This pair of handsome oak, ebony and parcel-gilt pedestal cabinets formed part of William Beckford’s remarkable collection of furniture at 19 and 20 Lansdown Crescent, Bath. They personify Beckford’s ‘new style’, which combined ‘historical inspirations with modern forms’, introduced at Lansdown Crescent and Lansdown Tower following the sale of the contents of Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire in 1823 (Frost, op. cit., p. 1). (1) Almost certainly made by the cabinet-making firm of English & Sons of Bath, who were also upholsterers and auctioneers, possibly in conjunction with Robert Hume of London, their style is architectural and neo-classical, combining imported Riga oak and pollard oak with ebony and gilt enrichments to striking effect.
William Beckford and Lansdown Crescent
Following the sale of whimsical Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire, and a large part of its contents in 1823, Beckford moved to Bath, initially living in 66 Great Pulteney Street before settling at 20 Lansdown Crescent. He subsequently acquired the adjoining 1 Lansdown Place West, on the corner of Lansdown Crescent, and 19 Lansdown Crescent, and set about their refurbishment in a historicist style. In September 1844, the cabinets were recorded in the ‘Large Front Drawing Room No. 19’, undoubtedly the grandest room at Lansdown Crescent, in an inventory raised by English & Sons and Robert Hume:
‘Pair of Square Oak Pedestal Cabinets with 7 drawers each with Red Porphyry tops supported by 4 columns; carved and gilt ornaments’ (Ms. Beckford c.58).
By July 1848, they had evidently been moved to the adjoining room, the ‘Duchess’s Drawing Room’, a second reception room, so-called because it housed a portrait of Beckford’s daughter, Susan Euphemia, Duchess of Hamilton, by Thomas Phillips, painted in circa 1810. At this date, they were listed in the sale catalogue of the contents of Lansdown Crescent, held by English & Sons, as,
‘Lot 41 - A pair of beautiful and costly pedestal cabinets, each with 7 drawers, 24 in. by 17 in., and 3 ft. in height, composed of Riga and pollard oak, with ebony and gilt enrichments, surmounted by slabs of the finest red porphyry, supported by fluted columns £32.0.0’
These cabinets illustrate Beckford’s ‘highly personal new style’ when he moved from Fonthill Abbey to Bath (Frost, op. cit., p. 1). (1) Beckford evidently had a predilection for oak, which as an antiquarian allowed him to create an Old English or self-styled medieval interior (Ostergard, op. cit., p. 268). (2) In the introduction to Views of Lansdown Tower (1844) (3), Edmund English (of English & Sons) wrote, ‘It may not be generally known, that the first embellishments of this charming edifice were sold a few years ago, with the view of refurnishing the whole more classically, as it now stands’ (Levy, op. cit., p. 25). (4) Although this relates to Lansdown Tower, Beckford’s retreat situated on a hill outside Bath, Lansdown Crescent, in the town centre, was conceived in tandem with this building, and Beckford divided his time and his collection of works of art and books between the two.
