Susan Weber, William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain, Yale University Press, 2013
The Design and Benches:
This type of wooden bench and matching hall furniture were created by William Kent for the great entrance halls of the newly built Palladian mansions of the 18th century. They were the first furnishings to greet any visitor and, through the use of quality materials, skilled workmanship and exquisite design Kent was able to communicate the grandeur, wealth and taste of his patrons (Susan Weber, William Kent Designing Georgian Britain, London, 2013 p. 481).
The design for these antique-fluted and temple-pedimented benches derived directly from Palladio. This was promoted by Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington and his creative partner William Kent. The influence of these two men, as well as Inigo Jones, on 18th century English architecture and design was unparalleled. These designs were popularised in John Vardy’s, Some designs of Mr Inigo Jones and Mr William Kent, 1744, the ionic wave-scrolls and the acanthus wrapped volutes seen in Vardy’s book clearly evolved into the more soberly designed hall furniture (J. Vardy, Some designs of Mr Inigo Jones and Mr William Kent, London, 1744. Plate 43). As with all ‘Kentian’ furniture the architecture of the room, in which it would sit, was paramount in the conception of the piece. Susan Weber notes that the motifs in the hall benches such as the gadrooned mouldings and scrolled arms often mirror the friezes and decoration that frame the room (Susan Weber, William Kent Designing Georgian Britain, London, 2013 p. 458).
The first examples of benches of this type were commissioned for the Stone Hall at Houghton. Kent was employed by Sir Robert Walpole to build a grand house that reflected the first British Prime Minister’s status. Here the design of the room flows into the furniture, only interrupted by the contrast in materials. These were executed by James Richards whose career was built upon Royal commissions from Kent. (A. Moore, Houghton Hall, London, 1996 p. 116). Further to this in 1731 Kent designed a set of hall furniture for Lodge Park, Sherborne including “2 mahogany settees for ye dining room at ye Lodge carved” (Papers of the Dutton family quoted in Gilbert, James Moore the Younger, p.148-9) now in the collection Temple Newsam, Leeds. These benches demonstrate the more experimental baroque characteristics typical of this earlier style of hall bench. William Cavendish the 3rd Duke of Devonshire commissioned a set of six benches for the hall of Devonshire House in London of almost identical design to the Clarendon pair (fig. 8). This set would undoubtedly be known to Linnell whose workshop was behind Devonshire House in Berkeley Square.
The Clarendon pair of benches with their sphere-capped pillars, columnar legs and torus-moulded seats comes from the second group of this design circa 1760. A sketch of John Linnell’s relating to a very similar hall settee can be found in a folio of his designs dated circa 1758-60 in the Victoria and Albert Museum (H. Hayward and P. Kirkham, William and John Linnell, vol. II, London, 1980 fig. 229), Susan Weber in her accompanying monograph to the William Kent exhibition (V&A 22nd March – 14th July) notes that John Linnell was most likely following a drawing by his father William of a William Kent bench (Susan Weber, William Kent Designing Georgian Britain, London, 2013 p. 488) (fig. 9). Hayward and Kirkham posit that both William and John Linnell were employed by Kent as cabinet makers having executed a table for James West (1703-1772) at Alscot Park. This working relationship between the Linnell firm and Kent is further enforced by a set of garden benches at Rousham circa 1738. The firm carved seven external, painted, benches to sit in the alcoves above the river at Praeneste in arguably Kent’s finest landscape garden.
At the beginning of the 1760s John Linnell was breaking with the declining Rococo tradition and focusing more on the decorative motifs of neo-classicism found in his father’s work (H. Hayward and P. Kirkham, William and John Linnell, vol. I, London, 1980, p. 79). We know that an identical pair, to the ones which are offered here, was created by John Linnell for Grimsthorpe Castle. They were presumably commissioned by Peregrine Bertie, 3rd Duke of Ancaster, one can see that Ancaster was a debtor of the Linnell firm on the death of William Linnell in 1763 (ibid, p.86). This later commission from the Linnell firm is further underlined by the commission they received from the Countess of Leicester at Holkham, although built in the 1740s the grand apartment which contains the hall was not furnished until 1760 coinciding with and or creating the second wave of Kentian inspired furniture.
The key figure in all of this would appear to be Mathew Brettingham. His employment at the Grove, conducted just after his work at Holkham had concluded, would most likely have tied in with the commission of these hall benches. Brettingham’s style reflected the influence Burlington and Kent would have had on him whilst working at Holkham. When asked by the Earl of Clarendon to update The Grove he would undoubtedly have employed John Linnell with whom he had worked at Kedleston and Holkham.
