The 4th Duke was a keen astronomer and was presented a 10’ Herschel Telescope by King George III in 1787. As part of his alterations and renovations to Blenheim palace the Duke instructed his architect William Chambers to design two observatories. In the 1797 inventory titled a New Description of Blenheim a ‘new commodious and elegant observatory …. Lately erected, amply furnished with the best astronomical apparatus’ is noted with ‘another corresponding observatory….., at the western angle’ (W. F. Mavor 4th edition). A note in the daybook at Blenheim dated 14 October 1785 - Came from Mayhews, A Pr. Of Mehogany Steps for the Observatory, confirms the Mayhew and Ince attribution as well as the intended purpose of the steps (Blenheim Muniments Room, Box XXII/74/7).
Library steps became increasingly popular throughout the 18th century. London cabinet makers were learning quickly to accommodate their patrons with furniture and accessories befitting their newly formed libraries. Nowhere was this more true than at Blenheim. William Chamber’s had designed a vast picture gallery taking up the entire west front of the Palace, however, the 4th Duke’s grandfather Charles Spencer, 3rd Earl of Sunderland left him the enormous Althorp collection of books. The picture gallery was quickly changed into a library to accommodate the books and swelled to a size of over 20,000 volumes. Since the Duke’s passion for astronomy began to wane and the observatories fell into disuse it is likely that the steps were moved into the great library circa 1800.
Other houses with fine library steps similar to the Blenheim pair include a set of two flight steps formerly the property of Edward John Peregrine Cust, 7th Baron Brownlow at Belton House, Lincolnshire sold Sotheby’s, London, 4 July 1997, lot 56. Thomas Chippendale the younger was also known to have supplied a set for the library at Stourhead, Wiltshire recorded in the firm’s accounts 19 October 1804. Percy Macquoid also notes another set with a Chinese fretwork frame formerly in the collection of Dyrham Park, Gloucestershire (P. Macquoid, R. Edwards, The Dictionary of English Furniture, 1954, p.288, fig.3.).
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