The Londonderry Commodes
The following group of four pieces of case furniture represents a rare and interesting survival, owing not only to their superb quality and avant-garde design but to the fact that all four pieces apparently share a common origin. That they remain together now is particularly remarkable given that that they seem to have been moved around between various Londonderry properties independently during the past one hundred and fifty years. The first two commodes are clearly en suite, as are the commode and press that follow, however the two groups are stylistically very different, bridging the gap between the rococo and neoclassicism. The early 1770s was a period of transition, so, despite their differing styles, the two groups were probably supplied in quick succession, if not together. They can be confidently attributed to a common hand through various shared idiosyncratic details of both design and construction, such as the shared use of the same silvered Birmingham swag handles to one example from each group, the use of the same lock to all three of the doored examples, and the similarity of treatment to the engraved marquetry work throughout and the mixed use of mahogany and cedar in the construction.
The attribution to John Cobb (d.1778)
The bombé commodes (and by extension the following neoclassical commode and press) can be clearly linked to a small group of bombé commodes, with drawers, undoubtedly produced by the same west-end cabinet maker. Members of this elite group have been variously attributed in the past to Thomas Chippendale, Pierre Langlois and the royal cabinet maker John Cobb. Whilst differently decorated all the commodes in the group appear to stick rigidly to the same design of shapely elongated carcass and universally employ of bombé end panels, a highly unusual feature amongst English commodes. Other common features amongst the group include the shaping of the top, the shaping of the cockbeaded drawers to follow the shape of the angles, the identical shaping of the central section of the apron (with only very slight variations to the flanking sections), and the elegant form of the extended square legs. Cobb’s workshop has the strongest claim perhaps on the authorship of the group, which all display the elongated form characteristic of his workshop, several of also have lion’s mask carrying handles (although of two designs), which is a feature often associated with Cobb, and which can be seen to the ends of the doored bombé commode (lot 466). Although generally more plainly decorated, many do have the ground veneers applied diagonally as here, and several are fitted with the same model of swagged handle, the pattern for which was published in the catalogue of an unknown Birmingham maker, see, N. Goodison, ‘The Victoria and Albert Museum’s Collection of Metal-Work Pattern Books’, Furniture History, 1975, vol. XI, p. 17 & pl. 22. The same method of constructing the top, employing a cleated softwood carcass, appears to be another common feature, with many exhibiting the same lateral warping.
One closely related example, with the same arrangement of drawers and apron pattern but differently decorated, was originally at Wentworth Woodhouse and is now in a distinguished private collection. Significantly that commode employs lion's-mask side handles in combination with the unusual oak-leaf drawer handle pattern generally associated with Cobb and which he employed on the commode he supplied to James West at Alscot Park Warwickshire in 1766 (see L. Wood, London, 1994, Catalogue of Commodes, pp. 50-51, fig. 35). Other closely related commodes include a mahogany example formerly at Norfolk House, London, and illustrated in Anthony Coleridge, Chippendale Furniture, London, 1968, pl. 234; an example from the Leverhulme collection, and an important lacquered brass-mounted example, which was sold The Exceptional Sale, Christie’s, London, 5 July 2012, lot 37 (£205,250).
Amongst the wider group of similar commodes identified, these bombé commodes are probably the latest in date and are the only ones decorated in this ingenious and highly stylised manner. Although parallels can be drawn between some of the detailing of the marquetry and Cobb’s known output, the design of adjacent oval panels is apparently unique, and may well be derived from a design for astragal glazing. The painted decoration appears to have been extensively refreshed, probably in the 19th century, but it seems likely that it may follow the line of an original scheme. This theory is supported by the absence of the inlaid husks to the angles at the base of the front elevation, as are present to the corners of the end panels, perhaps, suggests that they were reserved for painting, although the angles are now vacant to the doored commode.
The Provenance, a link to Cobb?
As the earliest records of three of these four lots places them in London properties, it is reasonable to consider that they may have formed part of the earlier furnishings of James ‘Athenian’ Stuart’s Holdernesse House, some of which are known to have remained in situ in 1819 when the house was purchased by Lord Stewart (later 3rd Marquess of Londonderry). On the basis of the chalk inscription to the reverse of the low press, ‘Londonderry Richmond’, it is possible to place it at ‘Rosebank’ a picturesque thatched ‘cottage’ on the banks of the Thames, which was one of the homes of Lord and Lady Londonderry in the mid-19th century, presumably then being
moved to Wynyard Park (where it has been identified, along with the matching press, in the 1886 inventory). Furthermore Vile and Cobb are recorded in the accounts of Lord Holderness, which not only makes this line of provenance all the more likely but also reinforces the attribution (Holderness accounts quoted: S. Weber Soros Ed. James “Athenian” Stuart, New York, 2006, p. 223).