The Hunter bureau-cabinet belongs to a very select sub-group of furniture attributed to Thomas Chippendale, where a combination of design, construction and comparison allows a confident attribution to the master. Only one other bureau-bookcase that so closely follows the same pattern is known and Christopher Gilbert wrote of that one, in his Life and Work of Thomas Chippendale, vol. I, p. 290, that 'as a rule it is fruitless to speculate about such [unprovenanced] furniture but one item, a desk and bookcase published by R.W. Symonds in 1931, can with confidence be attributed to Chippendale's workshop. The design is based on Plate CVII in the third edition, but some decorative elements, up-dated in the neo-classical taste, display striking analogies to carved details on cabinets at Harewood, and furthermore the lower stage contains sliding trays lined in old marbled paper, a finish consistently applied by Chippendale but not assocated with any other firms'. The cabinet published by R.W. Symonds was exhibited by Hotspur Ltd., at The Grosvenor House Fair, 1996, and is illustrated in the catalogue, p. 93. The base of the Hunter bureau-cabinet has oak slides of the same thickness as those covered with marbled paper on the Hotspur cabinet. Those on the Hunter cabinet seem originally to have been covered with a flap of fabric, usually to protect the contents from dust.
Chippendale's more 'picturesque' design features a bookcase, with a projecting Roman temple-pedimented and Ionic-dentilled cornice with a draped urn. The present bookcase's improvements to the design reflect the elegant 'Roman' fashion promoted by Robert Adam (d.1792). Beneath an antique-fluted cornice, the spandrels are flowered with palm-issuing acanthus, evoking the poetry deity Apollo. Sunflowered libation-paterae displayed on the pediment and tablets recall that deity's love. Its scrolled and fretted 'truss' feet also shun the 'picturesque' ornament of Chippendale's earlier design.
Even allowing for these more neo-classical improvements, the design of both derives very closely from plate CVII in the 3rd edition of Chippendale's Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director, of 1762. The engraving itself is dated 1760, providing a useful terminus ante quem for this rigorously neo-classical pattern. The execution of both the Hunter and Hotspur cabinets differ in tiny details from the Director pattern and provide an interesting example of the process of classical change that affected the design. The most substantial difference is the addition of a classical fluted frieze below the cornice on both cabinets, where the design shows no frieze at all. The design shows flowerheads within the cut-corners of panels in both sections: on both cabinets these are replaced with paterae.
Other elements of the bureau-cabinet are of the highest quality, both of design and execution. The baize writing-surface has indented 're-entrant' corners, a characteristic shared by some of a slightly earlier group of Kentian bureau-cabinets of related breakfront form, including that sold from the collection of the late Helena Hayward, F.S.A, Sotheby's London, 4 July 1997, lot 44. The breakfront form of the upper sections of these bureau-cabinets is very unusual and it is conceivable that Chippendale's design was inspired by the Hayward group, dated to circa 1750, and which are now attributed to William Hallett Senior.
A feature of the Hunter cabinet of exceptional rarity is the small giltmetal handles that adjust the shelf-supports in the interior of the upper section.
One of the small constructional elements that points to Chippendale's authorship is the use of s-pattern keyholes, almost unique to him. The locks on the main slope and the two outer drawers of the Hunter bureau-bookcase have this feature. In his 1768 account to Lady Shelburne, Chippendale mentioned that a commode table has 'very good spring and tumbler locks and S-bitted keys' (Gilbert, op. cit., vol. I, p. 253, and vol. II, p. 147, fig. 267). This keyhole pattern has very occasionally been recorded on furniture attributed to Chippendale's competitor John Cobb, for example on the commode sold anonymously, Christie's New York, 19 April 2001, lot 148. However, nearly all occurrences are on furniture attributed to Chippendale.
The early 20th century depository labels on this bureau-cabinet, and family tradition, confirm that it entered the family with Dr Arthur Lovegrove. Born in Sevenoaks, Kent, he obtained medical registration in 1889, married in Doncaster in 1894 and died at Hexham, Northumberland, in 1943. Although it is not known whether he inherited this bureau- cabinet, or bought it, it is known that he was left other items of furniture by grateful patients. This makes the details of his working career more tantalising, as from an early date he worked in the heart of Chippendale country in Yorkshire, for example East Cowton in 1894 (8 miles from Richmond), and in Ripon in 1894. He must have acquired the cabinet before 1905, when he was briefly in practice in Lewisham, and this cabinet was in store there.
We are grateful to Roger Lovegrove of the Lovegrove Information Centre (www.lovegrove.org.uk) for his help with this biographical information.