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Chair

  • Place of origin:

    Great Britain (made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1732 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Legs and seat frame of beech, pine and walnut, oil gilded, partially over a sanded ground; cover of green silk velvet, edged with silk braid; structural upholstery of linen, linen webbing and horsehair

  • Credit Line:

    Accepted by HM Government in lieu of Inheritance Tax and allocated to the Victoria and Albert Museum

  • Museum number:

    W.25:1-2002

  • Gallery location:

    Furniture, Room 133, The Dr Susan Weber Gallery, case BY4, shelf CASE1 []

This is one of a large set of chairs that were made to furnish the main state apartment at Houghton Hall in Norfolk. Houghton was built between 1722 and 1735 for Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745), England’s first prime minister. The first designs for Houghton were made by the architect James Gibbs in 1722. William Kent, who was establishing himself as a architectural decorator in the 1720s, took over decoration and furnishing of the main floor of the house in 1725. The chairs, with their impressive sculptural carving and oil gilded frames, are likely to have been designed by a chair-maker working under Kent's direction. They are very unusual in that they retain their original structural upholstery, and as such offer very important and interesting evidence of the methods of chairmaking and upholstery that were current in London workshops of the 1730s.

Physical description

Chair, the back rectangular with rounded top corners; cabriole front legs and heavily raked back legs terminating in paw feet, the top of the legs carved with lion masks; the deep seat rails curved in profile and carved in the centre front with a satyr mask and in the centre of the sides with shells, all flanked by scrolling foliage.

The chair is upholstered with a loose cover of green silk velvet, edged with silk braid. This removable cover is kept in place by a series of eyelet holes which hook over metal pegs fitted to the seat rails. Some of the chairs in the set of which this one is a part retain fragmentary evidence of their original silk 'scarves' - silk flaps that hung from the top edge of the back, normally out of sight behind the chairs, but which could be folded over to protect the front of the chair-back when in use. While these protective 'scarves' are mentioned in archival sources, these chairs are the only instance so far identified of surviving evidence of them.

The structural upholstery is of linen webbing, linen (ticking) base cloth, horsehair stuffing, and linen stuffing-covers. The webbing and base cloth is visible only in the seat.

The legs and seat facings are of oil-gilded walnut. In carved areas, the oil gilding has been applied as a layer of ochre-coloured oil or paint brushed directly onto the wood, with gold leaf laid on top. The sanded areas of the frame are gilded over a 'sanded' ground. Coarse sand was laid onto the wooden surface of the chair frame as the first stage of gilding; layers of ochre-coloured paint or oil, followed by gold leaf, were then applied on top of the sand. The use of a sanded ground is unusual on gilded chairs but became common in the 1720s on gilded picture and mirror frames, primarily those made in a William Kent style. On this set of chairs, the contrast between the smooth gilded surface of the carved sections and the duller matt finish of the sanded ground works to throw up the elaborate ornament of the carving.

The use of oil rather than water gilding is unusual in a set of furniture as grand as this one. It is likely that oil gilding was used to relate the chairs to the architectural gilding used elsewhere in the room, which used the same technique.

There have been some later changes to the surface of the chair. Small areas of both carved and sanded wood have been over-painted with bronze paint. In some areas, there is a second layer of sanding which is lifting off the chair. This second layer is found mainly over joints on the chair, and suggests areas where repairs have been made to cover opened cracks in the joints.

Place of Origin

Great Britain (made)

Date

ca. 1732 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Legs and seat frame of beech, pine and walnut, oil gilded, partially over a sanded ground; cover of green silk velvet, edged with silk braid; structural upholstery of linen, linen webbing and horsehair

Object history note

This is one of a large set of chairs that were made for Houghton Hall in Norfolk. Houghton was built between 1722 and 1735 for Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745), England’s first prime minister. The first designs for Houghton were made by the architect James Gibbs in 1722. William Kent, who was establishing himself as a architectural decorator in the 1720s, took over decoration and furnishing of the main floor of the house in 1725.

This set of chairs furnished Houghton's main state apartment. The chairs were made en suite with a spectacular bed designed by Kent and also hung with lavish green velvet hangings. The green upholstery and trimmings on both chairs and bed contributed to the overall effect of the room. The bedroom was dedicated to Venus, the Roman goddess of sleep and love, whose colour was green. In addition to the impressive green effect of the trimmings, other references to Venus were made throughout the room. The ceiling was painted with a scene of Aurora Rising; the room's frieze had a repeated motif of gilded cupids' heads and wings; and the room's tapestries showed The Love of Venus and Adonis,after Albano. The bed was topped by a double shell, referencing Venus's chariot.

The chairs in this set have a great structural presence and are stylistically very advanced for the 1730s. It is likely that they were designed by a chair-maker working under Kent's direction, rather than by Kent himself. This type of collaboration would have been unusual, with the chair-maker bringing to the process an understanding of the technical requirements of chair-making, while Kent was more concerned with the appearance of the finished pieces.

The chairs relate to another group from Houghton - a suite of burr-walnut and gilt chairs that, while very different in style, are also upholstered in green velvet. The use of the same ticking base cloth on both groups of chairs suggests that they were made -- or at least upholstered -- in the same workshop, and quite close to each other in date. The burr-walnut and gilt suite has been attributed to the London upholsterer Thomas Roberts junior, on the strength of his single surviving bill to Robert Walpole of c. 1729, which mainly relates to furniture supplied for Walpole's London houses (but which includes the supply of caffoy for the Saloon at Houghton).

Descriptive line

Chair, carved and gilded walnut, with green velvet cover trimmed with silk braid, Britain, ca. 1732

Labels and date

Chair
About 1732
Probably by Thomas Roberts Jr (active 1720s–30s)

England (probably London)
Beech, pine and walnut, mordant-gilded, partially over a sanded ground
Upholstery (original): under upholstery with top cover of silk velvet, wool and glazed linen, trimmed with silk braid

Commissioned by Sir Robert Walpole for Houghton Hall, Norfolk

Accepted by HM Government in lieu of Inheritance Tax and allocated to the Victoria and Albert Museum
Museum no. W.25-2002

This chair has been mordant gilded. There is no ground of gesso and bole. Instead, an adhesive was brushed directly onto the wood and the gold leaf laid on top while the surface was still tacky. The adhesive is ochre-coloured oil ‘size’. In some areas, sand has been used under the gilding to accentuate the superb carving.
[01/12/2012]

Collection

Furniture and Woodwork Collection

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