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FROM FESCH TO BECKFORD?
These temple-pedimented seats were almost certainly commissioned for the Palazzo del Buffalo-Ferraioli, the Rome palace of Emperor Napoleon's uncle Joseph Cardinal Fesch (d.1839), who had been appointed in 1803 as Ambassadeur de France aupres du Saint-Siege and Minister Plenipotentiary to the Holy See.
Appropriate to the time that Napoleon adopted the role as 'Mars Pacificator' and Europe's 'Peace Bearer', these chairs, with chimerical 'griffin' serving to evoke the triumph of the Arts of Peace, well suited the cardinal's role as protector of Rome's archaeologists, painters and sculptors, and supervisor of the Ecole de Rome - newly established in the Villa Medici.
Cardinal Fesch moved much of his furniture from Rome to Paris in 1806, when he took up residence in the rue du Mont Blanc. These chairs are almost certainly the seat-furniture listed in Paris in an inventory taken in 1815-'six canapés, deux causeuses, quarante-et-un fauteuils, quarante-huit chaises, le tout neuf, destiné a faire un meuble de représentation, de bois richement sculpté orné avec chimères ailées, pieds a griffes, a rosaces et aigles, les sièges et dossiers bourrés de crin. Couverts de toile sans étoffe. Et le tout ensemble dix mille quatre cent quarante francs'.
Cardinal Fesch's collection was sold off anonymously in the following year, after the fall of Napoleon. Interestingly, the agent of the triumphant 'Iron' Duke of Wellington was amongst the largest buyers at the sale and a large group of Fesch's furniture survives to this day at Stratfield Saye, Berkshire. Thiessen-Creteil-Henry's Catalogue des Tableaux...Chaises, Fauteuils et canapés de la plus grande magnificence...Le tout provenant de l'ameublement et décorations de la maison de M***, demeurant rue de la chaussée d'Antin..., Paris, 17 Juin 1816 et jours suivants - as Fesch's anonymous collection sale was presented-included several suites corresponding to this basic model of chair - some of which remained unupholstered.
Douze chaises, seize [or sept] fauteuils, avec deux canapés, en bois sculpté et doré, et bourrés de crin, sans être couverts; les bras des fauteuils sont soutenus par des chimeres ailées, a t/cete de lion, et des dossiers entourés d'arabesques avec couronnement cintré et orné de l'aigle romaine
Quatorze chaises, quatorze fauteuils et trois canapés, sans être couverts et semblables aux precedents, a cela près que les dossiers se terminent en pointe au lieu d'être ronds, et qu'a la place de l'aigle il y a deux griffons en regard.
Six chaises, dix fauteuils et deux causeuses non couverts, semblables a ceux qui precédent, a cela près d'une difference d'ornament dans les bras des fauteuils'.
There are numerous subtle variations within the execution of extant chairs from these suites. Lot 444 does, however, appear to describe the pattern of chair now displayed at the Musée Fesch, as well as those formerly at the Villa Demidoff at Pratolino, with arched tops. Lots 445 and 446 are of the Beckford model offered here.
THE 'FONTHILL' GRIFFIN SEATS
The connoisseur William Beckford (d.1844), who is known to have been in Paris at around the time of the Fesch sale, acquired a suite of griffin seats with pedimented backs which concur precisely with lots 445 and 446 of the Fesch sale. These he displayed in the Grand Drawing Room at Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire, where they are illustrated in John Rutter's, Delineations of Fonthill, 1823 (pl.5). There are slight variations between the Rutter engraving and the seat-furniture offered here. As the catalogue footnotes in 'William Beckford An Eye for the Magnificent' (ibid., 53/4) conclude with regard to an identical pair of chairs to the single Malmesbury House armchair,'it seems likely that the representation in Rutter's plate is not entirely correct. Their triangular pediments extend beyond the width of the backs and the winged chimeras which serve as armed supports rise to a higher level than that of the arms themselves. Neither of these characteristics can be observed in any of the known, extant versions of pieces of this design'- and indeed Rutter is known to have used artistic license, in the representation of the Riesener cylinder-bureau in the same room. Described as being 'A splendid suite of SALOON FAUTEUILS, richly carved and gilt, and designed from the ANTIQUE, stuffed and covered in purple damask' in Phillip's catalogue for the 1823 sale, they were listed amongst the contents of the 'Grand (Damask) Drawing Room. No. 24' as lots. 1532, 1534-40. Between these seven lots, Beckford owned a total of sixteen fauteuils, one settee, six X-frame stools and six side chairs. It would appear, therefore, that the successful buyer/Beckford's agent at the Fesch sale presumably split lot 445-6 amongst the interested parties.
It is impossible to categorically identify William Beckford's Fesch chairs today; however, they are almost certainly amongst the two armchairs and four side chairs (together with two later copies) formerly in the Collection of the Marquesses of Londonderry, Wynyard Park, Co. Durham (op.cit. no.53); a further group of chairs on loan to Duff House, Banff; and the chairs offered here from Malmesbury House.
THE SOURCE OF THE DESIGN
The fabulous eagle/lion griffin was considered in antiquity to be sacred to the sun and poetry deity Apollo. They can be found, for instance, serving like winged couches for figures depicted on Etruscan urns; while other caryatic griffin monopodiae similarly flowered in palm-enriched Roman acanthus are sculpted on Roman marble furniture of the Flavian period. In particular, the design of these chairs reflects the study of antiquities by scholars such as the architect Jean-Guillaume Moitte (d.1810) and Messrs. C. Percier and P. Fontaine, authors of Recueil de decorations interieures, 1801.
A related chair, whose back recalls the antique cinerarium chests and is crowned by a triumphal-arched pediment displaying Jupiter's fulcrum-bearing eagle, featured in a portrait of the Cardinal bearing the ground-plan for his Corsican museum (D.Carrington, 'Cardinal Fesch, a grand collector', Apollo November 1967. p.346). Here the seat-back and arch-crested arms correspond to those of a griffin-patterned chair attributed to Lorenzo Santi (d.1839), that was later published in Dionisio and Lorenzo Santi's, Modeles de Meubles et de decorations Interieures, pour l'Ameublement, Paris, 1828 (pl.41.no.5). Imperial wreath-bearing eagles, as featured in the Santi pattern, also appear in bas relief on a suite of arch-pedimented seats, now in the Musée Fesch Ajaccio, Corsica, as well as on a triple chair-back settee, formerly at Sacombe Park in Hertfordshire, which later found its way into the Florentine collection of Prince Paul Demidoff (sold Property of Edward Medlicott, Christie's House Sale, Sacombe Park, Hertfordshire, 11 October 1993, lot 169, (see also A.Gonzales-Palacios, Il Tempio del Gusto (Roma e Il Regno della Due Sicilie), Milan, 1984, vol.II, figs.72 and 73).
John Rutter's. Delineations of Fonthill, 1823 (pl.5).
L. Wood, Le Mobilier du Cardinal Fesch: Napoleon, les Bonapartes et l'Otalie, Exhibition Catalogue, Musée Fesch 2001
D.E. Ostergard ed., William Beckford, 1760-1844, An Eye for the Magnificent, London, 2002, no.53 (for a chair from the suite)