This pair of George III semi-elliptical commodes is attributed to the pre-eminent and fashionable Golden Square cabinet-makers John Mayhew (d.1811) and William Ince (d.1804) who ranked George III, the 6th Earl of Coventry, and the Earl of Kerry among their distinguished clients. It typifies the elegant 'antique' style established by the country's leading Neo-classical architect, Robert Adam (d.1792), popularised in a drawing of January 1773 for an 'Etruscan' commode for the Duke of Bolton and published in Adam's Works in Architecture (1773-77). It became one of Mayhew and Ince's most long-lived and popular furniture models of the 1770s and 80s.
The inlaid arms indicate that the commodes offered here were supplied to Robert Birch M.P. (d. 1810), of Turvey House, Donabate, co. Dublin.
MAYHEW AND INCE
From 1764, Mayhew & Ince worked with Adam on several notable commissions, culminating in their 'ability to produce very early on furniture in the most startling advanced Neo-classical taste' (Geoffrey Beard, Christopher Gilbert, Dictionary of English Furniture Makers 1660-1840, Leeds, 1986, p.592). The firm faithfully reproduced Adam's furniture designs, in 1775 supplying the magnificent Derby House commode to Edward Smith-Stanley, Lord Strange (later 12th Earl of Derby) for his Grosvenor Square, London property. The Derby House commode is the only fully documented Adam commode to survive, and Mayhew & Ince's invoice for 'A circular Commode of fine and curious Woods very Finely inlaid with Etruscan Ornaments' at a cost of £84, 'compleated from a Design of Messrs. Adams' demonstrates the close working relationship between designer and maker.
The firm also created their own distinctive designs in a refined and sober Neo-classical fashion exemplified by a rectangular satinwood and marquetry commode sold from the Countess of Portsmouth's collection, Christie's London, 18 May 1922, lot 81, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (64.101.1145), and a semi-elliptical commode from the Barbara Piasecka Johnson collection, sold Christie's London, 9 July 1992, lot 162, (£660,000, including premium).
The aesthetically spare decoration of this commode, a testament to the decorative language of the Neo-classical spirit of the late 18th century, places it into a specific sub-group of commodes. Particularly striking are the large scale 'antique' urns, a frequent Mayhew and Ince motif that relates to ornamentation found on a number of other commodes attributed by Lucy Wood to Mayhew and Ince (Lucy Wood, Catalogue of Commodes, London, 1994, pp. 223-237, nos. 26, 27 and 28).
THE IRISH CONNECTION
Mayhew & Ince did have a small but significant Irish clientèle, including Francis Thomas Fitzmaurice, 3rd Earl of Kerry, who commissioned the firm for the refurbishment of his Portland Square, London, house in the early 1770s. Furthermore, a related demi-lune commode, smaller in size but with the distinctive marquetry of Mayhew & Ince, and a very similar pattern of squared acanthus-wrapped feet, was in the collection of James Alexander, 1st Earl of Caledon, a wealthy Indian Nabob, who first engaged Mayhew & Ince at his London house on Berners Street in 1773. The early history of this commode is uncertain but it appears to have been commissioned by the Earl's brother-in-law, Josias Dupré, Governor of Madras, for his house in Portland Place, but was returned to Mayhew & Ince in July 1777 for restoration before being transferred to Caledon in Ireland. Mayhew and Ince subsequently fulfilled an exceptional commission for the Earl at Caledon between 1785 and 1795. (H. Roberts, 'Unequall'd Elegance: Mayhew and Ince's furniture for James Alexander, 1st Earl of Caledon', Furniture History Society, 2009, p.117).
A further link between the London partnership and Ireland is afforded by William Moore (d.1814), cabinet-maker of Abbey Street and later Capel Street, Dublin. Moore had been apprenticed to Mayhew & Ince before establishing his workshop in Dublin in 1779. He was soon the foremost marqueteur in Ireland, and unsurprisingly, the Neo-classical marquetry of Adam-derived motifs, highly characteristic of the London practice, was also adopted by Moore. In his trade advertisements Moore particularly emphasised his 'long experience at Messrs. Mayhew and Ince, London' (R. Luddy, 'Every Article in the Inlaid Way: the furniture of William Moore', Irish Arts Review, 2002, vol.18, p.47). However, only two pieces of furniture are firmly attributable to Moore, a semi-elliptical marquetry commode supplied to William Henry Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland in 1782, and a pianoforte, its whereabouts unknown. Other pieces in public collections are now believed to be by Moore, including another commode, very similar to the Portland example, in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London (ibid., p.44; W.56:1 to 3-1925).
Comparable examples are a single commode of smaller dimensions but with very closely related ornamentation, The Property of the late Mrs. Robert Tritton, sold Christie's house sale, Godmersham Park, Kent, 6-9 June 1983, lot 138 (£30,240 including premium); its pair was exhibited by Ronald Phillips at The Grosvenor House Art & Antiques Fair, 15-21 June 2006. Another related pair of small demi-lune cabinets, the tambour doors with identical paterae enclosed by bellflower swags flanked by classical urns, is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Bernard M. Baruch (65.155.45, 46).
A pair of 19th century commodes, copies of the present lot, were sold anonymously, Christie's, London, 5 October 1972, lot 156
The arms are those of Birch impaling Ryves, for Robert Birch M.P. (d. 1810), of Turvey House, Donabate, co. Dublin and his wife Catherine (d.1819), daughter of William Ryves, of Castle Jane, co. Limerick, whom he married in Dublin in 1759.
At the time of his marriage Faulkner's Dublin Journal refers to him as 'an eminent merchant of this City', but contemporary parliamentary sketches are less complimentary. G. O. Sayles in 'Contemporary Sketches of the Members of the Irish Parliament in 1782', Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, vol. 56, 1954/54, p. 237 quotes from the 1782 publication and records that 'he bought the parliamentary seat of Belturbet, co. Cavan from Lord Lanesborough, ... Lord Buckingham made him Clerk of the Quick Rents , £150 a year; he will support any government and take anything he can get'.
Evidently Birch ran into rather dire financial circumstances but this appointment seems to have saved him from penury and he was still residing at Turvey House in 1789.
Birch appears to have leased Turvey House from Lord Trimlestown. The house was of great antiquity although its general appearance was that of a building of the 17th century. The original building was a 15th century tower house. This was added to in the 16th century by Sir Patrick Barnewall. He is said to have made use of the stone from the ruinous Grace Dieu Nunnery. T. Sadleir and P. L. Dickinson in Georgian Mansions in Ireland, Dublin, 1915, p. 86-88, comment that it was much altered in the second quarter of the 18th century. There was the date 1773 on a Venetian window which would seem to relate to works initiated by Birch and it is most probable that the pair of commodes offered here were commissioned around the time of this refurbishment.