THE ATTRIBUTION TO MARSH & TATHAM
The magnificent desk recalls the elegant Anglo-French style that George IV adopted while Prince of Wales. It also introduces the Roman fashion promoted by the Prince and his architect Charles Heathcote Tatham (d. 1842) through the publication of his Etchings Representing the best Examples of Ancient Ornamental Architecture, 1799, and Etchings representing Fragments of Antique Grecian and Roman Architectural Ornament, 1806. Around the time of the Prince's marriage in 1795, Tatham was studying and gathering antiquities in Rome and assisting the architect Henry Holland with furnishing both the Prince's Carlton House palace, as well as his splendid Brighton Pavilion. The 'pantheonic' architecture of the latter recalled Robert Castell's Villas of the Ancients, 1728 and the Laurentium villa of the Roman author Pliny. It was for the decoration of such palaces that Tatham demonstrated his connoisseurship in the decorative arts of 'Furniture' by publishing a pattern book entitled Designs for Ornamental Plate, 1806. His hand can also be recognised in the furniture manufactured by his cabinet-making brother, Thomas Tatham.
While the design of this desk can be attributed in part to C.H. Tatham, its manufacture can be attributed to Thomas Tatham, who entered into partnership in 1798 with the Prince's cabinet-maker William Marsh of Mount Street, Mayfair for the furnishing of the royal palaces. When Tatham first entered into the partnership with the Mount Street workshops, it traded as Elward, Marsh and Tatham. George Elward withdrew in 1803 and five years later Tatham was able to report that his firm had already supplied the Prince of Wales with furnishings that totalled above £30,000. Included in this would have been the library bookcases supplied in 1806. These were executed in the same style as the Somerley desk, and feature the same beribboned palm mounts and acanthus escutcheon plates (H. Clifford Smith, Buckingham Palace, London, 193l, p. 231 and fig. 290). They were described in Messrs Marsh and Tatham's Account as 'Mahogany bookcases inlaid with ebony and decorated with bronze ornaments, to design'. This 'design' included bas reliefs of youthful genii contending a palm-wreath, and these also appear on Thomas Hope's own palm-flowered 'writing-table', which he later illustrated in his Household Furniture and Interior Decoration, 1807 (pl. 11, no. 1). As Hope boasted in his guidebook of the skills of the Piccadilly 'bronze and ormolu manufacturer' Alexis Decaix, it is possible that Decaix executed the mounts for this desk.
Marsh & Tatham supplied the famous Anglesey pedestal desk to Henry Paget, 1st Marquess of Anglesey (d. 1854) for Uxbridge House, Burlington Gardens, circa 1812, and this desk, together with the magnificent desk provided in 1811 for the Prince Regent and another supplied to the 9th Earl of Thanet for Hothfield Place, Kent, all share similar Grecian flower mounts to the Somerley desk, and would point to a date circa 1811 for its manufacture. The Royal desk featured as the centrepiece of the Prince's Blue Velvet Drawing Room in W.H. Pyne's publication Carlton House, 1817 (the desk is illustrated in Carlton House, The Past Glories of George IV's Palace, Exhibition Cat., 1991-1992, pl. V and J. O'Brien and D. Guinness, Great Irish Houses and Castles, London, 1992, p. 161). The Anglesey desk was sold by the Executors of the later Sir John Musker, in these Rooms, 8 July 1993, lot 125 (£1.76 million inc. premium) and the Thanet desk was sold by The News of the World Ltd, in these Rooms, 27 November 1969, lot 142.
The desk, which is styled as a Louis Seize bureau plat, has its silken figured mahogany enriched with golden inlay and palm-flowered bas-reliefs that are intended to recall the sun-deity Apollo, as the Mt. Parnassus god of poetry. The top, which is wrapped by reed gadroons, is also boulle-inlaid with a ribbon-guilloche that derives from the sunflowered ceiling of Apollo's temple at Palmyra, as illustrated in Robert Wood's The Ruins of the Temple of Palmyra, 1753. The desk top and its frame are also rounded above the palm-flowered capitals of the pillared legs, which are paired after the Pompeian fashion and tapered like inverted and antique-fluted Grecian columns. The tablets, which are sunk in the columnar frame above the legs, are likewise antiqued with horizontal flutes after the Louis Seize manner, as featured in Thomas Sheraton's Grecian sofa-table pattern in his Cabinet Dictionary of 1803 (pl. 75). The desk's ormolu enrichments include a frieze band of a ribbon-entwined reed. Laurels emerge from the Roman foliage that conceals the drawer locks, while their 'tablet' ends are framed by beribboned palms. Futher palms flower the pattera handles, as well as the medallioned trophies that are framed by the legs.
The robust architecture of the desk, with its symbolic and hieroglyphic reliefs also epitomise the 'antique' fashion, combining Egyptian, Grecian and Roman elements, that was being promoted by the connoisseur Thomas Hope in the decoration of his London mansion. It also relates to the Empire style of C. Percier and P.F.L. Fontaine's Recueil de décorations intérieures, 1801.
SOMERLEY AND THE 2ND EARL OF NORMANTON
The origins of the present house, the name meaning 'water-meadow', date back to 1792 when Daniel Hobson began his elegant villa to designs by Samuel Wyatt. Hobson died in 1805, and in 1811 his heir sold Somerley to Henry Baring (1776-1848), scion of the great banking family. Baring finished the interior of the house and added the south colonnade, as well as employing Humphrey and John Adey Repton, before selling the house to Welbore Ellis Agar, 2nd Earl of Normanton (1778-1868). Normanton, together with his wife Lady Diana, daughter of the 11th Earl of Pembroke, was a great collector, who added a picture gallery, probably to his own designs, to house his collection. The gallery in all its glory, was painted by C.J. Walker in 1853, and was described in glowing terms by Gustav Waagen a year later: 'But my Chief Pleasure was the stately picture gallery ... The Proportions are not only fine, and the gold decorations rich and tasteful, but the lighting from above is so happily calculated that every picture receives a clean and gentle light'. The pictures included The Madonna and Child by Parmigianino, now in the National Gallery, and Titian's Venus and Adonis, now in the J. Paul Getty Museum (J. Cornforth, English Interiors 1790-1848, The Quest for Comfort, London, 1978, p. 84, figs. 94 and 95). When the 3rd Earl succeeded in 1868, he engaged William Burn (d. 1870) followed by J. MacVicar Anderson to enlarge the house, in a palatial Italianate style.
The desk was probably commissioned by Henry Baring for the Library. Now known as the West Library, the room remains essentially unchanged from Samuel Wyatt's drawing for Daniel Hobson, however Baring did add the tall windows opening onto the colonnade that he also added. The original bookcases for the West Library, corresponding exactly to Wyatt's drawing, were moved in 1868 to the present East Library, so the windows could be opened up, and suitable replacements were made. The desk was among furniture purchased with the house by the 2nd Earl of Normanton in 1828, and given the probable date of the desk (circa 1811), it is most likely to have been made for Henry Baring.