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A george ii gilt-brass mounted and marble topped carved mahogany serpentine

  • GBR
  • 2014-07-09
About the object
With an inset white marble slab, the top with a gadrooned moulding to three sides above a frieze drawer with a Greek key border and rosettes above three further drawers with finely chased gilt-brass gryphon and flame loop handles between corners headed by lion masks above tapered reserves of graduated overlapping discs ending in hairy paw feet, the underside with large castors
When considering this exceptional piece of mahogany case furniture it is necessary to examine the context from which it comes.  Helen, 8th Duchess of Northumberland (1886-1965) in her own catalogue, Alnwick: Furniture in the Collection of the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, which she had privately published in 1930, writes that the commode, recorded as item no. 27, came from the Smithson seat, Stanwick Park in Yorkshire (fig. 1).  This is further supported by a letter (Alnwick DP/DII/216), which almost certainly refers to the offered lot, this is from Lady Elizabeth Smithson, later the 1st Duchess of Northumberland (1716-1776) to her mother, The Countess of Hertford (1699-1754) and is dated 8 August, 1740, (fig. 2.) she writes: '...between the Window [in Sir Hugh Smithson's dressing room at Stanwick] stands cover'd with marble a French set of Drawers of mahogany much ornamented with brass gilt...'

The 'French' reference is interesting as it may well relate to the serpentine outline of the piece, and Lady Elizabeth would probably have been familiar with bombé and other shaped commodes from the Continent. She was very aware of the furnishings of others, through her visits to other great houses and the lively descriptions of other people’s possessions in her diaries are a testament to this. Although there is no unabridged published set of these diaries, see a collection of extracts which were edited by James Grieg, The Diaries of a Duchess, London, 1926.
Stanwick was the Smithson seat of Sir Hugh before his marriage to Elizabeth, the Percy heiress, and his elevation to Dukedom in 1766. From 1739-40, he was to embark on the extraordinary transformation of Stanwick, from a Jacobean pile to a Palladian mansion. This pattern of grandiose refurbishment working with the greatest architects and designers of the day was to emerge with his other great houses in the 18th century.

The influence of Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington and 4thEarl of Cork (1694–1753) and his circle, most notably William Kent (1685 - d.1745), is keenly felt when elements of the design of the house at Stanwick are examined. Features relate closely to the other commissions of this extraordinary group of visionaries, most notably Chiswick House, the great Palladian collaboration between Burlington and Kent which was completed in 1729. Stanwick was perhaps a collaboration again between architect-patron and designer; feasibly Smithson and Daniel Garrett (d.1753). In 1737 Garrett, Burlington’s chief clerk was to visit Yorkshire and design a decorative column surmounted with a statue of the Apollo Belvedere for Sir Hugh for the Park at Stanwick. A defined point when one of Burlington’s circle was to become involved with Smithson.
The commode also compares well with other important mahogany furniture from Stanwick in the Northumberland Collection which feature similar Kentian detailing and which date from the same period. These include a set of chairs now in the Entrance Hall at Alnwick Castle and cited by Helen, 8th Duchess of Northumberland as coming from Stanwick in her 1930 inventory (op. cit. item no.19). Furthermore Ralph Edwards and Percy Macquoid illustrate in, The Dictionary of English Furniture, London, 1927, vol. I., p. 270, fig. 137 a chair most probably from Stanwick. In addition there is a pair of serving tables, again with strong classical motifs, from Stanwick (one of which is featured in a drawing of the Dining Room reproduced here (fig. 4) and is illustrated by Lucy Wood, The Upholstered Furniture In The Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool, 2008, vol. I., p. 361, fig. 233.

Existing photos show that Stanwick (which was demolished in 1923) was designed along strict Palladian lines. It featured a number of classic Burlington and Kent inspired hallmarks, the use of open triangular pediments on the roof of the west side, principal rooms on the first floor or piano nobile and a grand saloon in the middle of the south front rising through two storeys. The dining room provides further evidence of a strong link with the unusual use of heavy console brackets to a high ceiling (fig. 4), the same bold devices used in the Blue Velvet Room at Chiswick House. A chimneypiece that features in an extant photograph of the interior (reproduced on page 50 of this catalogue), relates to those at Chiswick, Holkam and an example from Devonshire House, all important Kentian commissions. Carved panelling from Stanwick survives. There is a carved pine overdoor (almost certainly originally painted) now at the Nassau County Museum of Art (formerly the Childs Frick House) in Long Island, USA. It features a tied swag of tightly strung foliage. This was a device employed by Kent in marble chimneypieces at both Chiswick, Kensington Palace and at Devonshire House.
A fascinating architectural drawing by Burlington, for the elevation of the front of Richmond House – the lost London residence of the Dukes of Richmond – bears a striking resemblance to Stanwick Park and re-enforces the link between Garrett and Sir Hugh Smithson (see Rosemary Baird, ‘Richmond House in London, Its history: Part I’, in The British Art Journal, Vol. III, No. 2, Autumn 2007, p. 6). The house epitomised the elegant Palladian aesthetic of Kent. It was built between 1733-36 for the 2nd Duke of Richmond and was designed by Burlington. Garret  was put in charge of the project, in what would have been an important formative experience. Indeed, Sir Thomas Robinson, an acquaintance of the Duke of Richmond, noted that Garrett ‘had care and conduct of the Duke of Richmond’s House’ in 1736, no doubt enhancing his reputation amongst Burlington’s circle (Sir Howard Colvin, A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1660-1840, 3rd Edition, New Haven and London, 1995, p.393).

