A PAIR OF GEORGE III GILTWOOD SOFAS
The suite of golden seat-furniture, embellished in the Roman manner, was commissioned in 1764 by Sir Lawrence Dundas, Bt. (d. 1781) and designed by the architect Robert Adam (d.1792) for the principal drawing room of his London mansion at 19 Arlington Street. The richly carved and gilded frames of this set of eight 'French easy' chairs and four sofas, upholstered in crimson Genoa damask was executed by Thomas Chippendale, (d.1779) cabinet-maker and upholsterer of St. Martin's Lane and invoiced on the 9th July 1765.
In 1763, shortly after King George III granted his Baronetcy, Sir Lawrence consulted Robert Adam, architect to the King's Board of Works, for advice on the aggrandisement of his St. James's mansion overlooking Green Park. Adam, since his establishment of the family's Grosvenor Square practice in 1758, was revolutionising English interior decoration. His 'antique style' had been formed during a four-year study in Italy and was put into execution by his regiment of 'artificers' and Italian decorative artists. Adam charged £5 in 1764 for the design of the seat-furniture, which was to stand in the Dundas saloon or great room-of-entertainment on the piano nobile where it accompanied some of the finest paintings in Sir Lawrence's collection.
The suite was planned to line the walls of the room, and was upholstered en suite with its wall-hangings and curtains in a Genoa damask, which may have been ordered by Sir Lawrence's son, Thomas Dundas (d. 1820) during his Grand Tour in the early 1760s.
Adam's invoice, submitted on the 18th July 1764 for the 'Design of Sophas and chairs for ye Saloone' and a watercolour sofa pattern, inscribed 'Sopha for Sir Lawrence Dundas' are preserved amongst his drawings at Sir John Soane's Museum, London.
Sir Lawrence, a member since 1750 of an influential group of connoisseurs called the Society of Dilettante, was an admirer of his wife's 'taste' in furnishings and in a letter of 1762 described it as 'the best I ever met with'. Indeed, Lady Dundas was very much involved in supervising the furnishings of their various properties under the direction of Robert Adam.
The armchair pattern chosen for the 'Saloone' is an elegant rendition of the French-fashioned 'easy-chair', whose serpentined lines followed the picturesque Anglo-French style such as William Hogarth propagated through his 'Analysis of Beauty', 1753. This style was adopted by Thomas Chippendale for the armchair illustrated on his trade sign, when he established his St. Martin's Lane 'Cabinet and Upholstery Warehouse' in 1754. One of his 'French Easy Chairs' with cartouche back also served to illustrate the trade-card he issued in conjunction with his Scottish partner James Rannie (d. 1766), while others featured in his celebrated furnishing pattern-books, The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Directors, 1754-1762.
The additional plates in the third and final edition of the Director, which was dedicated to Prince William Henry, demonstrated Chippendale's awareness of the new style being introduced by architects such as Robert Adam and Sir William Chambers. The Dundas sofa pattern relates for instance to Chippendale's engraving of 1759 issued in the Director, 1762 (pl. XXIX). The latter was described as 'A sofa for a grand Apartment... and will require great Care in the execution', so Chippendale advised 'the workmen to make a Model of it at large, before he begins to execute it'.
At the time that Adam designed this suite, he had consolidated his reputation for having true 'taste for the antique' through the publication of the Ruins of Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro, 1764. So he treated the Dundas sofa façade as the bas-relief of a Roman sarcophagus, and introduced elements such as the confronted griffin, derived in part from the Roman temple of Antoninus and Faustina as illustrated in A. Desgodetz's Les Edifices Antiques de Rome, 1682. The composition can also be related to his studies of wall-decorations at the Villa Pamphili, Rome such as he introduced in his 1764 design for a monumental clothes-press for George William, 6th Earl of Coventry (d. 1809).
