11471 AN UNUSUAL SET OF TWELVE EBONIZED MAHOGANY BARLEY TWIST TURNED DINING CHAIRS IN THE ANTIQUARIAN TASTE, COMPRISING TEN SINGLE CHAIRS AND TWO CARVERS English. First Half of the Nineteenth Century. Measurements: Carvers: Height: 36″ (91.4 cm); Height to seat: 19″ (48.3 cm); Width: 24 3/4″ (62.9 cm); Depth: 25 1/2″ (64.8 cm). Side Chairs: […]
Of ebonized mahogany with gilded highlights. Each with padded backs set to each side with barley twist columnar supports headed by a square block set with gilded roundels and surmounted by a turned knop, and a conforming roundel-mounted block at the base of each upright. The carvers chairs with padded armrest raised on barley twist columnar support and joined to the backrest at another roundel-mounted block. The upholstered seat rests upon a plain frieze rail from which four barley twist legs emerge, each set with gilded ring around top, conforming roundel-mounted block at the base of each leg, and inverted cup shaped feet set with original brass casters stamped “Cope Patent.” The four legs united by a barley twist ‘H’ stretcher.
These early nineteenth century twist turned mahogany, ebonized and gilded chairs are a remarkable example of English Antiquarianism rendered in a form that is particularly true to seventeenth century design, which inspired them. The clever, copious use of gilded applied bosses gives clear reference to late Regency manufacture. The proportion and technical details of the chairs are interesting. They have an atypically long seat-to-back ratio and the twisted cross stretcher is set unusually close to the front legs. The very high quality construction of the chairs reveals the use of cross braces to fix the seat rails. Such a mode of construction is rarely seen on chairs after circa 1800, and gives rise to the view that they were made by a workshop still practiced in eighteenth century furniture making techniques. Furthermore, the use of mahogany as a wood that was to be ebonized is an extremely costly and sumptuous exercise. The usual wood for ebonized turning is beech, which would have been a fraction of the cost.
Twist turning initially appeared in England in the 1670s, first introduced on chairs whose frames had been “turned all over.” This type of turning had been employed in furniture elsewhere in Europe, notably Holland and France, although “it is difficult to confirm its attribution to any one source.”1 The first mention of such chairs occurs on a bill of the joiner Richard Price, dated 1672, ‘For 12 Back Chaire frames turned all over wth the twisted turne wth great Heeles,‘ for nine shillings each.2
The spiral so-called ‘Solomonic’ columns of the eponymous ancient temple in Jerusalem became a recurrent motif in Baroque architecture, particularly cathedrals. “The use of twist-turning on furniture follows the long established convention of treating chair and table legs as columns in miniature.”3 Because of its popularity in Catholic Europe it is possible the form may have appeared at the English court via Spain “through Catherine of Branzaga, wife to Charles II, when she furnished her rooms at Somerset House with furniture from her own country circa 1663.”4 Turned chairs with some form of upholstery were more costly and the survival of such examples is less common than those made entirely of wood. Examples of each can be found in the collections of great British country houses, such as a turkey-work upholstered chair at Tehmple Newsam House, circa 1680-90 (figure 1), and a caned backstool at Boughton House, circa 1675 (figure 2).
The present set of chairs repeats these elements and enriches them through the use of ebonized and gilt decoration and rich turning throughout the frames. They are an example of the select and connoisseurial fashion amongst the aristocracy for ‘antiquarian’ furniture that existed in England. The nineteenth century witnessed a considerable range of historical revival styles, with Grecian, Elizabethan, Italian Renaissance, Louis Seize, exotic, and Gothic designs consistently and simultaneously in fashion. Antiquarianism in its first phase was highly intellectual and rarefied, attracting patrons whose objectives were as scholarly as they were aesthetically pleasing, and who insisted on the correct use of authentic ornament and design, unlike the more fanciful fusions that later populated Victorian interiors.
The movement toward the reinterpretation of earlier designs was particularly strong in England, and connoisseurs that assembled celebrated and accurate antiquarian interiors included the gothic revival schemes of William Beckford (1760-1844) at Fonthill Abbey and Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) at Abbotsford. Designers like George Bullock and Richard Bridgens represented the premiere British exponents, providing interior furnishings for the aforementioned patrons. Bullock’s talent and success lay, in part, in his ability to master a range of styles. One of his major commissions was at Cholmondely Castle, where he executed furnishings in a weighty, carved gothic baronial style for Lord Cholmondeley. Sets of chairs with elaborately carved backs, twist turned supports and caning made for Cholmondeley and Abbotsford (for this reason are sometimes refered to as ‘Abbotsford Chairs’) were, like the present examples, based on 17th century prototypes. Bridgens collaborated with Bullock, and he too was known for his designs in the Scottish Baronial style, which was inspired by Renaissance architecture and relied on the use of dark, heavily carved woods. Popularity of the Baronial taste intensified after a visit to Scotland by George IV in 1822.
Both men also worked for Sir Godfrey Vassal Webster during his restoration in the medieval style of Battle Abbey, East Sussex. A stained and gilded oak chair made for the Great Hall, today in the Victoria and Albert Museum, is probably the work of Bullock to a design by Bridgens, circa 1815 (figure 3), and shares the same character as the present set of chairs. The style is also repeated in Rudolph Ackermann’s ‘Repository of Arts’ (1817) as a library chair, “for a bookroom in a mansion built in the seventeenth century.”
“The enormous popularity of historic revivals from 1800–1840 resulted in a corresponding demand for a range of designs for decorative brass mounts.”5 The brass castors of the present chairs, are stamped Cope’s Patent, confirming that the chairs predate 1841, when brass founders John and Charles Cope merged with Abraham Collinson, from then on styling themselves with the two names. Afterward the firm was in business in both Birmingham and London, exhibiting at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the Paris Exposition of 1855, and provided the gilt-brass mountings for such firms as Gillows and the Crace family of cabinetmakers.
1. Adam Bowett. English Furniture 1660-1714: From Charles II to Queen Anne, Woodbridge (2002), 72.
4. Philp, Peter. Furniture of the Renaissance to the Baroque – a Treatise on the Furniture from Around Europe in This Period. Read Books Ltd, 2016.