THE ST. GILES'S DINING-CHAIRS
ST.MARTIN'S LANE AND THE HOGARTHIAN STYLE
The Shaftesbury chairs epitomise the beauty of design that established St. Martin's Lane as the London art centre in the 1740s. Their elegant curvaceous form displays the French 'picturesque' fashion that was advertised a decade later as the 'modern' style in Thomas Chippendale's The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director of 1754. The style is greatly indebted to the artist William Hogarth (d.1764), who explained its concepts in his Analysis of Beauty, 1753. He had become the dominant force in the St. Martin's Lane Academy in 1735 which pursued the French manner of uniting the Cardinal Arts of Architecture, Painting and Sculpture, in an attempt to improve English design and manufactures. The 1740s was a particularly opportune moment for the St. Martin's Lane establishments of sculptor-carvers and cabinet-makers, as an earlier reduction in import taxes had greatly increased the importation of West Indian mahogany to provide them with a wonderfully versatile and richly-coloured timber.
Boxwood had served an earlier generation of sculptor-carvers, such as Grinling Gibbons (d.1721), to demonstrate their dexterity and artistic skills in producing display masterpieces of fretted lace filigree. It was mahogany that enabled the master craftsman of George II's day to manufacture richly-carved chairs whose intricately fretted backs resembled beribboned passementerie. The 1740s carver's pattern books demonstrate the new fashions that lightened the somewhat rigid 'Roman' lines of the Louis XIV style, as had appeared in the patterns for embroidered upholstery issued in the 1702 Oeuvres of William III's 'architect', Daniel Marot (d.1752).
THE 4TH EARL OF SHAFTESBURY
Amongst the fortunate patrons to benefit from this very fine mahogany was Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 4th Earl of Shaftesbury (d. 1771), an amateur and patron of the arts as well as a member of the Society of Antiquaries. He devoted much of his life to the aggrandisement of his ancestral mansion, which had been built by Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury (d.1683), Charles II's Lord Chancellor. The 4th Earl married firstly Lady Susannah Noel (d.1758), daughter of the Earl of Gainsborough, and these chairs are no doubt indebted to her taste as well as her husband's. Her interests in such fashionable furniture is demonstrated by the fact that she was among the quartet of titled ladies who took out a subscription to Chippendale's Director in 1753. However much of St. Giles's House's furnishings, such as these parlour chairs, were commissioned in the 1740s, and demonstrate Hallett's role in instigating the fashionable style of George II's reign.
THE EARL OF SHAFTESBURY'S ARCHITECT, HENRY FLITCROFT
These chair-backs possibly owe a debt to Lord Shaftesbury's architect Henry Flitcroft (d.1767). Flitcroft was a protg of Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, and it was in his office that he had earned the title of 'Burlington Harry'. Burlington was recognised as England's Apollo of the Arts, and his 'High Priest' was the Rome-trained artist William Kent (d.1748). Aided by the latter's influential post on the Royal Board of Architectural Works, Burlington was able to promulgate his version of Vitruvius Britannicus with the introduction of a Roman style of British interior architecture. He elevated the Stuart court architect Inigo Jones (d.1652), and represented him as the first to move through the architecture of Andrea Palladio to revive a true Roman form of interior decoration. In particular, it was the Jonesian 'truss', or bracket motif, that Hogarth was to carry to a richer stage with his celebrated serpentined line.
HENRY FLITCROFT'S ORNAMENT
Flitcroft, like other leading architects, provided furniture designs to harmonise with the architecture and symbolism of his patrons' rooms. Indeed it was stressed by Chippendale in his Director preface that the Science of Architecture was the 'Soul and Basis' of the Cabinet-Maker's Art.
While these chairs may possibly have been designed under Flitcroft's direction, they harmonise well with his Roman fretwork ceilings and his stuccoed cornices of naturally meandering Roman foliage. At that period the ribbon back was considered particularly appropriate for banqueting chairs, as according to classical authors, the ribbon was associated with the theatrical festivities held in honour of the wine-deities Dyonisus and Bacchus. The chairs are richly carved with Roman acanthus foliage issuing from 'arabesque' ribbons that are scrolled in the French 'picturesque' manner as illustrated in William de la Cour's First Book of Ornament, 1740. On the chair pilasters, foliage issues from the volutes of the serpentined and plinth-supported 'Jonesian' trusses; and these in turn sweep into the arched crest. The latter's serpentined crest-rails are enriched with a French ribbon-guilloche and overlap the Gothic-fretted vase-splat to terminate in acanthus-issuing volutes. The seat-rails, which are veneered in an attractively striated mahogany, have their angles embellished with husk-festooned and acanthus-wrapped cartouches, while the scrolled trusses of the legs terminate in voluted feet.