His sofa pattern, recalling Roman virtue, is conceived as a 'tricilium' banqueting-couch. It has a Cupid-bow cresting and rail, while its Ionic-scroll ends have flowered volutes echoing the Apollo-sunflower terminations of its roll-cushions. Its golden frame, enriched with elegant bas-relief ornament is supported by paired and serpentined feet terminating in lion-paws that are also appropriate for a sphinx or griffin. In the centre of the back, a Grecian palm-flower emerges from Roman acanthus that wraps the ribbon-tied reeds of the cresting; more palms embellish the seat-frame and trail entwined husks that enclose flowered paterae to form a ribbon-guilloche on the legs. Acanthus-husks also wreathe the cornice of the seat-rail, whose moulded base serves to support confronted eagle-winged and lion-bodied griffins that guard the central scallop-shell badge. Likewise, crouched sphinx emerge, in the 'arabesque' manner, from flowered acanthus-scrolls to guard the palm-flowers above the legs. These fabulous lion-bodied, eagle-winged and nymph-headed sphinx are the invention of ancient poets, while the central shell cartouche recalls the triumph of Venus.
Following Adam's charge in 1764 for the 'Design of Sophas and chairs for ye Saloone', was an entry of 3 guineas or 3.3.0 for the 'Design of Termes' for the same room; and the chair-leg ornament corresponds to the festoons of Roman acanthus-husks that entwine the tapering hermed pedestals intended for vase-candelabra. A pair of the latter, executed in ormolu by Matthew Boulton of Soho, Birmingham, comprised vase-bodies of bluejohn resting on 'Persian' caryatids that were inspired by figures in the Vatican Museum. (The candelabra and their stands are now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, nos. W2 and a-1934).
The decoration of the pair of Armchairs has been examined by Carvers and Gilders and has been tested by University College London. The armchairs are now water gilt, laid on to a gesso preparation, with both a yellow clay and a thin red/brown bole beneath. This current gilded surface was done approximately thirty years ago and there is no apparent evidence of the original oil gilding beneath.
The decoration of the Dundas sofas has also been examined by Carvers and Gilders and has been tested by University College London. This has revealed four layers of decoration on sofa IIII including evidence of the original Chippendale oil gilding carried out in five stages: the wood was coated with a thin layer of chalk gesso containing occasional particles of ochre and black; a clear coating of sealant was then applied; this was followed by a thin wash of yellow mordant based on fine ochre; gold leaf was applied to this mordant base; and followed by a final brushing of a clear, resin-based varnish over the surface of the gold. Three restorations followed: the first probably dates to the late 18th Century early 19th Century when much of the original oil preparation was removed, to be replaced by layers of gesso, yellow clay, grey/brown burnishing clay and water gilding; two subsequent layers of oil gilding have been applied at later restorations, the earlier of these was applied over a coat of lead white paint. Sofa II is water gilt, laid on to a gesso preparation, with both a yellow clay and a thin red/brown bole beneath. This current gilded surface was done approximately thirty years ago and there is no apparent evidence of the original oil gilding beneath.
Each with a serpentine padded back, outscrolled arms, serpentine seat and four loose cushions covered in crimson floral damask, the serpentine scrolled cresting bordered with foliage-wrapped reeding and centred by a pierced anthemion cresting, the arms and seat edged with husks, the arms carved with anthemions ending in sunflower rosettes, the deep seat-rail carved with a central shell framed by gryphons and sphinxes framing the legs, the cabriole legs headed by anthemions issuing descending wreaths, on hairy-paw feet headed by beaded girdles enclosing friction castors, the sides with sphinxes and scrolling foliage centred by wreaths, the back-rail plain; with beechwood frames, seat-rail facings, frontrail and legs in limewood; one sofa numbered on the back of the front-rail 'IIII' the other 'II'; sofa 'IIII' with the inner back left-hand foot, back right-hand foot and inner front right-hand foot partially replaced, the cresting broken and re-attached, later blocks, re-gilt; sofa 'II' with four pairs of batten-holes front to back, two cramping slots, the inner back right-hand foot and the inner front left-hand foot partially replaced, later blocks and small section of right-hand back angle bracket 1¼ in. (3 cm.) missing, re-gilt (see page 33) 86 in. (218.5 cm.) wide; 45½ in. (116 cm.) high; 36 in. (91.5 cm.) deep (2)
Supplied in 1765 by Thomas Chippendale to Sir Lawrence Dundas, Bt., for the Great Room, 19, Arlington Street, London.
Thence by descent.