This magnificent bureau-cabinet has long been considered one of the masterpieces of English furniture. It was the highlight of two of the most important collections assembled in the 20th Century on either side of the Atlantic, those of Percival Griffiths and Judge Irwin Untermeyer. It was included in all the seminal and most influential reference books which have guided and influenced generations of aspiring collectors. The founding father of furniture history R.W. Symonds extols ‘this piece is of outstanding quality in all respects’ and further singled it out with multiple scaled line drawings to demonstrate that it followed the golden mean. (R.W. Symonds, English Furniture from Charles II to George II, London, 1929, p.109, 112 and 113).
PERCIVAL DAVIS GRIFFITHS (1862-1938): THE STORY OF A LEGENDARY COLLECTOR
‘He was known to a wide circle of clients and friends as a delightful personality. …His chief interest in life was his famous collection of antique furniture’
Sir Russell Kettle, Deloitte & Co. 1845-1956, privately printed, Deloitte, Plender Griffiths & Co., 1958. p. 124).
R.W.Symonds, the ground-breaking furniture historian and advisor, wrote that ‘Griffiths became interested in the subject when he found himself about the year 1900 admiring a mahogany bureau-bookcase in the sitting room of a Monmouthshire Inn. The innkeeper sold it to him’. Symonds recalls Griffiths telling him ‘Little did I think that, at the time I bought it, that this passing extravagance would inextricably involve me in the absorbing pursuit of collecting antique furniture.’ (R.W. Symonds, "Portrait of a Collector," Country Life, 13 June 1952. pp.1810-1812). Griffiths did nothing by half-measures and within a few years he had formed a substantial collection of old furniture – most of which was heavily carved ‘Chippendale’ of a type collected by wealthy people at the turn of the 20th century.
The setting for what would become one of the most legendary collections of English furniture was Sandridgebury, Griffiths’ home in Hertfordshire. In 1901, two years after returning from New York with his American bride, Griffiths assumed a 99-year lease on from Earl Spencer. He employed a large staff including a butler, cook, servants, chauffeur and gardeners. A passionate horseman, his mounting block still stood at the front entrance as recently as 1999. The house is described in an article in The Daily Mirror, 9 September 1924 as ‘…. a low creeper-covered house, off the road that passes through the little village of Sandridge.' As Symonds aptly noted, ‘Griffiths loved not only 18th century furniture but also the 18th century way of life. He had enlarged and converted the house from an old farmhouse. But not modernized it: it was illuminated by oil-lamp and candles and the only heating was from open wood fires. The bathrooms had japanned baths dating from Victorian times. His bed was a four-poster with yellow curtains for summer time and red for winter.’ (R. W. Symonds, Connoisseur, 13 June 1952).
Griffiths began collecting what was then called ‘old furniture” but a great deal of it was not what it seemed. His story of discovering a table in the window of a shop in one of London’s back streets is legendary and is the greatest fear of every collector. Griffith enquired the price – because the table was identical to the one he had recently purchased - and discovered that it was £ 100 less than he had paid. Remarking to the shopkeeper that this quality of craftsmanship was lost today, the shopkeeper remarked: ‘It’s not all that lost. Let me tell you, sir, that I made this table. And what’s more I’ve made, in the last few years, a large number of such pieces of Chippendale for an old buffer who lives at St. Albans!’ (S. House, "Intuitively Collected," Country Life, 12 December 1990, p. 45). In due course, these were all packed and returned to the antiques dealer who had sold them to Griffiths.
After that experience, Griffiths sought the advice of a bright young man named Robert W. Symonds, a 22-year-old budding architect with a passion for old furniture. From 1911 until Griffiths’s untimely death 26 years later, they were inseparable and constant partners in a quest to form a great collection of early English furniture. Griffiths became passionately fond of veneered walnut furniture, and this, over time, was to form the core of his collection. Their high standards for the collection--good design, fine quality with respect to material and craftsmanship, pristine condition with original polish and patina-- are all met by this superb walnut bureau bookcase.
Griffiths had intended on leaving it to the Victoria and Albert Museum as part of a bequest of many of the best pieces in his collection. However, owing to very large financial losses in America after the Stock Market Crash in 1929, he was compelled to revisit his intention and changed his will accordingly. Upon his death, everything was to be sold and Symonds was engaged to dispose of the collection, a large part of which was sold at Christie's in 1938. This bureau-cabinet was sold to Partridge, acting for Judge Irwin Untermyer of New York, for £4,000. It was the only piece which went to America – much of the rest sold to many of Symonds' regular advisees such as Geoffrey Blackwell, Frederick Poke, Geoffrey Hart, Joseph S. Sykes, and other collectors known to English furniture enthusiasts today. Even then, Symonds’s influence, and the stellar collection he assembled with Percival Griffiths, was regarded as a benchmark to which collectors aspired.
Christian Jussel and William DeGregorio.
Authors of the forthcoming book on Percival Griffiths and Robert Symonds.
JUDGE IRWIN UNTERMYER (1886-1973): BENEVOLENT AMERICAN COLLECTOR
The spectacular collection of British decorative arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is in large part due to the generosity of a single benefactor, Judge Irwin Untermyer, who served on the Museum’s board for some 20 years. By the time of his death in 1973, he had left a magnanimous gift of over two thousand works of art from an impressive collection that was refined and augmented over the course of his life. His collection was broad in scope and included English furniture, silver, needlepoint and porcelain but, as he said, he had ‘always regarded the English furniture as the outstanding part’ of his collection. When the cabinet was offered to him in 1938, Judge Untermyer, both astute and knowledgeable, recognized its importance. He purchased it for the equivalent of $20,000, a price which would have been considered stratospheric when the average cost of an American home was $3900.
As part of the plan to renovate the Annie Laurie Aitken and Heathcote Galleries, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has been carefully reviewing its holdings of English decorative arts. The sale of objects such as this bureau cabinet will make it possible to acquire works in categories that are less well-represented so when the Galleries are scheduled to reopen in 2018 they will more accurately reflect the stylistic development of British furniture from the 16th century up to around 1900, creating an engaging narrative of the artistry, industry and lifestyles of the British, from the grandest to the ‘middling classes’.
THE BUREAU-CABINET’S DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION
While the cabinet’s lovely delicate scale recalls early 18th century furniture produced during the reign of Queen Anne, its architectural details and ornamentation suggest a date some 20-30 years later. Its design, refinement, and well-chosen timbers places it in the company of the best walnut furniture produced in its time. As a so-called transition piece, it still retains earlier construction features, such as the claw feet that are affixed into the bottom board by way of a rounded dowel in the manner of a Queen Anne bun foot.
While the maker of this exemplary piece cannot be identified, the exacting details of its construction can be found among the best work of makers such as Peter Miller. These include the mitred sides and rebated bottom of the drawers, and fully enclosed dust boards. A signed cabinet bearing the date 1724 exhibits such refinements and is embellished with similar carved scroll ornamentation (A. Bowett, English Furniture 1715-1740, Woodbridge 2002, p. 67, pl. 2:31). Miller is possibly responsible for the pair of gilt-gesso bureau-cabinets, probably for export to Portugal, whose veneered interiors are centered by a similar keystone-arched prospect door one of which was sold at Christie’s, London, 4 July 2002, lot 100.