Witley Court, now a romantic ruin at the foot of Woodbury Hill near Worcester, was once ranked as one of England's most noble houses. Its early days can be traced to the Jacobean period, a red brick and sandstone house belonging to the Russell family. The property was sold to Thomas Foley, son of a Stourbridge ironmaster, in 1655. Thomas Foley's grandson, also Thomas, and 1st Baron Foley, was the first of a series of owners to undertake ambitious alterations, but the Entrance Hall where these settees stood always remained the heart of the house. When his son, 2nd Lord Foley inherited the estate in 1733, he commissioned James Gibbs to build a new parish church on the property with a remarkable baroque interior. Gibbs was instructed to purchase paintings and furniture from the 1747 auction of Cannons, the palatial home built by the 'Princely' Duke of Chandos, also under the aegis of Gibbs - while it is conceivable that the settees were part of the Cannons purchase, they do not appear in the 1747 catalogue. As 2nd Lord Foley was making improvements to the property at a time, he was likely to have commissioned the settees for the Hall where they remained until 1938.
The 2nd Lord Foley was childless and when he died in 1766 Witley was bestowed to his distant cousin Thomas Foley of Stoke Edith, for whom the Foley title was revived in 1776. Its new owner employed John Nash to carry out major reconstruction of the house including the addition of its Ionic porticos. The Entrance Hall was transformed into a double-height space whose upper galleries granted access to the state rooms, while the lower floors joined the private apartments.
This 'immense white house' (as it was described in 1814), was sold to William Humble Ward, the future Lord Ward of Dudley, in 1837, who embarked upon a grandiose scheme of rebuilding and modernization, an endeavor that lasted until the early 1860s. Lord Ward earned his title as 1st Earl of Dudley in 1860 and married in 1866. Thus began the most glamorous chapter at Witley. In 1897, a Country Life article compares it to Chatsworth and Castle Howard for its classicism. It reads: "Its various chambers are large and lofty. They are decorated with extreme richness, and with the directing hand of exquisite taste. They are furnished in a manner most choice" (S.C. Jenkins, 'Witley Court: An Interpretation of its Interior Arrangements', Worcestershire Archaeological Society Journal, 1996, pp. 289). The papers for the Dudley estates do not include any correspondence or records that indicate whether the property was bought with its furnishings. One must consider the possibility that Himley Hall, a Palladian mansion in Staffordshire and the seat of the Ward family prior to Witley, could have received the original commission for the settees which were then brought to Witley with Lord Dudley in 1837. Sadly, no inventories exist for either Witley or Himley to settle this point. However, it is certain that the settees were at Witley as early as 1882 when they appear in a photograph of the Entrance Hall (clearly conceived as a sculpture gallery at the time).
The heyday at Witley came to an end in 1920 with the tragic drowning death of Lady Dudley. At this time it was sold to the Kidderminster carpet manufacture, Sir Herbert Smith (d. 1943). Tragedy struck again on 7 September 1937 when the building broke out in flames. Local villagers flocked to Witley to remove valuable paintings and furniture, including these settees. The following year they were included in the house sale conducted by Jackson Stops & Staff on 3-5 October 1938. The settees were listed as lots 599 and 600 and described as follows:
Lot 599: An 18th Century Mahogany shaped back Settee, with solid seat, the under-framing carved in solid fret tracery, on club-footed cabriole legs (7'6 ").
Lot 600: A similar Settee.
For unknown reasons, these settees were withdrawn from the sale, presumably retained and thereafter sold at auction or privately. They were bought by the present owner in 1972. Witley was entrusted to the English Heritage in 1984.
Hall furniture was almost always left un-upholstered so that visiting messengers and coachmen, often with dusty clothes- could use them freely and footmen awaiting returning employers would not fall asleep in the early hours. The chair forms were often highly sophisticated as the design relied on its shape, proportion and quality of carving to project the status of the house, rather than applied decoration, gilding or upholstery. The very nature of the formal character of the chair lent itself successfully to the interpretation of classical designs and the timber used was often of the highest quality, richly polished to set off the carving. The severity of the furniture remained a foil to the grandeur and richness of the reception rooms that led off the hall.
The Witley Hall settees are inspired by the strictly architectural designs of William Kent and popularized by the publication by Kent's colleague, John Vardy (d. 1765), entitled Some Designs of Mr. Inigo Jones and Mr. William Kent, 1744 (pl. 42) (see P. Ward-Jackson, English Furniture Designs of the Eighteenth Century, London, 1958, pl. 16). Their modified pattern with mid-Georgian cabriole leg illustrates the evolution of their Palladian prototypes. Examples associated with Kent and his colleagues include those supplied for Devonshire House in London in circa 1735-40 and now at Chatsworth (H. Hayward and P. Kirkham, William and John Linnell, London, 1980, vol. II, p. 119, fig. 230). John Harris suggested in a 1969 article that the Chatsworth settees may be as late as the 1760s which reinforces the prolonged popularity of these forms (Furniture History, 1969, pp. 88-89). Makers such as William and John Linnell clearly adapted the pattern in a drawing of 1767 for a painted settee at Shardeloes, Buckinghamshire (ibid, p. 127, fig. 251). A suite of hall furniture relating to the Linnell design features a more delicately rendered Vitruvian scroll frieze punctuated by square rosettes, but on straight legs. The triple-paneled hall-settee was sold by Lord Petersham, now 12th Earl of Harrington, at Christie's, London, 9 April 1987, lot 47 and the stools sold, Property from the late Duke and Duchess of Kent and Families, Christie's, London, 20 November 2009, lot 45.