11329 THE KNOWSLEY HALL DINING CHAIRS AN IMPORTANT SET OF TWELVE CARVED GOLDEN OAK DINING CHAIRS DESIGNED BY JOHN FOSTER JR. (1786 – 1846) FOR THE STATE DINING ROOM AT KNOWSLEY HALL, SEAT OF THE EARLS OF DERBY English. Circa 1820. Measurements: Height: 39 1/2″ (100.3 cm) Width: 23 1/4″ (59 cm) Depth: 22″ (55.8 […]
Of oak. Each mid-green velvet deep buttoned back enclosed by cluster column uprights and horizontal rails carved with quatrefoil motifs. Each upright topped by a faceted finial. The buttoned detachable seats rests on Gothic carved paneled rails from which four cluster column and lambrequin carved legs issue. The rear legs raked. Each chair raised on original front brass castors.
12th Earl of Derby, Edward Stanley (1752 – 1834), Knowsley Hall, Lancashire
Christopher Gibbs, London
A Grand Connecticut Estate
Robinson, John Martin. “Knowsley Hall: Lancashire – II A Seat Of The Earl Of Derby.” Country Life. 24 June 1999: 131. (20th century copies of the set.)
These distinguished large-scale carved golden oak dining chairs in the Gothic Revival taste were made for one of the most remarkable dining rooms in Georgian England, that of Knowsley Hall, remodeled circa 1820 by the architect John Foster Jr. (1786 – 1846) (figure 1).
Knowsley Hall, Lancashire, is the seat of the Stanley family, Earls of Derby, and is considered “one of the great historic houses of England.”1 By 1776, Edward, 12th Earl of Derby (1752-1834), had inherited the house and initiated his own program of renovations. He proved himself a patron of architecture at Derby House in Grosvenor Square where he employed neoclassical architect Robert Adam. At Knowsley, the 12th Earl enlisted Capability Brown in designing the landscape, and Adam was once again summoned for remodeling. He provided extravagant plans for the new and old wings in the Gothic style, dated 1776-7, enlarging the house “into a vast castellated edifice (figure 2).”2 While these were never realized, a Gothic scheme was nevertheless taken up by John Foster Jr. of Liverpool, who began work some twenty years later, appearing in the account books from 1810 until renovations were completed in 1822.
The alterations of 1820 were prompted by a visit to Knowsley made by the newly crowned King George IV in 1821. The 12th Earl and his second wife, Lady Elizabeth, were known to entertain on a grand scale, and in preparation for the occasion the old Knowsley drawing room was replaced with a vast dining room. It seems certain that the suite forty-eight of chairs to which the present set belonged were supplied for this special purpose during Foster’s remodeling of the house. The medieval predilections of George IV were well known and highly influential, and the historical symbolism of Gothic design as a “royally sanctioned aesthetic”3 heightened its popularity in the 1820s.
There also existed a long-standing tradition of entertaining the royal family at Knowsley. According to The Stanleys of Knowsley, a history of the family written by William Pollard in 1868, “perhaps more royal visits have been made to Knowsley within the last few centuries, than to the seat of any nobleman in England, and…there is no aristocratic family in the country having greater facilities for entertaining royal guests than are possessed by the Earls of Derby.”4 The king’s apartments were first installed by Thomas, First Earl Derby, on the occasion of the visit of his son-in-law, King Henry VII, to Knowsley in 1495. By the time of the royal visit in 1821 they had been further modified, and the furnishings included a beadstead for use by King George IV outfitted with a footboard adorned by a large Prince of Wales’ feathers in gold and crimson velvet.5
Pollard also describes the newly refurbished dining room of 1820 as a “truly gorgeous interior [that] is entered by a massive carved oak door, sixteen feet in height…It is thoroughly out fitted up in gothic style including the ceiling, which is pierced in the centre, by means of which light is admitted by a lantern light, and suspended from the ceiling is a massive and elegant chandelier. The furniture throughout the hall is of elaborately carved oak, thus harmonizing with the gothic fittings of the noble apartment…On the east and west side of the hall, respectively, there are two large fire places, with massive white marble mantels. The drapery and general furniture is elegant whilst chaste, and the artistic decorations suberb.”6
In 1822 British politician Thomas Creevy provided further commentary in his diary: “We all dined at Knowsley last night. The new dining room is opened: it is 53 feet by 37, and such a height that it destroys the effect of all the other apartments…You enter it from a passage by two great Gothic church-like doors the whole height of the room…At the opposite end of the room is an immense Gothic window, and the rest of the light is given by a sky-light mountains high.”7
The suite of dining room chairs was later sold sometime after 1960 by Lord Derby, the 18th Earl. The importance of the chairs was acknowledged in 1979, when the British National Art Collection’s Fund financed the acquisition of twelve from the original set of forty-eight to form part of the permanent collection at Lord Byron’s ancestral home, Newstead Abbey (figure 3). The Abbey is today publicly owned by Nottingham City and houses a museum devoted to Byron memorabilia, where the chairs are displayed in the library. Furthermore, the set was considered so crucial to the history of Knowsley that the present Earl took the unprecedented step of having copies made of the entire set circa 1998. The whereabouts of the remaining original twenty-four chairs are as yet unknown to us.
John Foster, like his father, was a notable Liverpool architect. He studied under Sir Jeffry Wyattville, and traveled to the Mediterranean, where he accompanied English architect Charles Robert Cockerel and the German archaeologists Haller and Linckh, on their excavations in Greece. Upon returning to Liverpool he joined the family business and succeeded his father as senior surveyor to the Corporation of Liverpool from 1824-1834.
Foster worked in the Greek Revival style, designing such buildings as St. Andrew’s Church of Scotland, and The Oratory and Customs House in Liverpool. He also completed the Gothic style Church of Saint Luke and Moorish Arch, in the exotic taste. His knowledge of Gothic architecture can no doubt be credited to his training under Wyattville, nephew of James Wyatt, who himself, was responsible for a number of ambitious Gothic-style country houses and churches throughout England, most notably Fonthill Abbey. In 1813 Wyattville took over Wyatt’s work at the Gothic Ashridge House, Hertfordshire, for which he also designed furniture. As one of the leading Gothicists of the early nineteenth century, Wyatville went on to work for King George IV at Windsor Castle, which he remodeled “to an opulent standard” in the Gothic taste. As instructed, his alterations restored the castle to “a form, which, if it did not precisely resemble that in which Edward III. had left it, should be as nearly so as altered institution and habits might allow.” Sir Walter Scott noted that “Mr Wyatville […] appears to possess a great deal of taste and feeling for the Gothick architecture.”8
- Robinson, John Martin. “Knowsley Hall, Lancashire, A Seat on the Earl of Derby.” Country Life, 15 April 1999. 71.
- Robinson, John Martin. “Knowsley Hall, Lancashire-II, A Seat on the Earl of Derby.” Country Life, 24 June 1999. 130.
- Lindfield, Peter. Georgian Gothic: Medievalist Architecture, Furniture and Interiors, 1730-1840. , 206.
- Pollard, William. The Stanleys of Knowsley: A History of That Noble Family, Including a Sketch of the Political and Public Lives of the Right Hon. the Earl of Derby, K.g. and the Right Hon. Lord Stanley, M.p. Liverpool: E. Howell, 1868. 214
- Ibid., 210
- Ibid., 211
- Robinson, 24 June 1999, 131.
- Lindfield, Peter. Georgian Gothic: Medievalist Architecture, Furniture and Interiors, 1730-1840. Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2016. 206.