The elegantly serpentined and bronze-enriched 'commode' chest-of-drawers were executed for bedroom apartments and are conceived in the 'Picturesque' French antique manner that became fashionable in the late 1760s. The 'Etruscan' style black-japanned banding the moulded tops was popularised by the Etruscan fashion introduced by the architect Robert Adam (d. 1792) and popularised by his Works in Architecture, 1774. The angled pilasters are ormolu-enriched with Arcadian nymph heads in French-fashioned ruffles emerging from reeded and Venus-pearled cartouches, whose reeded 'truss' brackets are wrapped by Roman acanthus and imbricated with pearls and scallops. They are tied by bubbled ribbon-guilloches to the acanthus volutes of the bracket feet. The ormolu escutcheons serve to celebrate the triumphal birth of Venus: water-deity heads accompany her shell-badge displayed on these antique-stippled and acanthus-wrapped cartouches, while the reeded and flowered handles are suspended from acanthus-flowered paterae. The French-patterned angle bronzes are inspired by a pattern that is thought to have been invented by the Parisian ébéniste Pierre Daneau (d. 1735) of the rue St. Honoré. A pair of serpentine marble-topped and ormolu-mounted commodes bear his stamp and the date 1733, and are now at Firle Place, Sussex. A related pair of commodes, also stamped by Daneau, was sold by the late Mrs. Vernon Sangster, in these Rooms, 4 July 1996, lot 360.
This pair of commodes belong to a small and distinguished group dating to the early 1760s attributed to the London cabinet-makers, William Vile and John Cobb, and discussed in depth by Lucy Wood in her Catalogue of Commodes, London, 1994, pp. 43-53. The commodes are characterised by their serpentined form, good quality timbers and rich ormolu embellishments which copy French Régence patterns produced some fifty years earlier. This model matches a commode with two short over two long drawers from the Blue Silk Dressing Room at Burghley House, Lincolnshire and two further pairs of this same basic model, one exhibiting further elaborate rococo mounts, also comprise part of the celebrated Burghley collection. Other closely related commodes from this group include two pairs from Blickling Hall in Norfolk (one pair sold in 1933); and a pair purchased in 1914 by Lord Lever, later Viscount Leverhulme and now in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight. Another commode form this group is illustrated in R. W. Symonds, 'English Commodes in the French taste', Connoisseur, January 1957, p. 17, fig. 1. A further example almost certainly supplied to the 5th Duke of Bolton (d. 1765), for Hackwood Park, Hampshire, was sold in these Rooms, 8 July 1999, lot 62 (£199,500), and a single commode from the Ashburnham group was sold anonymously, Christie's New York, 19 October 2000, lot 106 ($171,000). Some of the commodes in this group differ slightly in their less pronounced serpentine front, straight-sided rather than moulded tops and employment of ormolu lifting-handles to the sides of the case.
These commodes can be confidently attributed to the acclaimed Royal cabinet-makers William Vile and John Cobb based on their association with other related models recorded by the firm and a known working relationship between the cabinet-makers and the houses to which these various commodes were supplied. Most notably, at Blickling there is a payment by the 2nd Earl of Buckinghamshire to 'Vile & Cobb cabinet-makers' in August 1762 for £86.5s.9d which is sufficient to account for the four Régence pattern commodes and a further related example. Furthermore, this additional single commode at Blickling shares the same mounts and other distinguishable features with a documented example supplied by Cobb to James West at Alscot Park in 1766 for £16. And while Vile and Cobb are not documented at Burghley, Lucy Wood presents the possibility that they may have been subcontracted by another firm such as Mayhew and Ince.
This pair of commodes formed part of the set of four that was almost certainly supplied to John, 2nd Earl of Ashburnham (d. 1812) for Ashburnham Place, Sussex and sold Sotheby's house sale, 7-9 July 1953, lot 135 or 136. These commodes would have been supplied when the 2nd Earl was remodelling and refacing the house circa 1760. Three of the commodes appear in a photograph (in the 1953 sale catalogue) of the Large Drawing Room, Ashburnham Place, which was completed in 1761. While there are extensive payments made to cabinet-makers in the 2nd Earl's bank accounts (including to Mayhew and Ince), William Vile and John Cobb do not appear in these records. However, the records do not begin until 1763, which would post-date the commission of the commodes as well as a substantial part of the refurbishing. John Cobb appears much later in the accounts in 1772. The superb collection acquired in by the 2nd Earl includes the impressive pair of George III black and gilt lacquer commodes attributed to Pierre Langlois and further demonstrating the 2nd Earl's taste for French style and design (sold anonymously, in these Rooms, 16 November 1995, lot 67 (£495,500)).
18TH CENTURY ENGLISH TASTE FOR THE PICTURESQUE
Although this pair of commodes were executed circa 1760-61, coinciding with the redecoration of Ashburnham Place, they are conceived in the earlier French 'Régence' style, popularised by artists such as Nicolas Pineau and Giles-Marie Oppenordt in the 1720s and 1730s. In the first half of the 18th Century, most Englishmen accepted the cultural and fashionable primacy of France. By 1735, the St Martin's Lane Academy was introducing Régence and early Louis XV designs to artists and craftsmen and until 1744, England was at peace with France, traditionally her arch-rival. This important and long period of peace facilitated England's initial acceptance of French, and specifically Rococo, designs. Despite the political and cultural obstacles between England and France of the mid-18th Century, notably the Seven Years War of 1756-1763, the enthusiasm for French fashions in England continued unabated. Most craftsmen seem to have been oblivious to the contradiction between patriotism and their work, despite the efforts of Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington (d. 1753) and William Kent (d. 1748) to introduce am 'English' style, based on a robust interpretation of Palladio's designs. The Rococo, on the other hand, besides its fashionable 'French-ness', held a more practical attraction for designers and craftsmen in that by its nature, was more labour-intensive than the sober English 'Kentian' style: designers were often able to charge more for their work. Somewhat ironically, defense for the French style is found in The Anti-Gallican, a novel of 1757, which noted 'let us endeavour at raising ourselves to an equal if not superior Pitch of Excellence, in every Science and Profession, to all Nations of the Globe'.