WILLIAM AND RICHARD GOMM
These chairs are attributed to the father and son London cabinet-makers, William and Richard Gomm, based on an exceedingly closely related design now in the Joseph Downs Collection in the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, Delaware (reproduced here and in L. Boynton, 'William & Richard Gomm', Burlington Magazine, June 1980, fig. 25). The manuscript book, the first of three, comprises designs for furniture, rooms and ornamental details, some of which bear the signature of William Gomm and are variously dated July, August and 18th November 1761. Lindsay Boynton aptly notes that the designs vary in their degree of individuality and some are actually copied from publications by Lock and Copland or Chippendale's Director. It is known that William Gomm subscribed to Mortimer's Universal Director, 1754, and his son, Richard Gomm subscribed to Thomas Chippendale's The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director, 1754. This very individual chair design appears to be unique in its form.
William Gomm was established as a cabinet-maker in Smithfield by 1725 and moved to Clerkenwell Close in East London in 1736, establishing his workshops in the former residence of the Dukes of Newcastle (and prior to this, a convent). Gomm is the 'Gern' who worked together with the master emigrant artisan Abraham Roentgen, who trained in London, Paris and Rotterdam and would become renowned among Royal European households. William's son Richard joined the business by 1756 and they became William Gomm & Son & Co in 1763. They were thereafter joined by Francis Peter Mallett who continued the business after 1776. While very little is known about the firm, William Gomm's earliest known commission was for Richard Hoare of Barn Elms in 1731-33. Thereafter he is recorded working for Richard Weddell for his house in Pall Mall, London. Weddell was the father of William Weddell, celebrated antiquities collector, of Newby Hall, Yorkshire. The most extensive Gomm commission was for the 5th Lord Leigh at Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire for which the account totalled over £818 in 1763. The most expensive table in the commission was an elaborately-carved side table centered by a cherub head and rocailles (illustrated above). The table, which was sold by The Stoneleigh Abbey Preservation Trust at Christie's London, 19 November 1981, lot 115, is now back at Stoneleigh on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum. Other pieces from this commission were sold from Stoneleigh Abbey, Christie's house sale, 15-16 October 1981.
This pair of armchairs formed part of the celebrated collection at Kenure Park, a majestic Georgian mansion overlooking the sea in the small town of Rush, north east of Dublin. The house was originally built in 1703 and greatly enlarged when it suffered damage from a fire in 1827. It was owned by the Palmer family from the 18th century until 1964 at which time Colonel R.H. Fenwick-Palmer auctioned off the contents and sold the estate to the Irish Land Commission. The house was demolished in 1978.
While the early history of the chairs is not known, they may have been commissioned by the first Palmer to own Kenure, Francis Palmer of Castle Lacken, Ballycastle, Co. Mayo, who married Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Robert Echlin, 2nd Bt. (d. 1757). Kenure was the ancient property of the Dukes of Ormonde. Known up to the 18th century as Rush House, it was owned by Elizabeth's first cousin, Sir Henry Echlin, 3rd Bt. The Echlins came into ownership in 1714 when the 2nd Duke of Ormonde fled to France for his support of the Jacobite claim to the throne. Sir Henry Echin lost the estate due to gambling debts and Elizabeth, who had been disinherited by her father for her unsavory marriage, was all too happy to purchase the property in 1780. It was the Palmers who changed the property name to Kenure Park. The name 'Kenure' is an anglicized version of 'Ceann lubhair' meaning a headland of yew trees. The property descended to their son, Robert Palmer who died in 1811.
Alternatively and perhaps more likely, the chairs may have been commissioned by Sir Roger Palmer, 1st Bt., M.P. for Portarlington, who came into ownership of Kenure Park upon his first cousin, Roger Palmer's death in 1811. In 1751, Sir Roger married Eleanor, daughter of Michael Ambrose of Ambrose Hall, Co. Dublin, a Catholic who amassed a large fortune as a brewer. Eleanor was considered one of the most influential beauties of her time - witty, fashionable and a fervent patriot. Despite her Catholicism, she became an integral part of Dublin society and most notably, a close friend of Lord Chesterfield, the reigning Lord Lieutenant. Chesterfield himself was an arbiter of fashion and may have possibly influenced Eleanor's taste - Chesterfield House at the middle of the eighteenth century reflected the most sophisticated of interiors, in Lord Chesterfield's own words, 'entiérement á la Française'. He was besotted by Eleanor, recounting to King George II that he found 'only one dangerous papist [in Ireland], the brightness of whose eyes and charms, and whose conversation were indeed dangerous'. It was thought to have been by Chesterfield's good graces that Roger Palmer was made a baronet in 1777. Eleanor died in 1818 at the age of 98.