Oak and parcel-gilt furniture from the latter part of Beckford’s life is shown in Views of Lansdown Tower. (3) Extant furniture includes an architectonic-form, oak and parcel-gilt coffer and stand, one of four probably made by Robert Hume Jr. after 1831 for the Scarlet Drawing Room at Lansdown Tower (Frost, op. cit., p. 1). (1) This coffer, similarly to the present cabinets, was probably designed by Beckford in partnership with the architect of Lansdown Tower, Henry Edmund Goodridge (1797-1864). It was acquired by the Beckford Tower Trust in 2011, and is now on display at the (renamed) Beckford’s Tower and Museum, Bath. There is also a tripod pedestal from Lansdown Tower, circa 1827-44, in the same collection, in the same vein. Furthermore, plate 14 of Views of Lansdown Tower shows that there were similar oak pedestal cabinets at the tower. (3)
The taste for oak furniture, however, may predate the decoration of Lansdown Crescent and Tower; the combination of oak, ebony and gilt enrichments evidently inspired by Beckford’s former idiosyncratic use of ebony and pietre dure. Although not as extensively used at Fonthill Abbey, Beckford furnished the ‘Edward the Third Gallery’ with ‘oak stands’ and ‘ebony fluted stands’, commissioned brackets in oak with ‘outlines slightly touched with gold’ in the ‘Oratory’, and specified oak for the new base of the great Borghese pietre dure table top, now at Charlecote Park, Warwickshire (Ostergard, op. cit., no. 85; p. 268; NT 532954). (2)
Many of the pieces, including the present cabinets, had strong architectural elements, and were intended to house Beckford’s most precious objects. Beckford had a number of cabinets of this form but made of other timbers or materials at Fonthill Abbey, including a pair of circa 1815 ebony cabinets attributed to E.H. Baldock in the Crimson Drawing Room, lots 1144 and 1145 in the 1823 Phillips sale, a single cabinet, attributed to Robert Hume (all now at Charlecote), and a pair of French 1825 hardstone cabinets (in the collection of the Duke of Sutherland by 1839) (Ostergard, ibid., nos. 87, 86 and 160). (2) A magnificent ebony cabinet with pietre dure panels made by Robert Hume in 1815-1820 for Fonthill Abbey, and later in the collection of the Dukes of Westminster, sold ‘The Exceptional Sale’, Christie’s, London, 5 July 2012, lot 12 (£157,250 inc. premium).
English & Sons
The present cabinets were almost certainly made by the Bath cabinet-making firm of English & Sons, who were also upholsterers and auctioneers. In the 1848 sale catalogue, English & Sons described these cabinets as being made of ‘Riga oak’ and ‘pollard oak’ confirming they actually knew they had imported the oak. English & Sons were certainly engaged to refurbish furniture at Lansdown Tower in May 1841 when Beckford instructed Edmund English to enrich the lids of the coffers with gilding (Frost, op. cit., pp. 4-5). (1) Other oak furniture there was similarly applied with gilding ‘to enhance the richness of the rooms’ and upgrade ‘the earlier austerity of the initial interior designs (ibid.). English & Sons were associated in some way to Robert Hume Jr., a key figure in the supply of furniture to Fonthill Abbey and Lansdown Tower. On 13 September 1844, several months after Beckford’s death, ‘English & Sons of Bath’ together with ‘R. Hume of London’ compiled an inventory for ‘19 & 20 Lansdown Crescent, Bath & the Tower & Farm, Lansdown’ (Ms. Beckford c.58).
In an interesting case of serendipity, between 1794 and 1799, Beckford had rented Monserrate Palace, Portugal, which was subsequently leased in 1856, and then purchased in 1863, by Francis Cook (d. 1908), made Viscount of Monserrate in 1870. Sir Francis Cook became the head of his father's textile manufacturing and wholesaling firm in 1869, establishing through it a fortune that enabled him to become one of the principal collectors of antique Greek and Roman sculpture in the Victorian period, as well as a major buyer of paintings, acquiring his collection mostly at auction between 1855 and 1870. Cook's wide-ranging collection of paintings at Doughty House was one of the finest of his time, containing works such as Titian's celebrated Portrait of Ranuccio Farnese, Fra Filippo Lippi and Fra Angelico's Adoration of the Magi, Bellini's Episode from the Life of Publius Cornelius Scipio, François Clouet's A Lady in her Bath and Mantegna's The Christ Child blessing (all National Gallery, Washington, D.C.) and Titian's Portrait of a lady (National Gallery, London). Several generations on, Sir Francis F. Cook, 4th Baronet (d. 1978), a direct descendent of the 1st Viscount, no doubt inspired by the Beckford connection and despite the cabinets being intended for Lansdown Crescent, acquired them in the late 1950s.
(1) A. Frost, ‘Beckford’s Treasure Chest returns to Lansdown Tower’, Furniture History Newsletter, no. 185, February 2012, pp. 1-5.
(2) D. E. Ostergard, William Beckford 1760-1844: An Eye for the Magnificent, New Haven and London, 2002, pp. 263-275.
(3) E. English, ‘Ornamental furniture from Mr. Beckford’s collection’, Views of Lansdown Tower, London, 1844, plate 14.
(4) M. Levy, ‘A Coffer from Lansdown Tower’, Beckford Journal 3, 1997, pp. 25-29.