Until they were sold in 1953, these commodes formed part of the remarkable collections of the earls of Ashburnham at Ashburnham Place in Sussex where the family had been established since 1150. The house was rebuilt after the Civil War in 1675-76 and remodelled and refaced for the 2nd Earl circa 1760. There are extensive payments to cabinet-makers, including Mayhew and Ince, in the 2nd earl's bank accounts. These begin in 1763, very probably too late to include these commodes. No trace of them has been found among the Ashburnham papers in the Lewes Record Office.
The attribution to Pierre Langlois is based on several small pieces of evidence that together make a substantial argument in his favour. Moreover, the dates when Langlois is known to be making commodes of this type coincide with changes at Ashburnham Place. While no one piece of evidence is conclusive, they have a cumulative weight that justifies an attribution.
The strongest connection is between the Ashburnham commodes and two pairs that were supplied to Uppark, Sussex. They share the same type of lacquer, serpentine form and restrained mounts. The lacquer furniture with the strongest connection to Langlois are two commodes and four corner cupboards that he supplied in 1763 to Horace Walpole at Strawberry Hill. The Strawberry Hill accounts (Paget Toynbee, Strawberry Hill Accounts, London, 1927, p. 10) list:
XIV.'1763. Aug.27. pd Langlois for the two Commodes
& the two coins in the gallery £73-10-0
Sept 21. pd Carter for marbles
to Do £31-6-6
Dec.10. pd Langlois for 2 more
The commodes concerned are much more elaborately mounted than the present pair. In Langlois' marquetry oeuvre the Strawberry Hill two compare most closely to the labelled commode from Croome Court, now with the Tapestry Room from that house in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (P. Thornton and W. Rieder, 'Pierre Langlois, Ebéniste', Connoisseur, January 1973, pt. 3, p. 176, fig. 1), having identical mounts on both the angles and the corners of the doors. There are two pairs of lacquer commodes within the same sub-group as the Croome commode, one pair at Powis Castle, Wales, and the other in the M.H. de Young Museum in San Francisco. All these and the commodes from Ashburnham Place and Uppark that are attributed to Langlois share the same use of serpentine pictorial lacquer panels. This is the opposite of Langlois' usual choice with marquetry commodes, which is for bombé fronts and even bombé sides. Whilst it is likely that this was more a matter of necessity than choice - it is extremely difficult to bend lacquer in two opposing planes - it does provide a unifying factor within the larger group. Thornton and Rieder (ibid., p. 179) identified a further difference between even the Powis and de Young commodes in the use of lacquer which also applies to the Ashburnham and Uppark commodes. The Powis pair use the lacquer panels in exactly same way as the Ashburnham commodes where the pictorial scene is framed by, rather than continued into, its borders. The Strawberry Hill commodes and the one in the de Young Museum (ibid., p. 177, pl. 4), use japanning to continue the 'scenes of Cathay' onto the carcase. The elaborate japanned trellis framing on the doors is common to the Ashburnham commodes and both pairs from Uppark. Its presence may be a substitute for the elaborate mounts of the other lacquer examples which allow sparing patches of decoration on the sides of the doors, particularly on the Powis commodes. All of these lacquer commodes use one scene, more or less accurately cut in half, to provide both door panels. The exception is the Powis commodes on which there is little correllation between the two. Although more grandly mounted than the Ashburnham commodes, the others in this group are of recognisably the same restrained serpentine form. The aprons and angles are bolder but the serpentine fronts, sides and magnificent marble tops are common.
Of the two pairs from Uppark, one pair remain there and the other was sold from the house, in these Rooms, 20 May 1971, lot 90. Whilst they are attributed on many of the same stylistic grounds mentioned above, there is an interesting separate connection between the Uppark commodes, which are so similar to the Ashburnham commodes, and a commode in the Lady Lever Art Gallery (L. Wood, Catalogue of Commodes , London, 1994, p. 74-78, no.5). That commode shares giltwood 'mounts' with the pair of Uppark commodes sold here in 1971. Whilst Lucy Wood does not consider all the evidence sufficient for an attribution, she does note this connection between the Lever commode, which unusually has a marble top, and those of the group that are more confidently attributed to Langlois. The same applies to the Ashburnham commodes.
Amongst commodes of this form is one with japanned decoration only, but with the same mounts that was acquired by the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1931 (see: D. Fitzgerald, Georgian Furniture, London, 1967, fig. 77) and a pair with lacquer panels but lacking mounts, formerly at Ragley Hall, Warwickshire. The mounts do however, appear on another very similar commode that was also at Ragley (see: R. Edwards, The Dictionary of English Furniture, rev. ed., London, 1954, vol. II, p. 115). The lacquer landscape scenes of Chinese amongst garden pavilions probably derive from a screen such as that executed in Canton around 1740 for Henrietta Howard, later Countess of Suffolk, and listed in the 1767 inventory of Marble Hill, Middlesex (see: J. Bryant, London's Country House Collections, London, 1993, p. 70, fig. 1).
THE MARBLE AND JASPER TOPS
As has been noted, the second piece of evidence that links Langlois to these commodes is the use of dramatic marble tops. Lucy Wood has written that Langlois 'was one of the few London practices at this period that demonstrably favoured the use of marble tops for commodes' (L. Wood, op. cit., p. 78). She cites as evidence the Powis and de Young commodes mentioned above. The tops of the Strawberry Hill commodes were provided in 1763 by 'Carter'; this has been identified as Thomas Carter the Younger (d.1795 Thornton and Rieder, op. cit., pt. I, n. 25). He was the nephew and sometimes partner of Benjamin Carter (d.1766) who carved a marble chimneypiece for Ashburnham Place in 1760 and sent his workman Robert Stavely down to set it up. The date 1762 given in R. Gunnis, Dictionary of British Sculptors, rev. ed., London, 1951, p.84, is two years too late; the accounts of Lord Ashburnham's steward John Chilton show payments to Carter in 1760. It is not known the extent to which uncle and nephew worked together but it is known that they did; one or both of them may have supplied these tops and at least the younger man was working with Langlois elsewhere.
This distinctive pattern of angle-mount appears on several very distinguished English commodes of the period 1760-65 and its presence here supports that dating for these commodes. In France, this model was much used by Joseph Baumhauer (maître circa 1749), for example on a bureau plat illustrated in P. Kjellberg, Le Mobilier Français du XVIIIe Siècle, Paris, 1987, p. 454. In England its use has included the pair of commodes from Blaise Castle, Bristol, sold from the Messer collection, in these Rooms, 5 December 1991, lot 117. It was also used on a pair of marquetry commodes, probably made by a German immigrant in England, and sold from the collection of the late Sir Michael Sobell, in these Rooms, 23 June 1994, lot 169. The most glamorous use of the model apart from the Ashburnham commodes is on a pair that was supplied under the direction of James Cullen for the State Apartment at Hopetoun House, Edinburgh (A. Coleridge, Chippendale Furniture, London, 1968, fig. 416).