The elegant and sinuous flowing contours of these chairs perfectly embody William Hogarth's celebrated Line of Beauty, and the pair represents a masterful example of the English Rococo in three dimensions. The design is clearly influenced by contemporary French chairs, as mid-18th century London craftsmen were fully aware of current fashionable styles from across the Channel. The celebrated cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale visited France in the 1750s, supplying the Earl of Dumfries with a French Boulle-inlaid writing table, and his contemporaries Ince and Mayhew's trade card inviting their customers to inspect an
'Assortment of French Furniture consigned from Paris'. Due to the high duties which were involved in importing furniture from the continent, several cabinetmakers were accused of smuggling, including Chippendale himself who 'attempted to pass a consignment of sixty unfinished French chair frames through customs at a suspiciously, low declared value of £18'.1
In 1772 a Parliamentary Commission heard evidence that the cabinetmakers John Cobb and James Cullen were also involved in smuggling.
This interest in French design obviously encouraged London cabinetmakers to produce their own furniture in this style, designs for which appeared in many mid-eighteenth-century pattern books including Thomas Chippendale's The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director (
1754), and William Ince and John Mayhew's The Universal System of Household Furniture
(1762), the relevant plates described as French Chairs.
The present pair was originally part of a much larger suite, other examples from which were sold Christie's, London, May 12, 1966, lot 65; Christie's, London, June 19, 1980; and Sotheby's, London, July 5, 1996, lot 57. A number of other related chairs are recorded, including an important suite of seat furniture acquired after 1864 from an unknown source by Sir William Cunliffe Brooks of Barlow Hall, Chester, and subsequently in the collections of Sir John Ward of Dudley House, Park Lane, London, and thereafter J.P. Morgan, Walter P. Chrysler and Paul Mellon (a pair of armchairs repr. in Hayward 1964). The design and execution of this suite is almost identical to the present chairs, other than the carved scroll at the top of the legs is more pronounced and the shells and foliate scrolls have slightly greater relief.
A further closely related group from Ditchley House, Oxfordshire was published by John Cornforth in 2000. In walnut and with the original English tapestry covers, they have the same profile as the present chairs and although some of the carved detail differs, they have the identical rope carving on the inner leg. Although no documentation has been found in the Ditchley papers which can be directly related to these chairs, the leading cabinetmaker, upholsterer and tapestry maker William Bradshaw (d
. 1775) was paid for upholstery work at the house starting in 1740 until July 1742, and he also completed an inventory of the contents.
1 C.Gilbert, The Life and Work of Thomas Chippendale, London, 1978, pp. 36-37.