GENERAL CHARLES CHURCHILL AND MINTERNE MAGNA
This magnificent pier glass and companion table emblazoned with the Churchill coat of arms was conceived around 1706-7 for General Charles Churchill (d.1714), and traditionally thought to have been presented to him, with two Brussels tapestries, by the States of Holland in recognition of his service as Governor of Brussels. General Churchill was the younger brother of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough (d.1722), and fought alongside the Duke at the battles of Blenheim and Ramillies to great acclaim 'after which, for his many and great services, he was made Governor of Brussels and Colonel of the Coldstream Regiment of Foot Guards, and Governor of her Majesty's island of Guernsey' by Queen Anne (Clive Aslet, 'Minterne Magna, Dorset - I, The seat of Lord Digby', Country Life, 21 February 1980, p.499; A.L. Rowse, The Early Churchills, An English Family, London, 1956, p.116).
The leasehold of Minterne Magna, Dorset, the Churchill family seat, was acquired from Winchester College in 1642 by John Churchill (d.1652), the General's grandfather. Despite being a younger son, General Churchill inherited Minterne Magna upon the death of his father, Winston Churchill (d.1688). General Churchill enlarged and improved the property, employing some of the craftsmen and artists under the patronage of his brother at Blenheim Palace, which was being contemporaneously completed in Oxfordshire. As General Churchill had no legitimate progeny, when his widow Mary died, the estate passed to her nephew, Nicholas Gould, and upon his death to his brother, James. In 1768 a lease on Minterne Magna was sold, together with its contents, to Robert, Lord Digby of Sherborne including this pier glass and companion table, and they were thus lost to the family. However the Churchills and Digbys were united some two hundred years later through the 1939 marriage of Pamela Digby (later Pamela Churchill Harriman) to Randolph Churchill, and so these pieces were returned to the Churchill family.
THE PIER GLASS
The ornately carved pier glass is unusual because although comparables exist with verre églomisé borders, most lack the original carved cresting. The cresting on this pier glass depicting a trophy of Cupid's weapons, combined with martial weapons, is in the French manner. It reflects the passion of the age in which war and military prowess were embraced, a concept echoed in the architecture and furnishings at Blenheim Palace, which are replete with tributes to the military achievements of the Duke of Marlborough. The monogram is closely related to another formerly in the collection of Cecil Bysshopp, 5th Baronet, Parham Park, Sussex with identical pierced carving on the borders of the frame and very similar scrolled strapwork and foliate ornamentation suggesting that the two pier glasses were made by the same workshop (Sotheby's, London, 'Defining an era - The collections of the Late Francis Egerton and Peter Maitland', 28 April 2010, lot 690, £91,250). The form of the mirror and elements of the carving, which display a finesse of gilding and gesso cutting, closely relate to a group of furniture including mirrors, associated with the late 17th-early 18th century style of carving epitomized by the Paris-trained and London-based, Pelletier workshop, who are renowned for having supplied carved gilt furniture for William III's state apartments at Hampton Court Palace between 1699 and 1702. After this date, the youngest son, Thomas Pelletier (d. after 1725), together with his brother, René, took over the business and was appointed Cabinetmaker in Ordinary to Queen Anne. The Pelletier accounts show that the workshop was supplying 'glass and cabinet work' to a number of prestigious clients including Ralph, Earl and later 1st Duke of Montagu, for his London house, Montagu House, Bloomsbury and at Boughton House, Northamptonshire. The distinctive strapwork to the mirror frame corresponds to the cresting on another mirror frame that was supplied by the Pelletier workshop for Montagu House and subsequently adapted to a picture frame (Tessa Murdoch, 'Jean, René and Thomas Pelletier, a Huguenot Family of Carvers and Gilders in England 1682-1726. Part II', The Burlington Magazine, vol.140, June 1998, p.368, fig.13). The accounts also comprise payments for 'mosaic work', or verre églomisé, for looking glasses at Ditton House, Buckinghamshire, another Montagu property; in 1706, Thomas and René Pelletier charged £12 'for a glass frame two pieces being 60 inches and the two other pieces 32 inches Engraved with gold upon a blue ground' for a chimneypiece at Ditton (Tessa Murdoch, ibid., pp. 368-369). The present pier glass relates to two pier glasses at the Victoria & Albert Museum one of which dated 1710 (museum no. W.22-1949) was originally at Halnaby Hall, Yorkshire and is attributed to the Pelletier workshop ('Halnaby Hall - II, Yorkshire, The Seat of Lady Wilson Todd', Country Life, 8 April 1933, p.366, fig.14). It is also similar to a second pier glass 'possibly made by Pelletier' again in the Victoria & Albert Museum (museum no. W.27:1 to 4-1954) because of comparble engraved figures in the lower borders representing Flora, the classical goddess of flowers, and her consort, Zephyr, the west wind of springtime. René Pelletier (d.1726) trained as a graveur, and the figures were possibly copied from prints as he is known to have owned a large collection at the time of his death.
THE COMPANION TABLE
Three comparable examples are known to exist in British collections, one at Erdigg, North Wales, which like this example has a cracked mirror, another at Houghton Hall, Norfolk, and the present table. The latter is remarkable for being at least twenty years earlier in date than the others and paint analysis indicates that the original decoration of the table may have involved a red (vermillion) pattern on a blue ground. Some elements of this present table are of Dutch inspiration, in particular the supports. A Dutch side table in the entrance hall at Kasteel Het Nijenhuis in Overijssel has a similar shaped leg (Jorge Guillermo, Dutch Houses and Castles, New York, 1990, p.38).
In 1888, both the Churchill pier glass and table were described as 'a handsome pier glass and glass table of old Dutch manufacture [with] the same monogram, and also the Churchill crest' (Rev. H. E. Ravenhill, 'Minterne: Its connection with the Churchills and Digbys, A Paper Read on the Lawn at Minterne 28th June, 1888', Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club, 1889, vol. X, p. 93). This Dutch attribution concurs with family tradition regarding the presentation of the pier glass and companion table by the States of Holland. Legend has it that the glass top of the table was broken in two by General Churchill who was unaware that 'he held [Minterne Magna] under the College of Winchester, and that when he discovered that he was lessee only, not the proprietor, and a large fine on the renewal of a life was asked by the College, he dashed his sword with such violence on the table as to break the glass' (Rev. H. E. Ravenhill, ibid). The glass was later replaced in 1864 by Lord Digby, the same year that the Digby family was able finally to purchase the freehold of Minterne Magna.