Today we are taking a close look at one of our most recent acquisitions, a very fine George II mahogany armorial hall chair attributed to William Hallett. The chairs features a scallop-shaped, frilled, and paper-scrolled back, centred with a scrolled and lambrequinned cherub mask carved coat of arms. The outswept scrolled arms on spreading supports flank a solid shell-carved seat, and the chair is raised on shaped and moulded cabriole legs united by a stretcher.
This banqueting hall armchair is embellished with the arms of Anne Basset, nee Prideaux (1718-1760). Anne was the the daughter and co-heir of Sir Edmund Prideaux, 5th Baronet of Netherton. She was also the widow of John Pendarves Basset (1713–1739) and mother of John Prideaux Basset (1740-1756) of Tehidy Park, Cornwall. The Basset family, one of the most powerful families in Cornwall, made their fortune from mining local tin and copper.
The Arms are depicted on a lozenge, which indicates that they are for a widow. The small central shield representing the Prideaux family is placed on the shield of the Basset family in this way when the wife is an heraldic heiress.
Anne Basset Prideaux
In 1734 John Pendarves Basset commissioned the building of a new mansion house, the first truly neo-Palladian house in Cornwall, a four-pavilioned house influenced by the designs of Thomas Edwards of Greenwich. When John Pendarves Basset died in 1739, his brother Francis Basset (d.1769) took possession of the estate. When it became apparent that Anne Basset was pregnant with the son of her posthumous husband, Francis passed the house onto the heir apparent, John Prideaux Basset.
A wonderful portrait of the young heir John Prideaux Basset was commissioned in c. 1747-48 to Allan Ramsay (1713-84), who relished the extravagant possibilities of the costume that is designed to recall Van Dyck’s portraits of the young Charles II. The portrait was sold Christie’s London, 10 June 2003, Lot 34.
Sadly, John Prideaux Basset died May 28th 1756 at the tender age of sixteen, and Tehidy Park passed to his uncle, Francis Basset MP, who, in order to cement his position as a new lord of the manor, and to celebrate his marriage to Elizabeth St. Aubyn that same year, commissioned a splendid suite of hall furniture in the same taste and almost certainly from the same workshop as the present chair.
After her son’s death Anne Basset left Tehidy, settling at Haldon House, Devon, which was considered one of the finest residences in the county, modelled after London’s Buckingham House. She purchased Haldon from Sir John Chichester, 5th Baronet (1721-1784) and was resident there in 1758. It is most likely that she commissioned a suite of banqueting hall seat furniture among other furnishings for the new house. Being a young wealthy widow in 1756, Anne Basset was probably ready for a new marriage: that would perfectly explain the look of new hall chairs and settees, proudly displaying her coat of arms, that of an heiress of two wealthy and powerful families. Nothing is known about a brief period of her life at Haldon House, which was sold after her death in 1760 to John Jones, Esq.
Design and Comparable Examples
The present chair relates to a design illustrated in the third edition of Thomas Chippendale’s Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director, Plate XXIV, figure C, showing an open armchair with a similar back and seat both carved in the form of a shell. The renowned cabinetmaker notes that this design is ‘proper for Grottos,’ as well as for ‘Halls, Passages, or Summer-Houses.’ Chippendale goes on to state, ‘The backs may be cut out of the solid Board, and fixed on the Back Edges of the Seats,’ and this can be seen in the seat construction of the present armchair. The elegant S-shaped profile and form of the front legs of the present example appear on plate XVII of The Director.
The present chairs may be compared with a number of other recorded examples in a similar fashion, which, owing to their close similarities, almost certainly emanate from the same workshop. These include a suite of ten chairs and two settees from Tehidy Park, Cornwall, carved with the arms of Basset quartering Pendarves impaled with St Aubyn (a pair from this set was sold Christie’s New York, 18 October 2005, Lot 450, realised $284,800); a set of ten side and two armchairs from Tythrop Park, Oxon, with painted crests, and a set of six padouk side chairs and two armchairs, from St. Giles’ House, Dorset, supplied to the 4th Earl of Shaftesbury (1711-1771). Another set is recorded with the arms of William Henry Nassau de Zuylestein, 4th Earl of Rochford, and a single unprovenanced example is illustrated in F. Davis, A Picture History of Furniture, p. 259. All of these have backs and seats in the form of shells, supported on frames and legs of the same profile as the present chairs. The legs and stretchers are variously carved and pierced, all the back legs being plain with pad feet, as in the present example.
The present chair bears strong similarities in design, construction and quality of carving to hall chairs supplied to Tehidy Park and St Giles House, and most likely emanate from the same workshop. All of these chairs have the distinctive paper-scroll bases to the backs, and share a closely related design for the arms and the same pattern and construction of the front and back legs and stretchers, differing only slightly in the profusion of decoration. It is very likely that Anne Basset ordered these chairs from the same workshop and possibly she ordered them together with Francis Basset, her late husband’s brother and heir. Francis Basset’s hall chairs, while being probably the most sophisticated examples of all this group of hall furniture listed above, share even more decorative and constructional features with the Earl of Shaftesbury’s chairs, supporting the suggestion that they all might have been made in the same workshop. Although the maker of the St Giles House hall chairs is uncertain and they have never been attributed, it is known that William Hallett, one of London’s most fashionable cabinetmakers of the day, supplied a large number of seat furniture to the 4th Earl of Shaftesbury between 1745 and 1752, for which he was paid £167 on February 2, 1745. Later, three smaller payments followed, but it remains uncertain whether the hall chairs were among those commissions.
Notably, the present chair shares a very similar, although a more restrained design of the armrests and nearly identical back legs, with a pair of open armchairs, attributed to William Hallett, supplied to St Giles House and later sold Christie’s London, 27 March 1952, lot 76 and 7 May 1953, lot 21. Both lots were purchased by Samuel Messer, one of the most discerning collectors of fine English furniture, and were subsequently sold Christie’s London, 5 December 1991, Lot 63. These armchairs also display a distinctive pierced motif to the backs, similar to the Tehidy chairs.
This chair bears all of attributes of an exceptional piece of Georgian furniture: a traceable and interesting provenance, strong stylistic features of leading cabinetmakers, and a most elegant and sophisticated design. What more could you ask for in a chair?