Veneered with richly figured mahogany timbers and embellished with fine and detailed carving, this serpentine dressing-chest is virtually identical to one now at Dumfries House, Ayrshire, where Thomas Chippendale was employed between 1759 - 66, one of the most significant commissions in his career. The Dumfries chest is of the same form with a very similar pattern of laurel-entwined columns and comparable drawer handles (1) although the moulding on the top of the present chest is additionally carved with cabochons and drapery swags and the top drawer fitted-out with divisions and a folding-mirror, implying it was intended for a bedroom or dressing room. The Dumfries example bears a label for Cardiff Castle suggesting it may not be indigenous to this renowned Chippendale commission but was possibly supplied to John, Viscount Mountstuart, later 4th Earl and 1st Marquess of Bute (d. 1814) following his marriage to Charlotte Jane Windsor Hickman, the eldest daughter of Herbert, 2nd Viscount Windsor, in 1766. With the untimely death of her sister in 1772, Charlotte became the sole heiress of her family’s extensive holdings in South Wales. She oversaw further improvements to the castle and engaged Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown to re-landscape the parkland.
The restrained form together with the neo-classical carved ornamentation implies it was executed after the publication of the third edition of Chippendale’s Director (1762) although some furniture with such austere outlines appears in the first edition (1754) too, for example, a ‘Chest of Drawers’, plate LXXXV. The carved entwined foliage on the canted uprights represents the thyrsus or Bacchus’s staff, usually encircled with ivy leaves and tipped with a pine cone. This pattern recalls the designs of Michelangelo Pergolesi, part of a group of Italian artists including Giovanni Battista Cipriani and Francesco Bartolozzi, who were engaged by the celebrated architect-designer, Robert Adam (d. 1792) to reproduce the ‘pure and classic ornament of the ancients’ in the form of stipple engravings, mezzotints and ornamental prints, which Adam then incorporated into his work (2). Thus, a comparable design by Adam is found on the jambs of a chimney piece for the 1st Earl of Mansfield’s library, or great room, at Kenwood House, London (3). Chippendale was undoubtedly inspired by Adam’s interiors; a pair of pier glasses made for Sir William Constable’s London house in Mansfield Street in 1774 feature a comparable ‘delicately balanced system of husk chains, ribands and arabesques’, while another white-painted pair was supplied to Ninian Home for the dining room at Paxton House, Berwickshire, the mansion designed by Adam, with Chippendale’s furniture ornament reflecting the plasterwork; these were recorded in the Chippendale Paxton account as, ‘A very large Ovall Glass in a Carvd Gilt Frame with Ornaments £16.16’ (4). The thyrsus pattern was perpetuated by Thomas Chippendale Junior (1749-circa 1822), appearing as marquetry uprights on the ‘Weeping Women’ commode, circa 1780-85, supplied to Stourhead, Wiltshire (5).
Furthermore, the pattern of handle and escutcheon is common to Chippendale’s documented furniture as seen on a mahogany serpentine chest of drawers dated 1774 also at Paxton, and another in the dressing room of Lady St. Oswald’s bedroom at Nostell Priory, Yorkshire (6).
A chest of closely related form was supplied in 1772 to John Frederick Sackville, 3rd Duke of Dorset by the prestigious firm of Gillows of Lancaster and London. However its similarly canted angles are inlaid with ribbon-tied foliate swags and it lacks the well-carved decoration of the lot offered here (7).
This serpentine commode belonged to Geoffrey Blackwell, O.B.E. (1884 – 1934), who accumulated one of the most important collections of eighteenth-century English furniture during the Interwar period.
Inspired by the publication of Macquoid & Edwards Dictionary of English Furniture in 1924, it is likely that Blackwell cultivated his interest for Georgian furniture collection during the latter half of the 1920s. He was an honorary member of the New English Art Club (1885), founded by Thomas Kennington and other British artists as an alternative venue to the Royal Academy, and through these connections Blackwell established significant friendships with artists such as Henry Tonks, and the esteemed furniture connoisseur R. W. Symonds. Symonds was influential in the formation of several other prominent twentieth century collections, including those of Percival Griffiths, J. S. Sykes, James Thursby Pelham, Frederick Poke and Samuel Messer, often acting as intermediary between collectors and dealers when they chose to refine their collections.
Under Symonds’ guidance Blackwell furnished his Berkhamsted home with carefully selected pieces, including this serpentine commode (8). Featuring in two articles by Symonds in both the April and June editions of Apollo (1936, vol. XIII), the ‘comparatively small number’ of pieces in Blackwell’s collection were heralded for being outstanding examples of ‘design and quality’, and his decision to confine his furniture tastes to the eighteenth century demonstrate an innate discipline with the result that he was able to create a harmonious yet functional space (9). Following Symonds’ commentary, Blackwell’s collection invokes William Hogarth’s Analysis of Beauty in which the famous painter identifies the serpentine line as ‘the line of grace’ (10). Its ‘precise’ yet sinuous form leads the eye in a ‘pleasing manner’ along the continuity of its variety, creating a diverse and ‘pleasing’ space through its simplicity of form (11). Through this ease of curvature Blackwell’s Chippendale commode expresses a graceful functionality that parallels the trend for ergonomic design during the early twentieth century.
Key pieces that had been authenticated by Symonds were bought and sold among collectors, and there was keen rivalry to own the best pieces. One story relates how Percival Griffiths died while out with the Whaddon Hunt and in the company of Geoffrey Blackwell’s son. Returning home the latter reported the news of Griffiths’ death to his father who was taking a bath. Blackwell immediately leapt from the bath and within minutes he was on the telephone to Symonds to stake a claim for selected items from Griffiths’ collection. Over the years since Blackwell’s death successive generations of collectors have similarly sought out and competed for pieces that were once part of this and other Symonds collections.
(1) Originally intended for sale at ‘Dumfries House’, Christie’s, London, 12-13 July 2007, lot 85.
(2) E. Maser, Classical Ornament of the Eighteenth Century, New York, 1970, plates 33, 48, 58.
(3) The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam, London, 1778, vol. I, plate VI. (4) N. Tranter, Paxton House (guide book), Norwich, 1993, fig. 25.
(5) D. Dodd, L. Wood, ‘The “Weeping Women” commode and other orphaned furniture at Stourhead by the Chippendales, Senior and Junior’, Furniture History Journal, p. 64, fig. 13.
(6) C. Gilbert, The Life and Work of Thomas Chippendale, Leeds, 1978, vol. II, p. 153, fig. 278; p. 155, fig. 283; vol. I, p. 270.
(7) S. Stuart, Gillows of Lancaster and London 1730 – 1840, Woodbridge, 2008, vol. II, p. 11, plates 533, 534, 535.
(8) R. W. Symonds, ‘Furniture in the Collection of Mr Geoffrey Blackwell, Part I’, Apollo, 1936, vol. XXIII, p. 192.
(9) Ibid., part II, pp. 314, 316.
(10) W. Hogarth, The Analysis of Beauty, London, 1753, pp. 8, 12, 43.