This rare set of four girandoles, comprising a large pair and a smaller pair and retaining their original gilding are inspired by designs of Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779) and demonstrate the enthusiastic reception of the Rococo or ‘French’ style in Britain, introduced in the second quarter of the 18th century. The set was almost certainly commissioned by Ambrose Isted (1717/18-1781), who embarked on an extensive refurbishment of his family seat, Ecton Hall, Northamptonshire, from 1755, which included walls and ceilings decorated with stucco-work in the newly fashionable French pittoresque style. The girandoles were delivered during this period, or the following decade when his wealth increased substantially following the inheritance of an estate in the West Indies.
The first edition of Chippendale's Director (1754) includes a series of whimsical designs for ‘Gerandoles’ (plate CXL), which he describes as: ‘four different designs of Gerandoles to hold candles, very proper for illuminating of rooms’. Such girandoles or sconces when hung together with pier glasses and overmantel mirrors enabled the maximum amount of light to be reflected around the room. A pair of asymmetrical girandoles supplied in 1759 by Chippendale for Dumfries House, Ayrshire, combine elements from two plates from Chippendale's Director (1).
The ‘French’ style was disseminated in Britain through ornamental prints by artists like Juste-Aurèle Meissonier (1695-1750) in Livre D'Ornemens Inventés & Dessinés Par J. O. Meissonnier Architecte, dessinateur de la Chambre & Cabinet Du Roi, published in circa 1745; François Boucher (1703-70), Jean Mondon (fl. 1736-1745) and Jacques de La Joue (1686-1761). The English painter and printmaker, William Hogarth (1697-1764), a prominent member of the St. Martin’s Lane Academy, was central to the introduction of the Regence and early Louis XV styles to artists, sculptors and other craftsmen like Chippendale, whose workshops were at neighbouring 60-62 St. Martin’s Lane. Hogarth wrote in his Analysis of Beauty (1753) that the straight line was ‘unnatural’ and should be replaced by the serpentine line to create variety and express motion (2). Furthermore, that nature provided the full range of ornament required by an artist or designer. Thus in furniture and works of art the picturesque quality was enhanced by ornamentation of flowers, foliage, rocaille and chinoiserie.
These girandoles, with their carved sinuous foliate ‘C’ scrolls and rocaille decoration epitomise the ‘genre pittoresque’, in which fluidity overrules restraint, although in their symmetry they are a moderate British interpretation of the style. Their design was possibly further inspired by other contemporaneous patterns by the likes of Matthias Lock (1710-65) in his A New Book of Ornaments (1752) and Six Sconces (1744) and Thomas Johnson (1714-78) in Collection of Designs (1758) and One Hundred and Fifty New Designs (1761).
Ecton Hall, a former nunnery subordinate to Delapré Abbey, was inherited by Ambrose Isted (1717/18-1781) in 1731 when he was just fourteen from his father, Thomas, who had purchased the estate in 1712. In his early 20s, Ambrose began buying up land to extend the estate, and petitioned the Court of Chancery to close the road that ran in front of his house to ensure that he gained the full benefit of the magnificent views from the hall. In 1755, he embarked on an extensive two-year renovation of the house including the addition of a handsome frontage using golden-brown sandstone from a quarry at Mears Ashby and a complete refurbishment of the interiors, embellishing them with fine furnishings, almost certainly including the present girandoles and commissioning portraits of himself, his wife Anne and his children (3). One of these paintings shows him proudly mounted on his horse ‘Reindeer’ with his house in the distance.
The architect of Ecton Hall was probably the pioneering Gothic Revival exponent Sanderson Miller (1716-80), who conceived it in the fashionable ‘Strawberry Hill’ Gothic style, creating one of the foremost examples of this style in Britain (4). In 1825, a sparing description of the interiors was included in The History and Antiquities of Ecton; describing at least three reception rooms that could have accomodated the present girandoles: the Drawing Room, ‘filled with pictures’ with a chimneypiece of marble with an ‘admirable piece of sculpture on its entablature’ representing ‘Boys sliding on the ice’; the Little Drawing Room, ‘a much admired apartment’, or the Tapestry Room, full of family pictures (5). This description of an elegant house is reinforced by mid-20th century photographs taken of the 18th century Rococo stucco work of the ceilings and walls that would have been entirely appropriate for the display of these girandoles (6).
Ambrose Isted inherited Mickleton Plantation in Jamaica between 1761-65 through his mother, Anne Rose, the daughter of Fulke Rose of Jamaica, owner of Mickleton, Knollis and Sixteen Mile Walk plantations, and from where he probably derived his great wealth. This inheritance would have enabled him to buy the four girandoles offered here at a time when the cost of large plates of glass for mirrors and girandoles was extremely expensive.
He was evidently highly regarded amongst his peers: ‘The benefits he conferred upon his poorer neighbours were of a nature far superior to the common acts of almsgiving (though these were not omitted) : for in all their difficulties and embarrassments he was their counsellor and adviser, not merely in his capacity of acting justice of the peace, but also from his legal knowledge and experience, which were very considerable and fully competent to all their uses; by which numbers, who might else have fallen into the talons of country-attorneys, were saved from pillage and beggary’ (7).
The Sotheby family of Sewardstone, Essex and Lower Grosvenor Street, London inherited Ecton through a marriage. William Sotheby (1757-1833) married Mary Isted, youngest daughter of Ambrose Isted, in 1780. Of her nine siblings, she was the only one to have surviving children (8). Her son, the wealthy Charles William Hamilton Sotheby (1820-87) of Sewardstone, Essex, inherited the Ecton estate in 1881 and further improvements were made to the hall in the late 1880s; his personal estate at his death in March 1887 was over £43,000. He was one of the great collectors in the Sotheby family and a prolific buyer of old master paintings in the mid-19th century. His taste is demonstrated in his acquisitions; in 1859, he purchased two paintings by Boucher, ‘The Fisher Woman’ and ‘The Watermill’ (9).
Both pairs of girandoles (lots 117 and 118) retain their original 18th century water gilding. This is extremely rare although more likely to be seen on mirrors and girandoles since they were less likely to suffer damaged than chairs, tables and chests. Paint analysis has revealed thin layers of gesso with small particles of black charcoal in some layers, the yellow layer, a dark brown clay and then the gold leaf.
(1) C. Gilbert, The Life and Work of Thomas Chippendale, London, 1978, vol. II, p. 178, fig. 319.
(2) J. Hardy, ‘Rococo Furniture and Carving’, ed. M. Snodin, Rococo: Art and Design in Hogarth’s England [Exhibition catalogue], Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 16 May-30 September 1984, p. 155.
(3) J. Cole, The History and Antiquities of Ecton, in the county of Northampton, Scarborough, 1825, p. 29.
(4) N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Northamptonshire, 1990, p. 207.
(6) http://www.artandarchitecture.org.uk/images/conway/e1aa63ca.html : accessed 19 May 2019.
(7) Memoirs of Richard Cumberland written by himself, London, 1806, pp. 122-123.
(8) J. Burke, A Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Commoners of Great Britain and Ireland, vol. II, 1835, p. 463.
(9) Sold Christie’s, New York, 22 May 1998, lot 172, $662,500 inc. premium.