The authorship of these griffin candlesticks has long been securely given to Sir William Chambers (1726-1796), the architect to George III. Their design is published in the third edition of his Treatise on the Decorative Parts of Civil Architecture of 1791. Chambers descibes the designs on this plate as including 'ornamental utensils, designed for the Earl of Charlemont, for Lord Melbourne, and for some decorations for my own house'. A remarkably well-finished hand-colored presentation sketch by John Yenn (d. 1821), who served as Chambers's assistant and pupil from 1764 to 1771, shows a much earlier version of this design with minor variations such as on the decoration of the plinth. Both the design and the engraved pattern are reproduced here.
Much of the decorative vocabulary featured on these candlesticks reappears elsewhere in Chambers's strongly Franco-Italian influenced oeuvre. For example, the spirally-fluted tapering legs of the President's Chair in the Royal Society of Arts, designed by Chambers in 1759-60, anticipate the similarly fluted nozzle base on the griffin candlesticks. The garlands that hang across each griffin's shoulders and chest also find close parallel in Chambers's designs for the pair of 'Kings' candle vases from the Royal Garniture, executed by Matthew Boulton from 1770-71 and now in Windsor Castle (illustrated op. cit., p. 88, fig. 24). It is probable that Chambers adapted the idea from a seated sphinx with strong outlines that he had seen on an antique Roman sarcophogus while on his Roman Tour between 1750 and 1754.
An excellent comparison of the present candlesticks can be drawn with another pair at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire. Based upon his examination of their quality and means of manufacture, Sir Nicholas Goodison has persuasively argued that the Blenheim pair was executed by Chambers's preferred metal-worker, Diederich Nicolaus Anderson, prior to the latter's untimely death in 1767. An examination of Chambers's personal correspondence from this time reveals that Anderson's workshop was largely responsible for producing many of the high quality ormolu ornaments that Chambers's commissions demanded. For example, the large medal cabinet designed and commissioned by Chambers for the Earl of Charlemont in 1767-68 (sold by the Earl of Iveagh, Elveden Hall, Christie's House Sale, 22 May 1989, lot 843 and now at Somerset House, London) has an interior embellished with ormolu mounts from Anderson's workshop. Upon Anderson's death, some of these ornaments remained unfinished, though Chambers wrote on 2 October 1767 that they had been 'cast and his man will finish them as well as he could have done himself' (N. Goodison, 'William Chambers's Furniture', op. cit., p. 75).
The celebrated metal-maker Matthew Boulton executed similar griffin-pattern objects. Chambers records a breakfast with Boulton in March 1770 in which he gave Boulton some '...valuable, usefull and acceptable modells'. It is tempting to presume that a model or design relating to the griffin candlesticks were among those given to Boulton at this time. In March 1773, Chambers wrote to Boulton asking for the return of a model of the griffin among other pieces, suggesting that this may have been the case. Certainly, Boulton executed a number of perfume burners with seated griffins forming the bases. Eight such vases with griffin supporters by Boulton were sold at Christie's and Ansell's in 1771 to such buyers as Lady Godolphin and Colonel William (N. Goodison, Ormolu: The Work of Matthew Boulton, London, 1974, pp. 157-158). Known examples include one large version upon an inswept tripartite base, circa 1770-71 (illustrated in J. Harris and M. Snodin, op. cit., p. 162, fig. 242), another smaller one upon a drum-form base, probably circa 1771 (illustrated in N. Goodison, Ormolu, fig. 90) and a third smaller version in the Gerstenfeld Collection (illustrated E. Lennox-Boyd, ed., Masterpieces of English Furniture: The Gerstenfeld Collection, London, 1998, cat. no. 119, color plate 125). While the stance and decoration of these griffins relate quite closely to the Chambers design, they differ from the present model in their downswept wings, and the degree and quality of finish.
Models of the griffins were evidently loaned by Chambers to another prominent London workshop around this time. A closely related pearwood model now in the Wedgwood Archives in Barlaston probably served as the prototype for Wedgwood's versions in Jasper and Basalt which began to appear in 1771. This, along with Wedgwood's own comments to Bentley in that year, would suggest the designs and/or models had been passed by Chambers directly to Wedgwood (Harris and Snodin, ibid, pp. 159-160). It is further interesting to note that a pair of ivory griffin candlesticks made in Murshidabad, India, in the late eighteenth century and now in the Gerstenfeld Collection also follow the Chambers pattern (see E. Lennox-Boyd, op. cit, cat. no. 60, color plate 106).
At least four other pairs of griffin candlesticks are known: one pair was sold anonymously at Christie's London, 12 November 1998, lot 5 (£155,500); the Blenheim pair already mentioned above; a third pair with Egyptian porphyry bases with the National Trust, Hinton Ampner House, Hampshire (illustrated in J. Harris and M. Snodin, ibid, p. 162, fig. 242); and a pair sold Sotheby's Florence, 6-7 April 1987, lot 590. Each is remarkably similar to the present pair with only minor differences. Each of the other pairs retain their medallions suspended from the garlands. While the drip-pans and nozzles to each other pair vary in detail and design, the present pair alone follows Chambers's design most closely particularly in the proportion of the base measuring six Greek-keys long and four wide. The bases to other pairs are are longer and narrower (each seven keys long and three wide) and are mounted upon marble or porphyry bases. The Blenheim pair were later mounted upon white marble bases by Benjamin Vulliamy when they were regilt in 1787, and as neither Chamber's design nor Yenn's drawing depict such a base, it may be safe to assume that the candlesticks were not originally intended to be mounted.