The Earls of Clarendon:
The Earldom of Clarendon was first created in 1661 for the statesmen Edward Hyde. The title passed through four generations until the 4th Earl of Clarendon’s son suddenly died falling from his horse in Paris leaving no male heir. The 4th Earl died in 1753 leaving only daughters, on his death the title expired.
Thomas Villiers, the second son of the second Earl of Jersey, was a prominent Whig politician and political envoy. In 1752 Villiers married Charlotte Capell daughter of the 3rd Earl of Essex and granddaughter of Henry Hyde 4th Earl of Clarendon.
Villiers was a highly cultivated figure. He chose to follow his grandfather, 1st Earl of Jersey, into the diplomatic services. During his career Villiers held many important public positions most notably Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty (1748-1756) and Postmaster General (1763-1765). He also served as envoy to Poland, Lithuania and to The Elector of Saxony, receiving a Baronetcy of the Kingdom of Prussia in 1782. Villiers was made Baron Hyde in 1756 ‘In recognition of his diplomatic services in Dresden, Vienna and Berlin’ (John Cussans, History Of Hertfordshire, Hertfordshire, 1881) reviving his wife’s ancestral title.
In 1776 whilst holding the position of Chancellor to the Duchy of Lancaster Baron Hyde was created 1st Earl Clarendon of the second creation. Since then the Clarendons went on to shape the political landscape of the 19th Century, perhaps most significantly by George Villiers the 4th Earl. Foreign Secretary three times and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland from 1847-1852, he was offered both the Governor-Generalship of India and Canada but was reluctant to leave European Politics. The 4th Earl’s commitment to his work and his desire for peace with in the British Empire is best highlighted by a contemporary remarking on his death that ‘Lord Clarendon continued to devote every faculty of his mind and every instant of his life to the public service; and he expired surrounded by the boxes and papers of his office on 27 June 1870’ (Sir Herbert Eustace Maxwell, The Life and letters of George William Frederick 4. Earl of Clarendon, London, 1913) He received the Order of the Garter and Bath from Queen Victoria for his services to the government.
Thomas Villiers purchased The Grove, an Elizabethan house, in 1753 from Lord Doneraile. During 1740s Lord Doneraile had carried out alterations to the west wing and the chapel, apparently being punished by ghostly apparitions for turning the chapel into a kitchen.
Fortunately the future Clarendons managed to redesign the property without any such sinister happenings. Having bought the Grove Thomas Villiers immediately set to work to create a country seat befitting a man of ambition and intelligence. Mathew Brettingham was appointed head architect, charged with changing the Grove into a contemporary Palladian country house. Brettingham’s account book confirms that he worked at the Grove from 1754-61 and bills now held in the Bodleian library detail invoices of work completed. Sir Robert Taylor is also purported to have carried out work at The Grove. In his 1967 article in Country Life Marcus Binney states that Taylor made substantial alterations and additions in the early 1780s, creating larger rooms and grander fire-places to suit Thomas Villiers’s status (Marcus Binney ‘The Villas of Sir Robert Taylor’ Country Life Magazine, July 1967).
Throughout the course of the 19th century The Grove, particularly under George Villiers 4th Earl of Clarendon’s tenure, became a political and social powerhouse. To mark it being put on the market The Times noted that it was ‘One of the great political houses of the 19th Century. In these degenerate days it may be necessary to call it The Grove, Watford, but, to our grandfathers, The Grove needed no suffixes’ (The Times, 20 February 1936). Due to its proximity to London, Lord Clarendon’s house has been credited with being the progenitor of the long weekend. Members of the political and social elite would often spend their weekends. King Edward VII visited The Grove to stay with the 5th Earl in 1909.
Hall furniture from this period is rarely seen at auction. Most recently, a pair of chairs commissioned by Edwin Lascelles for Harewood House, executed by John Linnell, was sold in the Simon Sainsbury sale Christie’s, London, 18th June 2008, lot 10. Four chairs and a single bench of the same suite had previously been offered by the Earl of Harewood at Christie’s, London, 28th June, 1951, lot 64. However, the sale that most pertains to this pair were a pair of benches from the original six commissioned for the Grove was sold at Christie’s, London, 11th April 1985, lot 130.
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