Kenure Park had celebrated rococo interiors, including both decorative plasterwork (see illustration) and carved woodwork. The collection was impressive and included several notable pieces such as an elaborate pagoda-topped Chinese cabinet-on-stand inspired by a design in Chippendale's Director (pl. CXXXIV). A similar interpretation also appears among Gomm's sketches (see Boynton, op. cit. pl. 32). Another magnificent piece is the impressive ormolu-mounted lacquer commode by emigrant cabinet-maker Pierre Langlois. This self-consciously French-style commode was also among the objects chosen for the Rococo Exhibition (no. L54, p. 179).
EVOLUTION OF THE DESIGN
The chairs are produced in the fully conceived 'French' rococo taste of the mid-eighteenth century. Their sinuous frames entwined by Roman acanthus foliage, reflect the 'picturesque' style that had been invented by artists, architects and ornementistes such as Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier (d. 1750) and Gilles-Marie Oppenord (d. 1742). The chairs' elegantly serpentined, rather than rectilinear form, epitomises the sculptural element promoted for 'moveables' (furnishings) in The Analysis of Beauty published in 1753 by the artist William Hogarth. He himself had been employed back in the 1720s to provide designs for Joshua Morris' Soho tapestry manufactory that were to reflect a more modern taste than hangings in the Louis Quatorze 'Arabesque' manner previously conceived by the French artist Andien de Clermont. The present chairs are expensively and elaborately fretted in the manner of picture-frames and, with their backs opened at the base, are likely to have been intended for tapestry or pictorial needlework.
The design can be related to a chair by Matthias Lock (d. 1765), which is now known as the Sitter's Chair because it appears in many of Richard Cosway's portraits of the 1760s and 1770s (see H. Hayward, 'A Unique Rococo Chair by Matthias Lock', Apollo, October 1973, pp. 268-271; J. Hardy, 'The Discovery of Cosway's Chair', Country Life, 15 March 1973 and J. Fowler and J. Cornforth, English Decoration in the 18th Century, London, 1978, pp. 154-155). The design and the chair are both in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. The design is part of an album of undated drawings entitled 'Original Designs by Matts.Lock, Carver 1740-1765' which was purchased by the museum in 1862 from Lock's grandson.
A masterful designer and specialist carver, Lock was the first to publish carvers' ornament in the new French rococo taste in pattern books such as Six Sconces published in 1744, Six Tables (1746) and A Book of Ornaments(1746). Lock earned enormous respect from his colleagues who at the time of his death described him as 'the best Draftsman in that way that had ever been in England'.
Matthias Lock's career as 'Carver' is printed on his trade card dating to around 1752 when he was working at Tottenham Court Road, and according to a diary of that year, he was employed as carver by Lord Northumberland, Lord Holderness, and a Mr. Bradshaw. In 1752, he also published A New Book of Ornaments in collaboration with H. Copland. After this time, he is thought to have established a relationship with Thomas Chippendale, providing piece-work carving and collaborating in Chippendale's enormously successful pattern book The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director which he first advertised in 1753. Their working relationship is further supported by a design in the Lock album at the Victoria and Albert Museum which is the original drawing for a pedestal pattern published in the 1762 edition of The Director, plate CL.
Designed in the manner of the French fauteuil à la Reine, the Kenure Park chairs epitomise Thomas Chippendale's 'Modern' or French 'picturesque' style illustrated in The Director, 1754-1762. In the early 1750s, Chippendale (d. 1779) advertised the establishment of his cabinet-making workshops nearby Hogarth's St. Martin's Lane Academy, with a trade-sheet headed by one such chair, whose 'picture-frame' back depicted a Chinese garden landscape. (The landscaping of estates in serpentined lines was then recognised both as 'Chinese' as well as 'Roman' taste since Robert Castell's publication of his Villas of the Ancients, 1728). Chippendale adopted one such 'French Elbow Chair', as his trade-sign, and illustrated 'picturesque' ornaments for them in his Director, 1754 (pl. 19 and 20). He also noted that the backs are designed 'to be open below at the seat, which greatly lightens them; the ornaments on the backs and seats are in imitation of tapestry or needlework. The carving may be lessened [i.e. fretted through] by an ingenious workman without detriment to the chair' (text for plate 18).
Embodying the height of rococo elegance, one of the armchairs from the suite was chosen for the acclaimed Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition of 1984 entitled Rococo: Art and Design in Hogarth's England.