These magnificent 'Palm-wrapped' mahogany dining chairs were originally from a set of at least twenty-three (presumably twenty-four) which were supplied to furnish John Vardy's 'Great Eating Room' on the Ground Floor at Spencer House. Amongst the most richly carved dining chairs of the 18th Century, their tenure at Spencer House was comparatively short-lived - presumably as a result of both their generous scale, delicacy of design and the large scale of entertaining envisaged by George John, 2nd Earl Spencer (1758-1834) and his wife Lavinia. In the mid-1780s they engaged Henry Holland to supply a longer replacement set of 54 smaller 'Hepplewhite' mahogany dining-chairs, probably supplied by Seddon & Sons, which remain at Althorp today.
During the 2nd Earl's lifetime - and quite possibly because of his ever-expanding Libraries which gradually took over more and more of Spencer House - Vardy's dining chairs were moved elsewhere and 16 of them are probably those described in the 1814-16 Althorp Inventory as '16 Carvework Chairs Hair Seats' in the Picture Gallery. This is certainly where they are first photographed in 1874. However, at some point in the 19th Century, ten of the original twenty-three were transformed into 'Hall Chairs' by the removal of their stretchers and the addition of wooden seats with a reeded edge; these alterations were probably a reflection of condition as several of these chairs - still at Althorp and now restored back to upholstered seats, but lacking their stretchers - have suffered some damages to the splats.
THE DINING ROOM AT SPENCER HOUSE
John Vardy's design for the Dining Room at Spencer House had it's origins in a watercolour of 1755 though the finished room differed somewhat. Vardy found inspiration from a variety of sources but throughout there were references to antiquity. At each end of the room were columned screens with matching pilasters on the walls; these were replaced during the refurbishment by Henry Holland after 1785, but it is possible that they were originally painted in imitation of Siena marble as indicated in Vardy's drawing. Vardy prepared further drawings for the decoration of window shutters and soffits featuring smoking censers, rosettes and acanthus scrolls, now lost as a result of alterations to the windows, while his design for an overmantel featuring figures of Bacchus and Ceres was never executed. A magnificent Carrara marble chimney-piece formed one highlight of the room though this was later removed to Althorp. The frieze design incorporating bucrania, tripod candelabra and putti bearing festive ribbons is almost identical to that in the Entrance Hall at Holkham Hall, Norfolk, designed by William Kent (d.1748); this was copied from the Temple of Fortuna, Rome, as illustrated in Desdodetz's Les Edifices Antiques de Rome, 1682, which also provided the source for the Roman Ionic capitals of Vardy's original columns ( J. Friedman, Ibid., p.106-111).
Vardy also designed the magnificent giltwood sideboards that stood at each end of the room, each with a Siena marble top intended for the display of the Spencers' finest gold and silver plate, otherwise known as 'The Marlborough Plate'. These tables again were derived from antiquity, each centred by a mask of Bacchus and with trailing vines, similar to Vardy's side table design for Holkham and supported by winged beasts. The accompanying pier glasses designed by Vardy were apparently never executed but interestingly these do also display the distinctive 'Palm frond' cresting (ibid., p. 108, p. 80, pl. XI and p. 112, fig. 77).
A QUESTION OF ATTRIBUTION
The Spencer House dining-chairs have traditionally been given to both Thomas Chippendale and, more convincingly, to Messrs. Mayhew and Ince of Golden Square, Soho (P. Thornton and J. Hardy, 'The Spencer Furniture at Althorp, Section 1: Baroque and Palladian Furniture and John Vardy's work for Spencer House', Apollo, April 1968, p. 187). Certainly, although revolutionary in the sculptual treatment of the splat, their form shows similarities with 1759 designs published by Mayhew and Ince in The Universal System of Household Furniture, 1762, pl. IX, 'Parlour Chairs', and pl. VIII, 'Therms for Busts or Lamps'. Mayhew and Ince were certainly acquainted with the Spencers - and indeed The Universal System was dedicated to John Spencer's 1st cousin George Spencer, 4th Duke of Marlborough, for whom they worked at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, continuously between 1772 and 1800 and possibly also at Marlborough House, London (G. Beard and C. Gilbert, Dictionary of English Furniture Makers 1660-1840, Leeds, 1986, pp. 589-598). Moreover, there is also a group of more Neo-classical furniture at Althorp - some designed by Stuart (see lot 1019) and others supplied for Holland's new Library dating from the 1780s - which is stylistically attributable to Mayhew and Ince.
