears that only the sideboards were executed (or met the approval of Gen.Gray) while the mirror design reappears in another drawing for an unidentified reception room (ibid., p. 108). A design for a pier glass, entwined with palm leaves, closely approximates the Spencer 'Palm' mirror and the possibility has been raised that this is a preliminary sketch for the Spencer mirror, although this is more certainly the design for a pair of pier glasses for Charles Powlett, 5th Duke of Bolton (d. 1765) at Hackwood Park, Hampshire (A. Coleridge, 'John Vardy and the Hackwood Suite', The Connoisseur, January 1962, pp. 12-17; sold by the Executor's of Viscount Camrose, Christie's London, 8 July 1999, lot 54). These examples show Vardy adapting and reusing his designs for different projects.
The chairs from the suite are conceived as French 'Easy Chairs' popularized by Thomas Chippendale in his celebrated furniture pattern-book, The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director (1754-1762), while their serpentined frames also reflect the French 'picturesque' fashion discussed in the artist William Hogarth's Analysis of Beauty, 1753. The form of the stools, serpentined and with raised, scrolled arms, was popularised in London's Society of Upholsterers, Genteel Household Furniture in the present Taste, 1765, pl. 10, which incorporated adapted designs of Chippendale, Mayhew and Ince and Robert Manwaring among others. However the closest parallel is the pair of long stools, also part of an extensive suite, supplied to Hugh, 1st Duke of Northumberland (d. 1786) for Northumberland House, on the Strand. These were almost certainly executed by the Soho Square firm of Paul Saunders, who was the beneficiary of a large number of unspecified payments from the Duke of Northumberland around 1755. A pair of alcove stools from this suite were sold from the collection of Mr and Mrs. Saul Steinberg, Sotheby's New York, 25 June 2000, lot 272 ($401,750).
In their inspiration, Vardy's exotic Palm-enriched suite is clearly indebted to France - and in particular to the menuiserie of Nicolas-Quinibert Foliot and, like Vardy, his specialist sculpteur brother Toussaint. Closely related palm-wrapped legs and scallop-shells feature on the suite of seat-furniture designed by Pierre-Contant d'Ivry and supplied by Nicolas Foliot in 1754 to Baron Bernstorff, the Danish Ambassador for the Palais Bernstorff in Copenhagen (now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York and discussed in B.G.B. Pallot, 'Foliot et les Sièges du Baron Berstorff', Exhibition Catalogue, XVIIe Biennale des Antiquaires, 1994, pp. 122-5). It is interesting to note, therefore, that Vardy is known to have carefully studied French prototypes - seen for instance in his drawing of Richard Arundale's bureau plat by BVRB which was at Temple Newsam by 1764.
Unfortunately, no documentation exists to firmly identify the maker of the Palm Room suite. While its design reflects Chippendale's French style, it seems likely that it was executed by the fashionable cabinet-maker John Gordon who was variously listed from 1748 at Swallow Street and King Street (possibly adjoining addresses) off Golden Square, London. Gordon included among his patrons the Duke of Atholl, the Duke of Gordon and Sir John Griffin Griffin and his close relationship with Earl Spencer is revealed by his appointment as an executor in his will in 1778.
John Gordon is first cited in invoices in the Blair Castle accounts in 1748, and in 1756 he supplied '8 mahogany chairs carved frames in fish scales with a french foot and carved leaf on the toe' as well as '6 mahogany chairs with lion paw feet'. Stylistic and structural similarities between the Blair Castle suites and Spencer commissions have been noted by Peter Thornton and John Hardy ('The Spencer Furniture at Althorp - Section II', Apollo, June 1968, p. 448). Characteristic features such as the marked curvature of the seat frame and legs and symmetrical design of the front and side rails in the French tradition compare to the design on seat-furniture supplied to the Great Ball-Room at Spencer House (ibid., figs. 8 & 9). Further to this, the unusual catch fitted to the Great Ball Room chairs and Painted Room suite from Spencer House are also present on the Palm suite.
While very little is known about Gordon from 1756-1767, at the time of the Spencer House project, in 1767 he entered into a partnership with John Taitt, at which time the firm is listed in directories at King Street. The Spencer Archive, preserved in the department of Manuscripts at the British Library, includes various bills after 1767 from Gordon and Taitt relating to upholstery and repairs, including in 1772 re-gilding Vardy's celebrated hall lantern, now at Althorp (G. Beard and C. Gilbert, The Dictionary of English Furniture Makers, 1660 - 1840, Leeds, 1986, pp. 355-7). Other documented commissions by Gordon and Taitt were extensive and include carved giltwood seat-furniture supplied to the Earl of Coventry at Croome Court (1768) and Sir John Griffin Griffin for Audley End (1771). The superb quality of the carving on these commissions further supports an attribution to Gordon for the execution of these stools.
It is also worthy to note the possible role of Thomas Vardy in the execution of these stools. Thomas, the brother of John Vardy, was a sculptor and carver who is known to have been employed at Spencer House by the payment records preserved at Hoare's Bank in Fleet Street (J. Friedman, 'Spencer House', Apollo, August 1987, p. 83). The possibility is also supported on technical grounds; the pair of Palm Room armchairs sold Christie's New York, 17 October 1997, lot 421, and apparently also the present stools, are constructed in limewood, a most unusual choice of wood for a chair-maker but significantly favoured by carvers. Certainly the Stuart exhibition catalogue draws the same conclusion about Thomas Vardy's probable involvement in the Painted Room suite (Soros, loc. cit., p. 435, fig. 10-32-33).
THE SUBSEQUENT HISTORY OF THE SUITE
The Palm Room suite originally comprised at least eight armchairs, a sofa, two large stools and two smaller stools, in addition to the pier glass. It was removed from the Palm Room during the 2nd Earl's transformation of the room into a Library, with partition bookcases, under the auspices of the architect Henry Holland from 1788-1796 and from here the history of the suite becomes less clear. The long stools offered here - as well as the Palm mirror - seem to have stayed at Spencer House until the 1920s - and are both clearly visible in the Great Room and Palm Room in the late 19th Century interior photographs taken by Bedford Lemere in 1895. The rest of the suite, contrastingly, appears to have either been moved to Althorp or sold at some point in the 19th Century - and it is reasonable to assume that they had already left by the time Spencer House was let to a succession of tenants. Indeed they may well have been sold around 1892, when the 5th Earl was forced to sell the 2nd Earl's renowned libary which raised £200,000.
The greater part of the Palm Room suite appears to have been acquired by the Spencers sometime neighbour in St. James's Place, the Earl of Harrington, who subsequently took them to Elvaston Castle in Derbyshire. The Palm Room sofa is still in the Harrington Collection, whilst a single armchair was sold at Sotheby's London, 29 November 2002, lot 154 and four armchairs were sold by the Earl of Harrington, Sotheby's, London, 8 November 1963, lot 180. Of these, a pair were subsequently sold anonymously Christie's, New York, 17 October 1997, lot 421, while the second pair was gifted to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Another pair of armchairs was sold from the Estate of Henry Ford II, Sotheby's New York, 26 January 1991, lot 228. A single armchair was sold by the late Mrs. E.S. Borthwick-Norton, Southwick House, Hampshire, Christie's house sale, 17-18 October 1988, lot 78. Finally, the two smaller stools are in the The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, The Rienzi Collection, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harris Masterson III (with H. Blairman & Sons Ltd., London, circa 1953; Sir Alexander Korda; the late Mrs. A.I. Metcalfe; sold Sotheby's London, 4 June 1976, lot 99; purchased by Mr. Masterson from Hotspur Ltd., London in 1977).