This magnificent set of chairs, one of the rare sets of chairs commissioned by a company in the 18th century and still in the possession of their corporate descendants, were ordered from William Ince at a meeting of the directors of the Westminster Fire Office on 7 June 1792. The order was given to William Ince alone because his partner John Mayhew, with whom he shared the longest cabinet-making partnership of the 18th century, was barred from direct involvement as he was himself one of the Office's directors, and at that time its Treasurer. At different times from 1763 until 1810, Mayhew and Ince served twenty-one years between them as directors of the Office.
In 1782, Ince had been commissioned to undertake work 'to render the office more convenient', and the board ordered that Ince 'be employed to do what is necessary and that Mr Mayhew be requested to superintend the same'. Nothing is known of the work at that time but ten years later in 1792 the chairs were ordered: 'Mr Ince do make Eighteen new Chairs for the Directors to be placed in the Office also a new Chair for the Chairman.' This last is presumably a mistake as it seems Ince supplied eighteen new chairs, including an armchair for the Chairman (Roberts, op. cit., p. 136)
It has been suggested that Mayhew and Ince, and in particular the former, used their very strong connection with The Westminster Fire Office as a means of furthering their own business (Roberts, op. cit., p. 134). William Chambers, Henry Holland and Thomas Vardy were all directors at different times. One of the jobs of the directors was to examine property being insured and these visits must have been useful in enlarging the pool of potential clients. In a reverse of that process, the Fire Office itself benefited from Mayhew's clients. Lord Darnley, the cabinet-makers' client of longest standing, insured Cobham Hall for £24,000 through the Office in 1789.
The design of these chairs is almost certainly by William Ince himself, who is known to have undertaken this aspect of the work for the firm (Beard and Gilbert, op. cit., p. 591). The design reflects the French 'cabriolet' pattern that was introduced around 1780. With their herm-tapered legs, they relate to patterns in A. Hepplewhite and Co.'s Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer's Guide of 1788, 1789 and 1794.
One Hepplewhite parlour chair pattern displays a 'vase' splat headed by Prince-of-Wales feathers (1789, pl. 5), while other patterns have an oval back entirely filled with the feathers (ibid., pl. 8). It is a rare coincidence that the 1717 crest of the Fire Office should be so fashionable when applied to their new chairs in 1792.
The armchair supplied for the Chairman's use retains an earlier form of pilaster front leg, perhaps for greater strength, and the Grecian reed-wrapped balusters of the arm-supports are characteristic of Sheraton's French-style patterns of the 1790s, such as those in The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Drawing Book, 1793, pt. III. pl. XXXII.
The backs of the chairs are carved with the portcullis and feathers badge of the Westminster Fire Office. The badge was adopted by them on 3 September 1717, within three months of their foundation. The design is credited to Roger Askew, a Director (Davies, op. cit., p. 33). The portcullis, without side chains, is taken from the arms of the City of Westminster and the feathers are a compliment to the Prince of Wales, later King George II (b.1683, r.1727-1760). The Prince has already shown his interest in keeping down the ravages of fire and he assisted personally at the fire in the French Chapel and Library in Spring Gardens in 1716. It is equally certain that he was well disposed towards the Westminster Fire Office. Through his agent, he insured six of his own properties with the Office during its first year (ibid.).
THE FOUR REGENCY CHAIRS BY HURLEY AND GRANT
The partnership of John Mayhew and William Ince was the longest of any cabinet-makers of the 18th century, continuing from early 1759 until Ince's death in 1804. Disputes had arisen between the two partners at least since 1800 and these continued ever more violently between Ince's executors and Mayhew (Beard and Gilbert, op. cit., p. 590). It is therefore not surprising that the firm's long involvement with the furnishing of the Westminster Fire Office should gradually reduce. In 1808 Hurley and Grant of 226 Piccadilly were elected as cabinet-makers to the Office and in 1810 they were commissioned, inter alia, to increase the number of board chairs by supplying six additional chairs, to make a total then of 24, of which 22 survive today. This addition was the result of an increase in the number of directors. There are very minor differences of construction and size that identify the Hurley and Grant chairs (Roberts, op. cit., p. 138).