The study of English antique furniture is an ever-evolving field and new discoveries are made every year which shed new light on cabinet-makers and their work, sometimes leading to radical re-evaluations of styles and the dating and attribution of individual pieces. The systematic study of English antique furniture is a relatively new idea – the foundations of the field were not really established until the early 20th century and indeed many of the landmark publications studying this area date from the 1920s and 1930s. In that early period, it was common for scholars and enthusiast to attribute pieces of any quality to one of a very small number of makers – Thomas Chippendale unsurprisingly being the most commonly used of them all.
In our collection we have an exceptionally fine commode that has an illustrious documented 20th century provenance. Its early life unrecorded, the commode was exhibited at Temple Newsam in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain exhibition on Thomas Chippendale. The piece is illustrated in the catalogue and its obvious quality and exceptional design led the leading furniture historian Margaret Jourdain to attribute the piece to Chippendale. In a sign of the speed at which furniture history was developing in this part of the 20th century, by the time the commode was feature in an article in Connoisseur Magazine in June of 1955, the author was a little less confident that the piece was definitely by Chippendale – but no less impressed by the quality of the piece.
Recent scholarship, and in particular the sale of furniture from Stoneleigh Abbey in 1981 and the discovery of a cache of design drawings and other important associated items now preserved in the Winterthur in the United States, suggest that the maker of this piece is more likely to William Gomm. Gomm, born in Oxfordshire, began working as a cabinet-maker on his own account around 1725 in London and is known to have collaborated with the German emigrant maker Abraham Roentgen in 1730. The importance of the Stoneleigh Abbey commission is demonstrated by the sheer number of items supplied and the fact that invoices and accounts have been preserved in the family archives as well. This allowed further examination of pieces of similar style and quality and now there are a number of commodes believed to have been made by Gomm recorded.
This piece is a perfect example of one that has been always appreciated for its quality of design and execution, even though opinions as to the maker have changed and it may never be possible to say with absolute certainty which firm may have actually been responsible for its making. When the Connoisseur article was written in 1955, the commode was offered by the firm of G. Jetley of Bruton Street, one of the great dealers of the earlier 20th century – and they featured it heavily in their advertising of the period, continuing to illustrated the piece in a series of adverts in Connoisseur and other publications. This really is one of those pieces of furniture that has it all – colour and patination, superb proportions and carving, and the surprising and unusual feature that the top two drawer fronts are dummies, opening to reveal a pull-out secretaire drawer. The early 1950s attribution may not have endured but its reputation as a piece of the highest quality worthy of the best collections most certainly has.
Interestingly, another commode of related form can be attributed to the same Gomm workshop. The piece was previously owned by one of the great 20th century dealerships – in this case Stair and Company, who exhibited the piece at one of the great Grosvenor House Antiques Fairs. It shares the same extremely high quality carving as the previous example, but this time is made of yew-wood and has the most outstanding colour and patination.
We also have in our current collection a magnificent mid 18th century mahogany pedestal desk of quite wonderful colour and patination. An initial attribution to Chippendale would not be unfounded.
The proportions of this piece are especially fine – the graduation of the drawers is particularly well drawn and the desk stands beautifully – but there does not appear at first glance to be anything particularly distinctive in terms of its design. However, what makes this a particularly unusual piece is the drawer configuration of two long drawers over two banks of three shorter drawers. None of the major 18th century design books feature desks with this configuration – they all feature 3 long drawers on the top.
The recent “re-discovery” of an article published in Country Life by John Cornforth on 5th October 1978 is intriguing in this regards. The article focuses on a group of furniture made for Tythegston Court in Glamorgan and features a very fine pedestal desk made for the house which also features the two over three drawer configuration. The receipt for the desk survive, as does the original design drawing – dated 1770 – and it was made by Ludgate Hill (London) firm of Say and Kay. Say and Kay are largely unstudied today but were a major force in the London trade in the 18th century. Francis Say, one of the partners, was an original subscribers to Chippendale’s Director. As late as 1803, Thomas Sheraton included the firm in his list of master cabinet-makers is his Cabinet Dictionary and, given how fashionable an area Ludgate Hill was at this time (the Royal jewellers Rundell, Bridge and Rundell were here as was the Royal chandelier maker John Blades), it is clear that the firm would have had some very important clients indeed. In the Dictionary of English Furniture Makers 1660 – 1840 the firm is described as “one of the largest London upholders”. Other known work by the firm includes commissions for Petworth House in 1807 and Longford Castle in 1780-81 and 1790. No details relating to this work survives but accounts relating to a cylinder desk supplied to Sir Thomas Baring for the Manor House in Lewisham in 1798 have been preserved.
Although an attribution on the grounds of this evidence can only be tentative at this stage, it is hoped that further research into Say and Kay and their clients and commissions will be undertaken by scholars at some stage. As with the Gomm commodes, the quality of the desk is quite evident, with or without any attribution but it is the thrill of making little discoveries and piecing together the history of the pieces in our collection which help to make this field so exciting – whether as a dealer, collector or historian.