LORD SHAFTESBURY'S CABINET-MAKER, WILLIAM HALLETT
William Hallett (d. 1781) was described by the furniture historians Ralph Edwards and Margaret Jourdain, as 'probably the most fashionable cabinet-maker of George II's reign'. In view of Hallett's role in setting 'Modern' fashions in mid-18th Century London, at a time that Thomas Chippendale was establishing St. Martin's Lane workshops, it is hardly surprising that his portrait was executed by Francis Hayman R.A. Hallett was patronised by Horace Walpole, who in 1755 wrote his famous comment: 'I want to write over the doors of most modern edifices 'Repaired and beautified: [Batty] Langley and [William] Hallett...'. Since the 1730s Hallett's name had featured together with that of Thomas Bromwich, the celebrated wallpaper specialist, at various mansions such as Holkham Hall, Norfolk and Uppark, Sussex. Their names also became linked by Richard Cambridge. In his Elegy Written in an Empty Assembly Room, 1756 he wrote '... Hallett's genius has combined With Bromwich to amuse and cheer the mind'.
The magnificent suite of chairs can probably be identified as part of Lord Shaftesbury's large payment in 1745 to William Hallett (d.1781), whose name features in the family archive over a seven year period. Hallett dominated the cabinet craft for much of George II's reign, and founded a powerful commercial enterprise in partnership with John Bradburn, as well as with William Vile and John Cobb, who later became 'cabinet-makers' to George III and Queen Charlotte.
Lord Shaftesbury paid William Hallett the sum of 167 for his 'carved chairs' on the 2nd February 1745. Since the suite appears to have comprised eighteen chairs, they would average out at more than 9 per chair, which is an enormous sum. However, in view of their quality, this would not seem impossible, but it could also have included other chairs of a similar date and type such as the even more elaborate pair illustrated here and sold from St Giles's House separately (one in these Rooms, 27 March 1952, lot 56) and subsequently reunited in the Samuel Messer Collection from which they were sold in these Rooms, 5 December 1991, lot 63.
One support for the payment, however large, being for one set only is the next recorded payment in Lord Shaftesbury's accounts which is to the mercer Mr. Harris, who was paid 8.6.6. for the 'Damask for ye Chairs'. If more than one set had been involved it would seem likely that more that one type of upholstery fabric would be required.
Finally it is also worth noting that William Vile (d.1767) referred to Hallett as his 'master' in 1748, so there is a possibility that if he was serving as Hallett's journeyman, he too could have been involved in their manufacture.
ST. GILES'S HOUSE
'St Giles's House, Dorset, the ancient home of the Ashley-Cooper family, is a perfect example of an English mansion. The estate of Wimborne St. Giles has never changed hands by purchase since the Conquest. It passed by marriage to the Ashley family in the reign of Henry VI from the Norman families of Malmain and Plecy. The mansion of St. Giles was built by Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, in 1650... At first the house - built of red brick with stone facings - was far smaller, for the north and south wings are later additions and these have also been added to on more than one occasion. The external walls were in the late 18th Century treated with stucco.
There were three outstanding members of the Ashley-Cooper family, each of whom achieved distinction in a different field. Anthony, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury (d. 1683), to whom the country owes the Habeas Corpus Act, was a member of the Cabal Ministry and Lord Chancellor in the reign of Charles II. The 3rd Earl (d.1713), grandson of the 1st Earl, was the author of numerous philosophical works. The 7th Earl (d.1885) was the philanthropist. The fountain surmounted by the winged figure of Eros, erected in his memory, is known to millions, for it stands in the middle of Piccadilly Circus, London'.
Extracts from R.W. Symonds, St. Giles's House, Dorset, 1956.