It was at this point in Ragley’s long history that the present lot most probably entered the collection. Various account books, detailing the Earl’s expenditure from 1755 - 1764, kept in the Warwick Record Office reveal a very interesting commission. Unfortunately the accounts do not detail exact pieces; however, numerous payments are made to a Mr. Vile Upholsterer from 1758 – 1762. On 25th July 1758 the Earl paid £55 16s. to Vile this was followed by a payment on 6th June 1759 of £350 5s (fig. 1) and a payment on 20th March 1762 of £97 9s. (Hertford Papers, CR114A/201C). Given the quality of the furniture thought to have entered the collection between these dates, including the celebrated Ragley lacquer Commodes (also attributed to Vile and Cobb), it is highly likely that the Mr. Vile in question is William Vile (1700 – 1767) the partner of John Cobb (1710 – 1778).
Vile and Cobb
The partnership of William Vile and John Cobb was first listed in the London Directory in 1750 and continued with great success until 1764 when William Vile retired, with John Cobb continuing to trade until 1778. Favoured by George III and Queen Charlotte, a great deal of their work was by Royal commission. Backed by the great cabinet-maker and later court gentleman William Hallett the pair were also patronised by a number of Hallett’s former clients including the Duke of Beaufort for Badminton and the Earl of Leicester for Holkham. Commissions are also recorded from the 2nd Duke of Cleveland of 19 St James’s Square, the 1st Lord Harrowby of Sandon Hall, the 6th Earl of Coventry of Croome Court, and Sir Lawrence Dundas of Moore Park, Arlington Street and Aske Hall. Vile’s name, together with his partner’s, was included in the Great Wardrobe accounts for the first time in the quarter ending Lady Day, 1761, the accounts for the period 1761-65 being filled with details of their work for King George III.
Although no published designs exist for the firm and they did not mark their furniture, known pieces produced by Vile & Cobb provide a visual guide to the characteristics they typically employed. The architectural form of this imposing yet refined secrétaire-cabinet is clearly imbued with the spirit of the architect, designer and influential tastemaker William Kent (c. 1685–1748). Straddling the divide between the heavy architectural style of Palladianism as executed by William Kent in the 1730s and 40s and the lighter and more feminine Rococo style of Thomas Chippendale gaining popularity in the 1750s, Vile and Cobb furniture is recognisable through its references to the popular styles of the time but also by its extraordinary quality.
The triangular segmented and cross banded veneers to the fall-front secrétaire and flanking cupboards in the present lot can be seen in a range of furniture attributed to Vile and Cobb. A cabinet on stand of similar scale in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, shows the same technique employed on its central panel (W. 75-1962). The carved pilasters headed by corbels are also symptomatic of Vile and Cobb’s output. Inspired by the work of William Kent, as seen in a similar cabinet formerly in the collection of The Dukes of Northumberland of more austere form (sold Sotheby’s, Treasures, 9 July 2014, lot 8) Vile and Cobb used the Romanesque form and decoration to ground their work in the neo-Palladian style which was coming back into fashion.
However, the most pertinent comparison to the present lot is one of strikingly similar form and execution formerly in the collection of Sir William Beauchamp-Proctor at Langley Park, Norfolk (fig. 2). Previously thought to be by Thomas Chippendale (sold Sotheby’s, New York, 1994, lot 44) it bears identical segmented veneers to the fall front of the secretaire and very similar carved floral swag decoration. Archival research at the Norfolk record office has uncovered that both William Hallet and Vile and Cobb worked at Langley Park for the Beauchamp-Proctors (BEA 305/71). The link between the two cabinet making firms has been established above and Vile and Cobb often continued to work for clients that William Hallet formerly supplied furniture to. The bills paid to Mr Vile are in 1754, just pre-dating the commission at Ragley. One can suggest that it was at commissions such as Langley Park that Vile and Cobb began to perfect their own identity and style - which can be seen in the present lot.
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