This richly-carved suite of arch-crested seat-furniture was commissioned by George Lyttelton, 1st Baron Lyttelton (d. 1773) and designed in the George II antique or picturesque manner to harmonise with the architecture of his magnificent Corinthian-columned saloon gallery overlooking the celebrated landscape park at Hagley in Worcestershire.
Lyttleton, connoisseur, antiquarian and author of 'Observations on the Reign of Queen Elizabeth served as Chancellor of the Exchequer to George II and shared the artistic tastes of Frederick, Prince of Wales (d. 1752) whom he had served as Secretary. He succeeded to the estate in 1751 and embarked on the aggrandisement of the house with the assistance of the architect John Sanderson (d. 1774) who had previously worked at Kirtlington Park, Oxfordshire and Langley Park, Norfolk.
The Roman architecture introduced at Hagley in the mid-1750s included foliated cornices stuccoed in scrolling rinceaux of Roman acanthus foliage and grape-clustered vines inspired in part by Robert Wood's recently published Ruins of Palmyra 1753. This was echoed by the door entablatures and chimney-piece friezes and spilled over onto picture table and chair frames as with this magnificent saloon suite. The suite lined the walls of the saloon which served as the Great Room of entertainment and as it ran the entire depth of the house it provided fine views in three directions. Its ceiling was decorated with bacchic vines and wreathed by beribboned bouquets while its 'rustic' furnishings harmonised with the picturesque view over the park with its ancient trees and grottoes. Its furnishings comprising 'windmilled' girandoles and flower-decked pier-sets of 'bridged' mirrors, tables and 'grottoed' gueridon-stands for vases and candelabra were also rusticated as partly petrifed wood as were the foliated frames of the ancestral portraits and seat furniture. This long gallery saloon lead into a brilliantly flowered and gilded tapestry withdrawing-room so that the beauties of the park and garden were introduced to the house in a novel and splendidly theatric manner.
THE CHAIRS:THE ATTRIBUTION
The sunk rails of the seats and hollow-swept arm-supports are embellished with a flowered ribbon-guilloche of Roman acanthus and its foliage issues from voluted-ribbon cartouches that are scalloped and antique-fretted with 'gothic' quatrefoils. The reed-wrapped and plinth-supported legs are likewise flowered and festooned with acanthus-husks while their tapered pilasters evoke the Virgilian herm-posts of antiquity. The ornament of these comfortable seats epitomises the St. Martin's Lane fashion for 'Gothic' and 'Modern' furniture popularised by Thomas Chippendale's Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director, 1754-1762. Furnishings from this saloon are now displayed at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Temple Newsam House, Leeds; and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
In two articles in Country Life in April and May 1989 John Cornforth identified the work of the carver Edward Griffith at Hagley circa 1760 and tentatively suggested he made the celebrated girandoles and candlestands after prints published by Thomas Johnson (J. Cornforth, Country Life, 27 April 1989, p. 139). The maker of this suite of Gallery chairs is not known. The closest parallel is a set of chairs designed circa 1738 for Rousham Park, Oxfordshire by William Kent. They are illustrated by Helena Hayward and Pat Kirkham in William and John Linnell, London, 1980, vol.II, fig. 67. They are not attributed to William Linnell but parallels are drawn with the set of chairs made by Linnell for the Gallery at Osterley (op. cit. fig. 66). The Rousham chairs share distinctive features with the Hagley set with gilt ornament inset into panelled legs and arms. The similarity of shape with the Osterley set is extraordinary. The ornament on the Hagley chairs is certainly intended to harmonise with the rest of the Gallery furniture, much of it executed in two contrasting woods. In the absence of the relevant Hagley bills this is likely to remain speculative but the similarity with Linnell's work is striking.