Lord Spencer’s Carved Satinwood Sofa probably designed by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart & John Gordon

Height: 40½" 103 cm
Width: 86" 219 cm
Depth: 36" 91cm
Origination: English
Provenance: 1st Earl Spencer, Spencer House, London
Circa: 1758-65

An upholstered three-seater sofa of carved satinwood, stained a mahogany colour, covered in green figured silk velvet. The carved serpentine top rail, rising to a central C-scroll cresting, is raised on swept, outscrolled arms with inverted-cabriole facings, over a seat with three aprons, each flanked by concave C-scrolls, and similar apron and C-scrolls on each side, supported by eight scrolled cabriole legs. The frame is carved with husks on the top rail, centring on a fleur-de-lis in the cresting, scrolling acanthus on the arm facings, and bead-framed palmettes on the aprons between fluted C-scrolls and flower-sprays in the spandrels, with echoing palmettes on the knees over fluted and beaded legs ending in spiral-scroll feet.

Supplied to John Spencer, later 1st Earl Spencer (1734–1783), probably for the ground-floor rooms at Spencer House, St James’s, London, 1758–65. Possibly transferred to Althorp, Northamptonshire, before 1814 (with the armchairs and stools en suite), returned to Spencer House circa 1847, and later taken back to Althorp; or possibly retained throughout at Spencer House until after 1847. At Althorp by 1911, when it was moved from the Patchwork Bedroom to the Picture Gallery.

H. Avray Tipping, ‘Althorp I’, Country Life, 11 June 1921, pp. 717, 719, photographed in the Picture Gallery
Albert Edward John, 7th Earl Spencer, Althorp, Furniture, MS catalogue, Vol. I (circa 1937 and later)

This sofa is one of a large number of pieces of the same distinctive model, but made in more than one set (with different decoration) in the late 1750s or early 1760s. Much the largest set, painted white and gold, was supplied to John Spencer (created Earl Spencer in 1765) for the Great Ball Room at Spencer House, the highly fashionable new town house overlooking Green Park (built 1756–65).  Lord Spencer commissioned other pieces of the same model but in polished wood, including the present sofa – probably also for Spencer House, but conceivably for Wimbledon Park, Surrey. Yet another suite of the same pattern, thought to have been oil-gilded originally, was formerly at Nuneham Park, Nuneham Courtenay, Oxfordshire, and must have been made for Simon Harcourt, 1st Earl Harcourt (1714–1777).

The incipient neo-classical design seems to be the result of collaboration between James ‘Athenian’ Stuart (1713–1788) – who replaced John Vardy as architect of Spencer House in 1758 – and John Gordon (fl. 1748–d. 1777), cabinet-maker and upholsterer, later in partnership with John Taitt. In the absence of the 1st Earl Spencer’s papers (apparently destroyed by his widow), the earliest record of his employing the firm dates from 1772 (with running repairs by Gordon & Taitt at Spencer House). However, it seems likely that John Gordon had long been retained by the family, not least since Lord Spencer’s steward, Thomas Townsend, acted as Gordon’s executor in 1777. Moreover, another set of chairs at Althorp (probably originating at Spencer House) is very closely related to a suite supplied by Gordon to the Duke of Atholl at Blair Castle in 1756–57 strengthening the evidence that he was involved in furnishing Spencer House from the beginning.  James Stuart’s involvement in the design is endorsed by the survival of the matching set from Nuneham Park, where Stuart was engaged by Lord Harcourt from 1760 to 1764 – coinciding closely with his work for Lord Spencer. Lord Harcourt and Lord Spencer, and indeed Stuart himself, were all members of the Society of Dilettanti; it was under the Society’s patronage that Stuart travelled with Nicholas Revett to Athens in 1751, resulting in the eventual publication of Stuart and Revett’s The Antiquities of Athens (1762–1794).

Comparison between the Spencer House model and the documented, slightly earlier suite at Blair Castle is instructive. On the one hand the present model is much more spatially dynamic, strongly hinting at an architect’s involvement. On the other hand there is a clear relationship, not least in rhythm, to Gordon’s earlier design, and such features as the cartouche-shaped back and the scrolling feet are more suggestive of a chair-maker’s thinking than an architect’s. Moreover, Stuart’s designs for a state room at Kedleston, circa 1757–58, already show chairs of much more uncompromising neoclassical form.   So it seems likely either that Gordon contributed to the development of the design, or that in executing a design by Stuart he freely interpreted it in his own idiom. Also suggestive of Gordon’s close interest in contemporary design is the appearance of ‘Mr Gordon, Upholder’ as a subscriber to William Chambers’s Treatise on Civil Architecture in 1759. How – or indeed whether – John Gordon was related to the elusive ‘William Gordon, cabinet-maker’, a subscriber to the first edition of Chippendale’s Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director (1754), is unclear.

The largest set of this pattern, comprising twenty-six armchairs, eighteen plain chairs and four sofas, was originally painted white and gold on frames of mahogany and lime.  This set was photographed at Spencer House in the 1890s, principally in the Great Ball Room (or ‘Great Room’) in the first-floor state apartments, the room for which it was almost certainly supplied originally.

