This Corinthian-columned chimneypiece was most likely commissioned by Viscount Fitzmaurice, who had adopted the name William Petty (1737-1805) on being created 2nd Earl of Shelburne, later the 1st Marquis of Lansdowne in 1753. It largely derives from a design executed in 1763 by the Rome-trained architect Robert Adam (d.1792) for the Earl's 'Great Room of Entertainment' at Bowood, Wiltshire. The architectural history of Bowood is shrouded in some mystery and although it is known that Adam was employed there between 1761 and 1771, there are parts of the house, which most certainly date to both before and after this period. The work, which was executed to improve the existing structure, was originally begun for John, 1st Lord Shelburne by Henry Keene, who is recognized to have worked at Bowood between the years 1755-60. Upon Lord Shelburne's death in 1761, William the 2nd Earl, employed the services of Robert Adam, who was the pre-eminent architect of the time, to fashionably update both the exterior and interiors of Bowood. It would have been Robert Adam's charge to devise and supply the new interior schemes including the furniture, chimneypieces and decorative ornament.
The Adam drawing illustrated here and held in the Sloane Museum Library archives, vol. 22, no. 94-96, depicts the chimneypiece which was installed at Bowood in 1765 (see above, and C. Latham, In English Homes, London, 1909, vol. I, p. 391), and is of virtually identical form to the chimneypiece offered here. The frieze of the chimneypiece in the design features a flowered ribbon-guilloche of Roman acanthus, while its festive tablet displays a husk-festooned libation-patera bearing the head of the poetry deity Apollo. The present chimneypiece also introduces urns above the columns, but lacks the palm-flowered frieze that frames the hearth opening in the design. It also features a second ewer in place of the armorial trophy on the tablet.
The names Thomas and Benjamin Carter appear in the Bowood records with regard to the supply of the 'highly wrought and expensive' chimneypieces. A bill, signed by Thomas Carter (d. 1795) and dated November 18, 1763, totalling £791 12s. Od., lists among others, a pair of chimneypieces "according to the design of Robert Adam, Esq.," "with veneered grounds of Brocatella marble to columns and frieze. A tablet with five festoons and a head in a patera, two trophies with urns and shields, six flowers with foliage in frieze, two urns on the breaks. Two Corinthian Capitals to each fully enriched and to [fleurons] upon the architrave." (A.T. Bolton, The Architecture of Robert and James Adam, 1922, vol. I, p. 214). A cost of £550 was quoted for the supply of this pair. The startling similarity of this description to the present example, is virtually identical excepting the lack of shields, and cannot be overlooked. There are further accounts relating to the supply of the chimneypieces at Bowood. In June of 1763, a mason was employed with the purpose of working "on the plinth of the two large columns in the hall" (A.T. Bolton, op.ct., vol. I, p. 213), he is also thought to have assembled the chimneypieces noting "a Statuary and Brocatella chimney-piece Bow room," ibid p. 2.
The Carter family was a family of sculptors who established themselves primarily as carvers of chimneypieces in the mid-eighteenth century. Initially founded by two older brothers, Thomas and Benjamin, who often worked together, the former was later replaced by his nephew and son-in-law Thomas Carter the Younger, who inherited the business upon the death of Thomas the Elder in 1756 and formed a more solid partnership with his uncle Benjamin.
Benjamin was responsible for the chimneypieces and various other masonry work at Longford Castle, Wiltshire in 1739, Stourhead, Wiltshire in 1759-1761 where he is also recorded as supplying pedestals and the eight alto-relievos for the pantheon previously attributed to Rysbrack and Saltram, Devon. In 1762, he supplied a chimneypiece for the Earl of Ashburnham at Ashburnham Place, Sussex. It was Benjamin and Thomas the Younger who were responsible for the Bowood chimneys and it is interesting to note that Thomas also supplied some minor chimneypieces of his own design at the same time. He was again under the employment of the marquis of Lansdowne in 1774, carving a further chimneypiece to a design by James Stuart for the Library at Bowood and having previously executed another for the Ante-Room at Lansdowne House, the family's London home in Berkeley Square in 1768.
Lansdowne House was purchased in October of 1765 after Petty had 'ordered Mr. Adam to look out for space to build a hotel upon' in London. According to the purchase agreement 'Messrs. Robert & James Adam architects were to completely Finish the said Mansion House' at Berkeley Square. The Adams first began work on the secondary rooms, and in 1769, in a note attached Adam's estimate for completion of the 'Organ Drawing Room' it was made clear that 'the Earl of Shelburne (had) a Chimney Piece ready prepar'd for this room'. Interestingly this chimneypiece was one of the two originally designed in 1763 by Adam and carved by Thomas and Benjamin Carter intended for the Great Drawing-room, at Bowood, shown above (see Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin, Drawing Room for Lansdowne House, 1986, p.30). This raises the possibility that the present chimneypiece may also have had a similar history being transfered to the London house, which Lord Shelburne was fitting up at the same time.
In 1821, 1833 and 1860 the 3rd Marquess of Lansdowne commissioned extensive renovations at Bowood, which were followed by sales of most of the contents of this and Lansdowne House. In the early twentieth century the properties faced a complex division and settlement among the family which led to the extreme alteration of Lansdowne in 1930, followed by a public auction and private sales of the contents, including the sale of the drawing room and its contents to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1931. Shortly after, in 1955, Bowood was demolished and its contents were sold at public auction. Unfortunately an investigation of the public and private sales of these homes dating back to the early nineteenth century, have not allowed us to identify the original location and sale of this chimneypiece. However its similarity in design and quality of craftsmanship to existing examples supplied to the family leave no doubt that it was a product of Robert Adam's innovative designs and Thomas and Benjamin Carter's skilled workshop.