These magnificent classical library bookcases with their robustly carved temple cornices are designed in the George II Roman fashion associated with Vitruvius and Palladio and promoted by Rome-trained architects, such as James Gibbs (d.1754). As the library became an increasingly important apartment in the planning of eighteenth-century mansions and villas, so its fitting up produced masterpieces of the joiner's craft. During the 1720s, the companies trading to America introduced the fashion for mahogany-panelled libraries in a period that has been designated 'The Age of Mahogany'. Amongst the first promoters was the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole (d.1720) at his country seat Houghton Hall, Norfolk and Downing Street, London.
The present bookcases were commissioned by the celebrated connoisseur, architect and bibliophile Sir Thomas Robinson, 1st Baronet (d. 1777) who created his own handsome Palladian estate at Rokeby Hall (now Park) in Yorkshire (published by Isaac Ware (d.1766), architect and author of the treatise A Complete Body of Architecture, who made engravings of the house in 1741 and 1747). Robinson's passion for architecture was ignited by his fellow Yorkshireman, the luminary Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, notable for his promotion of the artist/architect William Kent. As with his mentor, Sir Thomas made a study of architecture and antiquities while travelling in Italy, writing: 'I have bought most of the good books and plans of architecture of whatever yet writ or built'. Also like Burlington, he took pride in his adopted role as 'Architectus' in the promotion of the Nation's Arts. His plans for Rokeby were underway by 1729 and show the marked influence of Palladio as well as English derivatives such as Marble Hill at Twickenham and Burlington's own Chiswick House. As the Rokeby estate once provided the site for a Roman fort, ancient Roman influences were also prevalent as derived from Pliny's villa and gardens at Laurentium. That Robinson was foremost among the students of Britannia Romana, was also expressed in his collection of antiquities from Britain to complement those from abroad.
In 1731, Sir Thomas wrote a letter to his father-in-law, the 3rd Earl of Carlisle of Castle Howard, saying, 'My house in Yorkshire is now entirely fitted up to be warm and convenient for my family. My chief expense has been in Palladian doors and windows, which I am told have a very good effect...There is now nothing wanting for our reception but to put up the Furniture, which is ready there for that end.' Despite this proclamation, records show that work did indeed continue at Rokeby.
While the charming Tuscan-columned library on the ground floor is one of only two rooms in the house that survive in its 1730s form, it is apparent that the bookcases - originally a set of four - were designed for the Saloon on the piano nobile. Their very design supports this as their Vitruvian scroll mid-sections and egg-and-dart bases appear to conform precisely to the dado and base molding of this majestic room. Indeed, there are corresponding cuts to the back edge of each bookcase to accomodate such architecture. Further to this, an extant nineteenth-century drawing in a private collection is said to show the bookcases in situ here, although they were removed by the time the house was photographed for the 1917 Country Life article. Sadly, the archives at North Yorkshire and Co. Durham Records Offices do not include any inventories, invoices or further records which shed any further light on the interiors or contents at Rokeby.
The bookcase design relates closely to a drawing executed by Robinson himself featuring two bookcases. The first bookcase, crowned by a bust flanked by urns, has a commode base fitted with four rather than three drawers; the second bookcase conforms proportionately to the Rokeby examples with its six paned doors, although with doors rather than drawers to the base. On the same sheet, a pedimented doorway with entablature and framed by Corinthian columns is the source for the doorways in the Saloon (one doorway is visible in the room shot reproduced here).
The date in which the designs were executed remains uncertain. Robinson had accepted a position as Governor of Barbados in 1742, perhaps as funds were running low. He returned to Rokeby in 1747/48, flush with new money from his second wife, the widow of a rich Barbadian ironmonger. It was at this time that he undertook extensive alterations to the main block. Certain details on the Saloon door frame, such as the 'Chinese fretwork' inner border, betray a slightly later date although its essential design was derived from Inigo Jones and published by Kent in 1729. As Giles Worsley has proposed, the drawings may date to around 1753 when he was also designing the west wing of Castle Howard as another door frame on the design sheet bears similarities to those erected there (G. Worsley, 'Rokeby Park, Yorkshire-II', Country Life, 26 March 1987 p. 179, fig 12). As such, the bookcases were likely to have been supplied at this time.
The spectacular furniture in the Saloon included the wonderfully architectural writing-desk and pair of commodes attributed to the Royal cabinet-maker Benjamin Goodison (d. 1767) that were sold to the Royal family in the early 20th century (the writing-desk shown in situ here). A fallacy has persisted in art-historical references identifying Rokeby's Sir Thomas Robinson as Master of the Great Wardrobe. As such, it would have been most convenient to conclude that he employed Goodison for a private commission, having direct responsibility for the payment of such work in the Royal household. However, Rokeby's colorful 'Long Thomas Robinson' (so called because of his height) was quite a different person in stature and identity from his namesake who would later become Lord Grantham. It is difficult to ascribe authorship to the bookcases whose carving is executed with great finesse and detail but Goodison is certainly a candidate to take under consideration, particularly given the existence of writing-desk and commodes. Goodison's organ case supplied to King George II (and later altered by William Vile) is similarly robust and architectural with a broad carved waist (op. cit., pl. 15) and Goodison would have been acquainted with Sir Thomas's mentor Lord Burlington as early as 1720 when he signed a receipt for 'My Master, James Moore' for work executed on his behalf as early as 1720 (Dictionary of English Furniture-Makers 1660-1840, 1986, p. 351). Of note, the Rokeby writing-table features corresponding Vitruvian scroll embellishment to the base (illustrated in A. Coleridge, Chippendale Furniture, New York, 1968, fig. 2).
In 1769, Robinson sold Rokeby to John Sawrey Morritt of Cawood leaving behind his architectural masterpiece, his collection and even personal items such as his architectural drawings and paintings. A few years prior to selling Rokeby, he had acquired a house at Prospect Place in London, near Ranelagh Gardens, of which he was manager and shareholder. Robinson was known for his extravagent parties given at his Chelsea home as noted in the memoirs and letters of diarists such as Horace Walpole, Lady Harvey and Lady Mary Coke. Following his death in 1777, an auction of his 'Very Valuable Household Furniture and other effects' was carried out by Messrs Welsh, Clayton & Co. The sale includes a series of seven 'handsome mahogany Library cases with sliding shelves, glazed doors and drawers underneath' (the two largest of similar 'commodious' size as the Rokeby bookcases), 23 April, No. 33, lots 19-26 (J. Yorke, 'The Very Valuable Household Furniture...and Other Effects of Sir Thomas Robinson, Bart. Dec.', Furniture History, 1994, pp. 150-182).
The Rokeby bookcase escutcheons bear the engraved coat-of-arms of the Morritt family. These were almost certainly added upon their acquisition in 1769. J. S. Morritt entered a new phase of renovations to the house, employing the architect John Carr. His son, John Bacon Sawrey Morritt, acquired the celebrated 'Cupid and Psyche', known as the Rokeby Venus, by Velasquez which now hangs in the National Gallery but was originally placed in the Saloon. And Walter Scott, a family friend, dedicated his poem Rokeby to him.
The four bookcases were positioned once again in the Saloon at Rokeby at the time of their sale in 1946 to London dealer Leonard Knight. The remaining two now form part of the public collections at the Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, Virginia (the bookcase lettered 'C') and the Art Institute of Chicago (lettered 'D').
Rokeby Park is currently open to the visiting public from May to September.