PROPERTY OF AN IMPORTANT AMERICAN COLLECTOR
The Commission by the 4th Marquess of Hertford
This group of four commodes was possibly commissioned by the 4th Marquess of Hertford, Richard Seymour-Conway. Lord Hertford was an avid collector of eighteenth century furniture, as evidenced by the Wallace Collection which is now the repository for his extensive collection, but he showed equal zeal in buying nineteenth century recreations. The nineteenth century versions were actually often more expensive than the originals because of the cost of high-quality labor and materials. In 1853, the Duke of Hamilton and other collectors of eighteenth century furniture lent their pieces to the Gore House Exhibition in London. The Duke of Hamilton lent a commode by André-Charles Boulle, which is now at Petworth House, Sussex. The Petworth commode is one of several of this model produced in the eighteenth century. The design, probably conceived of by Gilles-Marie Oppenord, was originally executed by Boulle in 1708-1709 for a pair of commodes for Louis XIV at the Grand Trianon. After they were supplied, Boulle received many other commissions for the model. At least five examples are accounted for in eighteenth century auction catalogues, which indicates the success and popularity of this model. The keen interest in the model’s complex structure and its unique juxtaposition of convex and concave drawers did not abate but continued into the nineteenth century, as evidenced by its sustained reproduction.
Lord Hertford was among the commode’s many admirers after his visit to the Specimens of Cabinet Work exhibition at Gore House. Inspired to acquire his own version of the Duke’s Boulle commode, he obtained permission to copy it. On June 11, 1853, the 4th Marquess wrote to Samuel Moses Mawson, a dealer, saying, “You might do me a great service & oblige me very much. You know there is at present an exhibition of works of art at Gore House. I should very much like to have drawings made of some of the principal & the most beautiful articles furniture not of the middle ages but of Louis XIV, XV & XVI…”. After expending the effort to obtain drawings, Lord Hertford realized that the cabinetmakers could not produce copies from drawings aloneand had to rethink his commission process. After revising his plan, he commissioned John Webb, a cabinetmaker listed on Old Bond Street and an organizer of the Gore House exhibition. Webb most likely subcontracted much of the work to other cabinetmakers, and in particular to Henry Blake. The original mounts were likely copied using the most expensive and time-consuming processes available to nineteenth century bronziers in order to produce mounts of identical size and quality. To achieve this, the bronzier must have created either a squeeze or a wood model of the original and adapted it to accommodate for shrinkage. It is important to note that there are a few slight modifications from the Duke of Hamilton’s eighteenth century version. The nineteenth century version features slightly shorter bail handles and foliated cups on the bottom of the helical feet. While it has been argued that this indicates that Hertford did not copy from the Hamilton commode but rather from another now-lost example, it has also been suggested that the bronzier made slight adaptations while copying. The other mounts, which have been previously removed and directly compared to the ones on the Hamilton commode now at Petworth, are identical in detail.
Lord Hertford’s Legacy
Lord Hertford is documented owning three of these commodes and this is not unusual as he was generally known to have multiple examples of pieces he admired. After Lord Hertford’s death in 1870, his son, Sir Richard Wallace, inherited his father's collection, the apartment in the rue Laffitte, the chateau of Bagatelle, and the estates in Ireland. He soon also bought the lease of Hertford House. Upon Sir Richard Wallace’s death in 1890, the estate and its property were bequeathed to his wife Lady Wallace. Lady Wallace left the Hertford House to England, while her other properties were bequeathed to her secretary and principal advisor, Sir John Murray Scott. In turn, Sir John Murray Scott sold Bagatelle in 1900 and left the rue Laffitte apartment and a large sum of money to his friend Victoria Sackville-West upon his death in 1912. It appears that the commodes are documented again at this point in the Paris probate valuation of 2 rue Lafitte in 1912: “trois meubles de style Louis XV en marquetrie de cuivre… à deux tiroirs… quatre pieds cambrés a cariatides ailées”. It is curious that there are only three listed, which means that one was sold early on or it was mistakenly unaccounted for at the time. However, it seems clear that the four were indeed created as a group, as supported by the fact that they are marked in order (A, B, C, D). Additionally, upon close examination, it also appears that the walnut drawer linings were cut from the same section of wood. Lady Sackville eventually sold en bloc the art and furniture given to her by Sir John Murray Scott to Jacques Seligmann, a Parisian dealer. Seligmann sold the majority of the pieces during World War I and he included a penciled addition to the 1912 probate that there was a pair rather than three commodes, thus possibly indicating that the other pair was sold prior to his purchase of the stock. The pair from the Frick Collection came from Duveen Brothers in Paris, so the commodes could have been split between the two dealers meaning that this pair could be the ones sold by Seligmann.
Blake of London
As noted earlier, John Webb most likely employed the Blake family to reproduce the Duke of Hamilton’s commode while it was on display at the Gore House Exhibition. Webb and Henry Blake are documented working together on the Alnwick table for the Duke of Northumberland in 1865, so it seems likely that Webb went to them for assistance with the Hertford commission as well.
The Blake family has very few signed pieces to its name; however, there are several mentions of its members throughout the nineteenth century. Robert Blake was first described in the 1820 Directory as being located at 8 Stephen Street, Tottenham Court Road. By 1843, he was apparently either retired or deceased because the Directory lists George Blake and Brothers. Robert had four sons: Charles (b. 1814), Henry (b. 1821), George, and James. It appears that George separated from the brothers in 1843 when he was listed as being set up at 53 Mount Street, while his brothers in 1851-2 were still documented at Stephen Street. By 1860, George was no longer listed, and by 1866 Charles appears to be the sole Blake cabinetmaker. Charles continued the firm on Stephen Street throughout the 1870s. In 1879, upon his death, his effects were sold at Christie’s.
A pair of commodes of this celebrated model by Henri Dasson were sold in these rooms, October 27, 2007, lot 326 for $853,000.
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