Interestingly, a comparable pair of commodes, the carving of which is attributed to John Boson, IS believed to have formed part of the contents at Richmond House, along with other important pieces of Kentian furniture now in the Duke of Richmond’s collection at Goodwood House (see Rosemary Baird, ‘Richmond House in London, Its history: Part II, Contents and later developments’, in The British Art Journal, Vol. III, No. 3, Winter 2007-2008, p. 6). William Kent was linked to some of the very best cabinet-makers but two, with regards to the offered lot, are particularly relevant, John Boson (ca.1696-1743) and Benjamin Goodison (ca. 1700-1767).

There is also an extraordinary pair of commodes or ‘tables’ fitted with drawers and kneeholes which relate to the Stanwick commode in the collection of The Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth, see Susan Weber (ed.), William Kent, New York, 2014, p. 507, fig.18.13. These were produced for Chiswick House and are linked to Boson through the rare survival of a bill from him at Chatsworth, dated September 11, 1735 addressed to Lady Burlington, he writes;

‘Carving done for ye Honble Lady Burlington' as To two mahogany tables with folidge & other ornament modles for ye brass work etc. £20=0=0’.

In a letter dated 17th April 1735 to her husband, Lady Burlington writes ‘I hope signor has remembered about my tables and glasses’. Signor was the nickname Lord Burlington’s circle gave to William Kent (see Geoffrey Beard, Some Thoughts on Benjamin Goodison, Partridge Fine Arts Catalogue, London, 1988, p. 19). This could well link Kent with these Chiswick 'tables' and a pair of pier glasses ensuite. The similarity in design between the 'tables' and the present commode is very strong. Both have finely executed borders of architectural detail, borders of egg and dart, feature carved acanthus, have finely designed carved corners surmounted by animal masks, are of an unusual shape and feature lavishly worked gilt-brass pierced handles. Tellingly they also feature in an evocative drawing by William Kent of Lady Burlington in the Garden Room at Chiswick from around 1740 a further compelling reason to associate Kent with their design. Also see a large mahogany and parcel-gilt sideboard in the Royal Collection (RCIN250), very much in the style of William Kent, which again shares many of the characteristics outlined above and with its three arched recesses is very like Lady Burlington's commission for Chiswick

However perhaps the most likely hand that can be associated with the Stanwick commode is Royal cabinet-maker and student of James Moore, Benjamin Goodison.
There is a pair of commodes in the Royal Collection (RCIN. 4649), attributed to Goodison, which out of all the comparative case furniture from that period and other ‘Kentian’ pieces relate most closely to the Stanwick commode, one of the pair illustrated, Desmond Shawe-Taylor (ed.), The First Georgians, Art and Monarchy, London, 2014, cat. no. 117. This pair was commissioned by Sir Thomas Robinson of Rokeby (1702-1777) for his Yorkshire seat. The similarities, most notably a Greek Key frieze punctuated by foliate rosettes, tapered corner pilasters headed by lion masks bearing rings and scrolled angle brackets, are very strong. The Rokeby commodes and a library table (now two pier tables, also in the Royal Collection, RCIN. 251) have been attributed to Goodison on the basis of shared characteristics found on a library table at Boughton House, Northamptonshire. This was supplied by Goodison to John, 2nd Duke of Montagu around 1737-1741, see Oliver Brackett, Thomas Chippendale, A Study of his Life, Work and Influence, London, 1924, p.151, Pl. IX. Surviving invoices suggest Goodison to be the principal supplier of furniture to the Duke (Geoffrey Beard, Two Eighteenth-Century English Furniture Puzzles Reassessed, in Studies in the Decorative Arts, Fall 1993, pp. 119-121).
Rokeby Park is located not far from Stanwick and the two aristocrats are likely to have known each other. Like Chiswick House, Rokeby was also designed in part by its owner and is also linked with the circle of Lord Burlington and Kent. It was Sir Thomas and the Earl of Carlisle who, along with Sir Hugh, were to invite Daniel Garrett (Kent and Burlington's protégé) on his tour to the north of England in 1737. Robinson was an artistic man with a passion for architecture and sculpture. He was very conscious of the work of leading architects and designers and most probably the cabinet-makers they employed. He was familiar with the work of William Kent, having visited Houghton. He wrote to his stepfather, the Earl of Carlisle about the house on the 9 December 1731, ‘the finishing of the inside is… a pattern for all great houses that may hereafter be built: the vast quantity of mahogany, all the doors, window-shutters, best staircase & C. being built entirely of that wood: the finest chimnies of statuary and other marbles; the ceilings in the modern taste by Italians…, the furniture of the richest tapestry, &c…’ (James Yorke, The Very Valuable Household Furniture and Other Effects, of Sir Thomas Robinson Bart. Dec., Furniture History, 1994, Vol. XXX, p. 154.)
This Stanwick commode is of superb quality and represents the very best in the history of design and the talents of cabinet-makers in the extraordinary period from which it comes. It is also important in the history of English furniture, a point that should not be underestimated. The reference to it in 1740 by Lady Elizabeth, later 1st Duchess of Northumberland, one of the greatest collector-patrons of the 18th century, is fascinating and an indication of the successes and wealth of not only its owners but an entire nation. Excitingly though it is the evocative reference from 1740 which adds to its importance, one of the very earliest known references to a mahogany chest of drawers in the world.

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* Note that the price doesn’t correlate with today’s value, but only relates to the actual end price at the time of the purchase.

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