An English Commode in the French Taste

Throughout the 18th century the furniture produced in England and that made in Continental Europe was largely subject to the same changes in taste and fashion. Although there are always exceptions to the rule, it is fair to say that it was normally the French ébénistes who led the way and the fashions from Paris were soon adapted by cabinet-makers in the other major European capitals. English furniture tended not to follow the French example too strongly and there are numerous instances of the more abstract French rococo decoration being tamed down for the English market for example. Despite England and France being at war with each other for the large part of the 18th century, it is clear that there were many Francophile English patrons and the piece we are examining here in depth is a particularly striking example example.

This wonderful commode is part of a well-documented series of pieces which all employ the same exceptional ormolu mounts and basic overall outline. There are some differences within the group relating to drawer configuration and detailing, as well as the degree to the which the serpentine shape of the commodes is emphasised but overall the design is remarkably uniform and they are most likely to have been produced by the same workshop.

Lucy Wood discusses this group in great detail in her Catalogue of Commodes produced to study and accompany the collections of the Lady Lever Art Gallery in 1994 (see pages 43-53). The surviving commodes all share the same high-quality mahogany and the use of the same mounts which are copies of those used in France some 30 years earlier. In the Cleveland Museum of Art, in the USA, there is a French commode by Etienne Doirat, made in circa 1725, that uses mounts of the same pattern.

Comparing the Doirat commodes to our example there are obvious techniques that have been employed to adapt the overall French Regence design to the English market. The apron has been lowered and the feet dramatically shortened in order to incorporate a further drawer. This has led to a new style of mount being used on the feet of the English model. Appropriately for a piece based in an older design, the English commode could be described as little more restrained and conservative, though, of course, the effect of using a piece like this in a mid 18th century English house would have been noteworthy and daring at this time.

Like most English commodes, ours has a wooden top instead of the more typically French marble top. The ormolu mounts on both pieces are equally beautifully finished and there has been a certain amount of speculation as to whether they may have been produced in the same workshop or perhaps by a French emigre worker in London.

Although the early history of our commode is, at present, unknown, the provenance of other pieces from this group reads like a list of some of the most important houses in England of the period. There are five examples at Burghley House, used in both drawing and dressing rooms. The commode in the Blue Silk Dressing Room in the house is perhaps the closest comparison to our piece, sharing the same drawer configuration. There were also two pairs at Ashburnham Place, Sussex until they were sold in 1953, and a further two pairs at Blickling Hall in Norfolk. Single examples, all with slight variations, were also at Hackwood Park and Wotton House. In addition,there is a pair in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, acquired by Lord Lever in 1914.

Due to the survival of bills and invoices in many of the aforementioned houses and the family connections with the firm, it is possible to attribute the production of these commodes to the partnership of Vile and Cobb with a high degree of confidence. Of particular importance is a surviving bill from Blickling which is likely to relate to the production of the four commodes and another related example in the house. The price charged, £86 5s 9d in 1762 demonstrates the importance of these pieces and the high outlay that was involved in commissioning furniture of this quality. Lucy Wood discusses the attribution in great detail and believes that the firm may even have acted as sub-contractors for one of their London rivals such as Mayhew and Ince whilst working at Burghley.

Our commode was once owned by the celebrated London dealers H. Blairman and Sons who sold it to an American collector in 1957. Unusually it remained in the same private collection since then until now, and so has not been on the market for over sixty years. We are delighted to be able to bring this fabulous piece back into focus and give a new generation of collectors the opportunity to view, and perhaps even own, this masterpiece of English furniture.

The furniture historian R. W. Symonds wrote an article for Connoisseur magazine titled English Commodes in the French Taste in March 1957 and our commodes was featured as a leading example. He drew particular attention to the quality of the ormolu mounts, commenting that “the quality of the brass mounts of this piece is of the highest order, showing that after casting they were chased and fire-gilded. The design of the front corner mounted, with female heads and the key escutcheons with masks, is both pleasing and decorative”.

It is rare to find a piece from such a well-documented and desirable group of furniture so fresh to the market and we are delighted to show this piece in our gallery. It has everything a collector could wish for in a piece of English furniture, as well as retaining an impressive colour and fine patination.

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