However, the idiosyncratic design of the chairs strongly displays the hand of John Vardy. The unusual use of palm fronds in the chair back and on the seat-rails echoes it's appearance in Vardy's giltwood lantern designed for the Entrance Hall at Spencer House and now at Althorp, and in the framing of the circular window in the pediment of the west front. It also anticipates its more dramatic use in the adjoining Palm Room (see lot 20). Vardy notably employed similar palm enrichment elsewhere, such as in the three pairs of spectacular giltwood pier glasses supplied to Charles Powlett, 5th Duke of Bolton (d.1765) for Grosvenor Square, London or Hackwood Park, Hampshire (sold by the Executors of Viscount Camrose, Christie's London, 8 July 1999, lots 50, 52 and 54.)
The chairs' Cupid's bow crest rails invoke themes of love displayed throughout Spencer House, but most especially in James 'Athenian' Stuart's Great Room and Painted Room. And while the panelled and foliate-enriched pillar leg design was popularised by both Mayhew and Ince and Thomas Chippendale (see J. Munro Bell, The Chippendale Director, Ware, 1990, p. 7) its basic form perhaps derives from the set of mahogany and parcel-gilt chairs of circa 1738 supplied for Holkham Hall and attributed to Willian Hallett. The Spencer chairs ingeniously feature an Ionic capital at the top of the leg which strikingly accords with the Dining Room's pillars and thus also points firmly to the hand of the architect Vardy, who around 1745 had designed a pedestal featuring the same capital (drawing in the RIBA Library Drawings Collection, London, no. SD41/6(6)).
A SPECIALIST CARVER?
With their technical ingenuity and brilliantly crsip, sculptural carving, these chairs must have required the input of an experienced carver such as Vardy's brother Thomas, who was already established in London at Park Street, Grosvenor Square and was employed at Spencer House in the carving of ornamental joinery. The two were close associates, their skills complementing each others, and they collaborated on projects in the years preceding the Spencer House commission. Thomas Vardy had been admitted to the Livery of Joiners' Company in 1753, and he is likely to have been responsible for the pair of carved walnut side tables designed by his brother for the Great Hall at Hackwood Park (sold by Lord Bolton, Christie's London, 5 December 1991, lot 248) as well as the giltwood mirrors and console tables for Grosvenor Square or Hackwood Park cited above. His stature was such that he was named in Henry Holland's notebooks of circa 1770 as supplying two marble chimney-pieces for Lord Hillsborough's house near Westerham, Kent (G. Beard and C. Gilbert, op. cit., pp. 919-10).
Lucy Wood has demonstrated how the increased emphasis on carving in the 18th century dictated a flexible division of labour in the creation of exuberant joined work with different practices subcontracted within the trade (The Upholstered Furniture in The Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool, 2008, vol. I, pp. 31-36). Thus it is entirely plausible that in the execution of a set of chairs such as these, Vardy might have engaged a traditional cabinet and joinery workshop, such as Mayhew and Ince, whilst employing his brother Thomas specifically to provide high quality carving and fully realise the complex design.
This same division of labour is particularly well-documented in the bills for the works commissioned by George William, 6th Earl of Coventry (d. 1809) at Croome Court, Worcestershire. Thus stools supplied in 1766 by the court cabinet-maker, John Bradburn (d. 1781) were embellished by the specialist carver Sefferin Alken (d. 1783) and chairs en suite, designed by Adam in 1765, were supplied by John Cobb (d. 1778), also in collaboration with Alken (E. Harris, The Genius of Robert Adam, His Interiors, London, 2001, pp. 48-53, figs. 75 and 76).