A smaller group was made for Lord Spencer in polished hardwood – at least nine armchairs and eight stools of varying size, as well as the present sofa. Interestingly, these were made in different woods – the present sofa in satinwood (still discernible on unstained internal surfaces), the armchairs and stools in another exotic timber, which has been identified as sabicu.  The sabicu is of very uneven quality, however, so may well have been in short supply. This shortage could explain the decision to use satinwood for the sofa – the largest single piece in the suite – which would doubtless have been given a pinkish stain to resemble the sabicu pieces.

The original home of the sabicu/satinwood suite is uncertain. One possibility is that it was supplied for Wimbledon Park, Surrey, a Palladian house built for Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough in the 1730s, which Stuart transformed for Earl Spencer (Duchess Sarah’s great-grandson) over the same period as his work at Spencer House. Most of the contents of Wimbledon were destroyed, however, in a catastrophic fire in 1785.  It is therefore more probable that this suite originated, like the white-and-gold suite, at Spencer House. The room most likely to have housed this suite is the ground-floor family Drawing Room – where the sofa could have occupied the long wall opposite the north window.  This corner room (now the Library) sat between the family Dining Parlour and the Great Eating Room, which in turn led to the celebrated Palm Room, the climax of the ground-floor apartments.

The original Drawing Room suite was probably displaced during alterations carried out by Henry Holland from 1785, and it may have been removed to Althorp at the same time. Parts of this suite can perhaps be identified in an inventory of Althorp taken in 1814–19 (six ‘Large [Mahogany] Elbow Chairs’ dispersed between the Great Library, the New Library and Lady Spencer’s Sitting Room), but the suite is first securely recorded at Althorp in 1874, when an armchair was photographed in the Picture Gallery. Photographs taken from 1892 onwards show more of the suite in the same room (and some in other rooms), by 1921 including the present sofa.

In the 19th century, however, the sofa was altered and redecorated – perhaps because it had diverged in colour, over time, from the sabicu pieces. To judge by the remains of white paint on the underside of the sofa, it was perhaps redecorated to be shown with the white-and-gold suite at Spencer House. The white-and-gold suite was sent out for restoration in 1847, and on 4 November that year the architect Philip Hardwick wrote to the 4th Earl Spencer:

I have this morning been to Mr Wakeling, the upholsterer, & examined the furniture which had been removed from the principal rooms of Spencer House – it is very fine old furniture – the carving of the large sofas very good, & altho’ it will require a good deal of repairing, yet it appears to me to be well worth doing.  I received from Mr Wakeling the enclosed estimate of repairing & regilding it, which amounts to £580.  It is very difficult to form a judgement upon these estimates, but to have the furniture well done & restored in white & gold, as it was formerly, it does not appear an excessive estimate, altho’ the amount is large.

The adaptation and redecoration of the present sofa may well have been undertaken at the same time, possibly also by ‘Mr Wakeling’ – who was perhaps Giles Wakeling, ‘Upholsterer to the Admiralty’, of 36 Gerard Street, Soho, or a relative.  The seat was deepened, by inserting new blocks between the seat rails and the arms, thus grossly distorting the relationship between the arms and the back. The purpose of this drastic alteration was evidently to allow the seat to be sprung, and thick battens have been screwed to the inside of all four rails to support the webbing for springs. Since, however, no equivalent transformation was made to the four original white-and-gold sofas (or any other parts of that suite), it may be that this work was carried out in a different workshop (in London or locally to Althorp), at the same time or later. Indeed it is possible that, notwithstanding the clear evidence that this sofa was once painted, it was never actually shown with the white-and-gold suite. By the early 20th century it was again – or still(?) – at Althorp, in the Patchwork Bedroom, as noted by the 7th, ‘Curator’, Earl Spencer  (1892-1975) in his manuscript catalogue:

A fifth sofa, similar but in mahogany [sic] was in the Patchwork Bedroom, covered in chintz. In 1911 it was upholstered in red velvet and placed in the Picture Gallery.

The sofa was photographed in the Picture Gallery, reunited with the rest of the suite, in 1921 – its polished wood frame revealed again, but presumably stained to its present mahogany colour (The paint may have been stripped in 1911, or perhaps long before then since the 7th Earl makes no mention of this surface. It was in this form that the sofa was sold in 2010. Subsequently the 19th-century additions have been removed and the upholstery re-constructed, to restore the sofa’s 18th-century profile.

The recovery of the sofa’s original profile allows an important design to be fully understood once more – in itself and also in relation to the other parts of the suite. The arms no longer obscure the outline of the back, and they relate much more satisfactorily to the open arms of the matching chairs.

