THE EARLY HISTORY OF THESE CHAIRS
These chairs are part of a set of four that were bought for Newhailes House, Midlothian, in 1766 and sold from there in in 1928. The second pair was most recently sold from the Koger collection, Sotheby's New York, 24 October 1998, lot 1357.
Three of the four tapestry backs are signed by Pierre Mage, who was employed at the Aubusson factory from 1697-1747. In 1928, the new purchasers of the chairs asked for information about the origin of the suite. Copies of the correspondence are preserved by the Dalrymple family lawyers, although the original documentation seen then cannot now be found. This revealed that these four chairs had been bought by David Dalrymple, 1st Lord Hailes (d.1792), at the auction in London of the contents of his aunt's house at 60 Greek Street, Soho. His aunt Janet Dalrymple had been married to the Hon. James St. Clair M.P. (d.1762), one of the best known soldier-politicians of his age, who commanded his regiment at Culloden and was an M.P. at Westminster for forty years. As well as purchasing these chairs at her sale, it is thought that Lord Hailes inherited some property from his aunt. There remains at Newhailes a double portrait of the General and Janet St. St. Clair, his by Nattier, hers by Ramsay, both of 1749, and in a double frame.
Perhaps the most surprising detail, and the most tantalising, is the location of the house into which Janet St. Clair moved after her husband's death. 60 Greek Street was originally part of the curtilage of 27 Soho Square, which was the tapestry-maker and upholsterer William Bradshaw's workshop, and it seems to have been one of the several successful property speculations of either William or his kinsman George Smith Bradshaw (1717-1812). William Bradshaw is recorded as the first ratepayer of the house in 1748. 60 Greek Street is at the heart of the small area that throughout the mid-18th century was the location of the remaining tapestry-making businesses in Soho. If supplied for 60 Greek Street, it seems possible that these chairs were upholstered by one of the Bradshaws, with frames made by one of the St. Martin's Lane makers.
THE AUBUSSON COVERS
One significant possibility for the origin of the covers is that General St. Clair himself bought them in Paris in 1748. He was a British military envoy in Vienna and Turin in mid-1748 and seems to have returned home via Lyons and Paris. Coutts Bank were arranging credit for him in those cities in the autumn of that year (J. Ingamells, A Dictionary of British and Irish Travellers in Italy 1701-1800, London, 1997, p. 835). Given that 1747 is the terminus post quem for the manufacture of these covers, as Mage stopped working for the Aubusson factory in that year, it must be possible that St. Clair bought them in person but did not have them put onto English frames until the 1750s.
The 1928 correspondence said that the chairs were described at their 1766 purchase as '4 French elbow chairs with tapestry seats and cases'. The second, and on balance more likely possibility, is that there is some direct link to either of the Bradshaws. The proximity of 60 Greek Street to their workshops must mean that both St Clairs would have known their work. There is a close stylistic resemblance between the Fontaine-inspired animals on these covers and a suite supplied by William Bradshaw to the 2nd Earl Stanhope for Chevening, Kent, in 1736 (G. Beard, Upholsterers and Interior Furnishing in England 1530-1840, London, 1997, p. 189, fig. 198).
Appropriately for a lady's drawing room, the backs of these chairs are upholstered in French tapestry of flower-wreathed birds evoking Aesop's Fables and the Fables de la Fontaine. Their rosey coloured Aubusson tapestries depict birds, possibly derived from Jean Baptist Oudry, and are framed in flower-wreathed pastoral medallions. The seats feature accompanying animals, similarly enwreathed, in the 'picturesque' manner, and incorporating Pan-like masks tied in richly fretted ribbon-scrolls and wrapped by Roman accanthus.
Arcadia is recalled by their mahogany frames, which are richly sculpted in the George II 'Modern' fashion described in Thomas Chippendale's Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director of 1754, fusing Chinese and gothic elements with Roman ornament. Their festive Doric-guttaed and flower-wreathed pilasters are mosaiced in open frets of cusped flutes, and tied by Chinese 'double fretted' rails. The form of these easy chairs was called a 'French Chair' in Chippendale's Director. He also included guttaed plinths in his patterns for 'Gothick' and 'Chinese' chairs, as well as on the flower-twined pilasters of a 'Chinese' china-cabinet (ibid., pls. XXI, XXVII and CVIII).
The 'cockerel' tapestry panel is signed 'MAGE, for Pierre Mage (d.1760), who was employed at the Aubusson manufactory from 1697 to 1747. The 'Cock and Fox' seat recalls La Fontaine's story, and the moral 'Perfidious people are naturally to be suspected in reports that favour their own interest' (Samuel Richardson, 1740).