These gracefully sculpted chairs, conceived in the French 'picturesque' style, have long been one of the most admired English chair patterns of the George II period.
They follow the Hogarthian concept of the beauty of the serpentined line in furniture design, with their sides being serpentined like the fronts. The 'unnatural' straight line was even abolished by their upholstery being rounded with trellis tufting. Their carved Arcadian ornament inspired by writings, such as Ovid's Metamorphoses recalls the triumph of the Nature goddess Venus. This is represented by imbricated scales wreathing the hollow-moulded frames, and alluding to the deity's sacred dolphins that accompanied her sea-shell chariot. A favourite motif of William Kent's, the imbrications featured for instance on his throne that was illustrated in John Vardy's Some Designs of Mr. Inigo Jones and Mr. William Kent, 1744 (pl. 43). Flowers were said to have sprung up at the touch of the deity's foot, and flowers embellish the chairs' triumphal 'Gothic' cusped and pointed-arch rails, while Roman foliage emerges from the feet.
THE ATTRIBUTION TO JOHN GORDON
The picturesque chair pattern is attributed to the Westminster cabinet-maker, John Gordon of Swallow Street, who may have been related to the early 18th Century Edinburgh cabinet-makers of that name. In the late 1740s Gordon adopted a chair, supported by Apollo's sacred griffin, for his shop-sign, when trading as 'LANDALL & GORDON, Joyners, Cabinet, & Chair-Makers at ye Griffin & Chair in Little Argyle Street by Swallow Street'. It seems likely that he was also in partnership with William Gordon, who responded to Thomas Chippendale's 1753 advertisement for subscribers to A New Book of Designs of Household Furniture in the GOTHIC, CHINESE and MODERN TASTE. The chairs' Gothic air would also have suited the Scottish Castle of Blair Atholl, Perthshire for which James Murray, 2nd Duke of Atholl (d. 1764) commissioned a suite of comfortable chairs, in Chippendale's 'French Chair' fashion. It was listed in 1756 as:-
'8 Mahogany Chairs, Carv'd frames in fish scales, with a French foot & carv'd leaf upon the toe'. The total cost of around 31 included a charge of 2.5.0. for 'making an addition to your Grace's [the Duchess's] needlework'. In 1749, the Duke had married Jean Drummond, who had worked the canvas upholstery in rich floral bouquets springing from Ceres's cornucopiae or horns-or-plenty. The suite remains at Blair (see A. Coleridge, Chippendale Furniture, London, 1968, fig. 87 and The Dictionary of English Furniture Makers 1660-1840, Leeds, 1986, p. 356).
The same 'Atholl' pattern was chosen for a suite of seat-furniture, comprising some twenty four armchairs and two settees, recorded in the possession of John, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu (d.1929). At this period they decorated the corridors of Ditton Park, Berkshire. They may have been part of the furnishings introduced to the earlier house at Ditton by George Brudenell, 4th Earl of Cardigan (d.1790), who was created 3rd Duke of Montagu in 1766; and to have been amongst the quantity of furniture reported as being saved from a fire at the house in 1812. In the early 20th Century the suite was in the possession of Messrs. Mallett of Bath; and an armchair was illustrated in H. Cescinsky, English Furniture of the Eighteenth Century, London, 1910, vol. II, fig. 392.
The suite, comprising the two settees and eight armchairs, was acquired by Arthur S. Vernay, Inc. New York and sold in The Walter P. Chrysler, Jr. sale at Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, 6 and 7 May 1960, lots 520-525.
A pair of armchairs from this suite was presented to the Victoria and Albert Museum London, in 1962.