It is interesting to compare this suite to other near-contemporary seat furniture designed by architects experimenting with the new ‘antique’ style – such as the suite for the Painted Room at Spencer House, probably also designed by James Stuart, and carved by Thomas Vardy, circa 1759–65; or the suite made by Thomas Chippendale to Robert Adam’s design for Sir Lawrence Dundas in his nearby house in Arlington Street, circa  1764–65. While the latter two suites are more boldly neo-classical in their ornament, the present design may be seen to achieve an easier synthesis between form and decoration – perhaps a reflection of the chair maker’s role in developing the final model.

Peter Thornton and John Hardy, ‘The Spencer Furniture at Althorp’, II, Apollo, June 1968, pp. 442–46 (figs 6–7).

Six armchairs from this suite appeared at Sotheby’s, London, 3 July 2003, lots 104–107; the single chair in lot 104 was thought to retain its original oil-gilt surface.

Anthony Coleridge, Chippendale Furniture (Faber, 1968), p. 182 and figs 85 & 87; Thornton and Hardy, op. cit. (see note 1), pp. 445 (figs 8 & 9), 448 (the sabicu/satinwood suite there described as mahogany). Another suite of the same model as the Blair Castle set was formerly at Ditton Park, and is presumed to have been supplied to George Brudenell (1712–1790), 4th Earl of Cardigan and later 3rd Duke of Buccleuch. One chair from the Ditton set is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum (W.61–1962); see Ralph Edwards, English Chairs, revised by Desmond Fitz-Gerald (HMSO, 1970), pp. 23–24 and fig. 74.

Leslie Harris, Robert Adam and Kedleston, exh. Cat. (National Trust, 1987), pp. 26–29, cat. Nos 11–14 (four chairs shown on the chimneypiece wall, cat. No. 11).

Since John Gordon clearly specialized in making seat furniture, he is more likely than William Gordon, ‘cabinet-maker’, to be the ‘upholder’ who subscribed to Chambers’s Treatise.

Two armchairs from the white-and-gold suite are in the Victoria and Albert Museum (W.51&A-1984). Wood samples from an arm-rest and a back leg of one chair were microscopically analysed at the Museum in 1992, and identified, respectively, as lime (Tilia sp.) and mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla). Lime will have been chosen for its good carving qualities, and mahogany was presumably used for the elements of more structural importance. Other late 18th-century instances of mahogany serving as a support for painted or gilded decoration include the Adam bookcases made in 1776 by Richard Collins and painted by Antonio Zucchi, for Sir Watkin Williams Wynn at 20 St James’s Square (Eileen Harris, The Genius of Robert Adam (Yale UP, 2001), p. 267) and two commodes in the Lady Lever Art Gallery (Lucy Wood, The Lady Lever Art Gallery: Catalogue of Commodes (HMSO, 1994), cat. Nos 6 and 29, pp. 80 and 240–41).

Joseph Friedman, Spencer House: Chronicle of a Great London Mansion (Zwemmer, 1993), p. 143, fig. 121, photograph of the Great Room by Bedford Lemere, 1895. The white-and-gold suite was also photographed, in this and other rooms, in 1890 (ibid., p. 140, fig. 116, p. 255, fig. 227) and 1926 (ibid., p. 155, fig. 137). It was moved to Althorp circa 1926, and shown in the 7th Earl’s manuscript catalogue,Furniture, Althorp, Vol. I (circa 1937). Part of this set, recently fully gilded, was sold at Christie’s, London, The Spencer House Sale, 8 July 2010, lots 1016–17 (two pairs of armchairs) and 1018 (four plain chairs).

Some of the sabicu pieces were sold at Christie’s, London, The Spencer House Sale, 8 July 2010, lots 1005–1006 (two pairs of armchairs), 1007 (a pair of short stools), 1008–1009 (two long stools).

For Stuart’s work at Wimbledon see John Harris, ‘Newly acquired designs by James Stuart in the British Architectural Library, Drawings Collection’, Architectural History, Vol. 22 (1979), pp. 72–77, 144–46, plates 18–20. Some of the fabric and contents of the house were saved from the fire and sold at Christie’s, 14–16 June 1785. It is possible that some of the rescued furniture was also retained by the family.

This room, in the north-west corner of the building, was later remodelled by Henry Holland for the 2nd Earl Spencer, as a result of which the original north window is now occupied by the fireplace, the original fireplace in the centre of the east wall being displaced by the door from the entrance hall (which was formerly at the south end of this wall).

Hardwick’s letter transcribed in Spencer, Furniture, Althorp, Vol. II (1960s). The estimate included redecorating the suite in the Painted Room at Spencer House.

Geoffrey Beard and Christopher Gilbert (eds), Dictionary of English Furniture Makers 1660–1840 (Maney, 1986), p. 933. Giles Wakeling is recorded in trade directories up to 1839, but the same firm (seemingly) was recorded at 29 Crown Way as ‘Wakeling & Son’; possibly the son had taken over the business by 1847.

Spencer, Furniture, Althorp, Vol. I (circa 1937), entry on the white-and-gold suite, with photograph of a sofa, a plain chair and an armchair; reproduced in Christie’s catalogue, The Spencer House Sale, 8 July 2010, p. 56.