These serpentined chairs were commissioned around 1758-65 by John Spencer, 1st Earl Spencer and with their removable 'a chassis frames for Winter and Summer covers, relate to French 'easy chair' patterns illustrated in Thomas Chippendale's Gentleman and Cabinet-Makers Director, 1754-63. Enriched with palm-flowers, these chairs originally formed part of an extensive suite of seat-furniture, executed in two finishes - exotic sabicu and white-painted and parcel-gilt in the French manner. Of the sabicu suite, at least nine open armchairs, four pairs of stools of differing sizes and a settee were supplied - of which five armchairs and two pairs of stools will remain at Althorp. The white and gold suite was larger still: commissioned for the Great Room and its adjoining withdrawing-room, known as Lady Spencer's Dressing-Room on the piano nobile, the original parcel-gilt suite included four sofas, twenty-six armchairs and eighteen side chairs (see lots 16-18).
The use of sabicu and lime on this suite is extremely unsusual - but its extreme hardness allows for the crispest carved detailing. Interestingly, the identical suite which was originally white-painted
and parcel-gilt is also made of lime and hardwood - although this is
identified as Honduran mahogany rather than sabicu in S. Weber Soros (ed.), James "Athenian" Stuart: The Rediscovery of Antiquity, New Haven and London, 2006, p. 432, fig. 10-52, p.446. Interestingly, this same 'sabicu' or mahogany was also used on the suite of Bedroom Furniture designed by Stuart for Lady Spencer's Room at Spencer House (ibid., figs. 10-53 and 10-56), now at Althorp (see lot 39). Unfortunately, the papers of the 1st Earl Spencer appear to have been burnt on his death by his widow - and thus tantalisingly little information survives. Similarly the only inventory of Spencer House that does survive, that of 1834, records only the plate (MSS, British Library, Add. 78031, Althorp Papers). The earliest categoric evidence of the sabicu suite, therefore, is in 1874, when one is visible in the Picture Gallery at Althorp. This same suite may well be identifiable with the armchairs mentioned earlier in the 1814-19 Inventory of Althorp: Great Library...2 Large Mahogany Elbow Chairs Red Leather Covers Brass Nail'd...New Library 2 Large Mahogany Elbow Chairs Stuf'd Backs and Seats striped Covers...Lady spencer's Sitting Room 2 Large elbow Chairs....' - and certainly some of the stools en suite (lots 7-9) appear to have also been covered in leather in the Great Library in the 1890s photographs. But the robust Neo-Classical designs are stylistically at odds with the architectural interiors at Althorp -and indeed there is no record of Stuart working at Althorp - although we know that he worked at both Spencer House and Wimbledon Park concurrently from 1758 onwards. However, almost no furniture survived the terrible fire that ravaged Wimbledon in 1785.
It seems far more probable that this suite was originally commissioned for the Ground Floor apartments at Spencer House - probably for the Drawing Room on the North West corner of the building. Importantly, this room has only one long wall opposite the fireplace - and only one sofa in sabicu is recorded. This was one of the principal reception rooms on the enfilade of the Ground floor and adjoined the Great Eating Parlour to the West, which was also furnished with Vardy's mahogany dining chairs (lot 30). Contrastingly all the other principal rooms at Spencer House had giltwood or white-painted and parcel-gilt suites of seat-furniture - and a progression from understated but richly carved mahogany through to the crescendo of the Palm Room's blue-painted and parcel-gilt scheme would have chimed with 18th Century sensibilities.
More importantly, under Henry Holland's direction, we know that the Vardy dining chairs were replaced with a set of lighter Hepplewhite chairs (now at Althorp), and it would seem that François Hervé was engaged simultaneously in providing more comfortable and feminine 'English Louis XVI' giltwood suites for the Drawing Rooms of both Althorp and Spencer House (lots 52-3). It therefore makes perfect sense that both the sabicu suite and the Vardy dining chairs had found their way North to Althorp by as early as 1814. Perhaps the explanation lies in the bibliophile obsessions of George John, 2nd Earl Spencer. His unprecedented appetite for literature was unleashed in 1789 and from that date until his death in 1834, he 'spared neither time, labour nor money' in compiling what was to become the finest private library in Europe. As his collections of Caxtons and incunabula grew, the furniture had to give way to make space - and the Palm Room suite (lot 20)
was an early victim, Vardy's interior being subjected to the ignominy of a partition of bookshelves instead.
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 to the rooms' architecture (L. Harris, Robert Adam and Kedleston, London, 1987, pp. 26 and 27).
These suites of seat-furniture 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.