These superb ‘French’ commodes, off the market since the 1950s, are an exciting rediscovery and were commissioned for one of the grandest houses of 18th century England, Ashburnham Place, in whose family they remained until 1953. They 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, richly figured, lustrous mahogany and lavish ormolu embellishments which copy French Régence patterns produced some forty-fifty years earlier.
Notable examples of this form include:
-A celebrated group supplied to Burghley House, Lincolnshire , one with two short over two long drawers from the Blue Silk Dressing Room (closest in form to the commodes offered here) and two further pairs of this same basic model, one exhibiting further elaborate rococo mounts, from the Brown Drawing Room and Pagoda Room.
-Two pairs from Blickling Hall in Norfolk (one pair sold in 1933), with straighter sides and without the moulded edge to the tops.
- A pair purchased by Lord Lever, later created Viscount Leverhulme, in 1914 and now in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, previously in the collection of Sir Lionel Phillips, Tylney Hall, Hampshire.
-Two pairs supplied to John, 2nd Earl Ashburnham and sold from Ashburnham Place, Sussex; Sotheby’s House sale, 7-9 July 1953, lots 135-6 (one presumably the pair offered here). One pair with differently shaped sides and both commodes with two short and two long drawers was subsequently sold Christie’s, London, 14 June 2001, lot 140 (£421,750), while a single commode, also noted as having been supplied to Ashburnham Place, was sold Christie’s, New York, 19 October 2000, lot 106 ($171,000). The close proximity of the 1955 Art Treasures Exhibition in New York to the 1953 Sotheby’s Ashburnham Place sale and the fact that the New York exhibition catalogue stated that the commodes offered here were ‘from the collection of Lady Ashburnham’ makes it extremely likely that these commodes were one of the two pairs in the1953 auction. The 1953 Sotheby’s catalogue only illustrated one commode (as lot 136), with shaped sides like the pair sold in 2001. Therefore the pair offered here must have been lot 135.
- A single example of slightly smaller scale, supplied to the 5th Duke of Bolton for Hackwood, Hampshire sold Christie's London, 8 July 1999, lot 62 (£199,500).
- A single example with carved lambrequin apron possibly supplied to Richard Grenville, Earl Temple for Wotton House, Buckinghamshire, and subsequently sold from the collection of Simon Sainsbury; Christie’s, London, 18 June 2008, lot 50 (£193,250).
Some of the commodes in this group differ slightly in their less pronounced serpentine front, the use of ebonized mouldings to the top and ebony cock-beading to the drawers (as on this pair), straight-sided rather than molded tops and the employment of ormolu lifting handles to the sides of the case. It is also interesting to note that several of the cited pairs feature different drawer arrangements between the two, including those at Blickling and the pair at the Lady Lever Art Gallery which comprise one commode with three long drawers (the top drawer faced as two) and one with two short and two long drawers, as on this pair; while the pair at Lady Lever also features small variations to the interior construction between the two commodes, again as on this pair, indicating the hands of different workmen in the same workshop.
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 1966 for £16. And while Vile and Cobb are not documented at Burghley, Lucy Wood presents the possibility that they may have been made by Vile and Cobb but subcontracted to them by another firm such as Ince and Mayhew. It is perhaps significant that a former apprentice of Cobb's (Henry Tat(h)am) was based nearby in Stamford and employed at Burghley from at least 1772.
'French' pattern commodes promoted by Thomas Chippendale in his The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director of 1754, were produced by a number of fashionable London firms. A related commode with similar antiquarian Regence pattern mounts, attributed to the Clerkenwell maker William Gomm and Son, was sold Christie’s, New York, 21 October 1999, lot 130 ($167,500). Interestingly, a marble topped French commode dating to circa 1715 with precisely the same pattern mounts was sold by Christie's London, 7 December 1978, lot 109 (illustrated by L. Wood, op.cit, p.47, fig.26). The handle pattern also features on furniture attributed to the Parisian marchand-ébeniste Noël Gérard (d. 1736) who was patronised by the English aristocracy, including James, Viscount Chewton and Earl Waldegrave, whose purchases in 1733 were made while he served as George II's ambassador to the Emperor of Germany (see A. Pradère, French Furniture Makers, London, 1989, pp.111-114).
WILLIAM VILE AND JOHN COBB
After Thomas Chippendale, Vile and Cobb were arguably the most accomplished cabinet-makers of the mid-Georgian period, a golden age of carved mahogany furniture. Their work is characterized by confident lines, well-chosen, high-quality timber and beautifully detailed carving. William Vile (d.1767) worked initially with the celebrated cabinet-maker William Hallett (d.1773) before setting up in partnership with John Cobb (17815-1778) in 1751 and establishing their workshop in St. Martin’s Lane. They were appointed 'cabinet-makers' to George III in 1761, working under the direction of the Master of the Great Wardrobe (to which position Lord Ashburnham himself was appointed from 1765-75), supplying a series of superb and celebrated pieces to several Royal residences, including Kensington Palace, St. James's Palace and the Queen's House, now Buckingham Palace.
These commodes would have been supplied when John, 2nd Earl of Ashburnham was remodelling and refacing the house circa 1760. Three of the commodes appear in a photograph of the Large Drawing Room, Ashburnham Place, for which the renovation scheme 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. Given Lord Ashburnham’s close connection to Royal circles, holding several positions at court including Master of the Great Wardrobe (see above) it seems natural that he should turn to the royal cabinet-makers in commissioning these beautiful commodes. The superb collection acquired by the 2nd Earl includes the impressive pair of George III black and gilt lacquer commodes attributed to Pierre Langlois, further demonstrating the 2nd Earl's taste for French style and design, which sold anonymously, Christie's, London, 16 November 1995, lot 67 and again 4 June 2009, lot 90 (£505,250). Subsequent generations at Ashburnham Place further enriched the collection, acquiring a superb group of Boulle furniture including the celebrated bureau plat later sold from the collection of Hubert de Givenchy.