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Cupboard

  • Place of origin:

    London, England (designed)

  • Date:

    1764 (designed)
    1764-1766 (made)
    1767 (altered)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Robert Adam, born 1728 - died 1792 (designer)
    Cobb, John, born 1710 - died 1778 (cabinet-maker)
    Alken, Sefferin, born 1717 - died 1782 (attributed to, carver)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Carved and veneered mahogany, on a carcase of mahogany and softwood; drawers of oak with mahogany fronts

  • Museum number:

    W.20:1 to 24-1978

  • Gallery location:

    Furniture, room 133, case BY9, shelf EXP

  • Download image

But for the very full records relating to this magnificent cupboard, we would have no idea that it has been radically altered. It began life as part of a much larger wardrobe, designed by the architect Robert Adam in 1764 for Croome Court in Worcestershire, the country house of George William, 6th Earl of Coventry. The wardrobe was completed by the London cabinet-maker John Cobb in 1766, but the following year Cobb converted it into two smaller cupboards, of which this is one. Adam’s design survives, so we know that the original wardrobe had a further ‘attic’ storey, above the cornice, and a higher, more elaborate base plinth. The present cupboard is formed from the two outer sections of the original wardrobe, and is supported on an entirely new plinth, decorated with ribbon-tied husk swags.

The carved ornaments were made separately and applied to the carcase, which could therefore be planed down and veneered to give a completely smooth background surface. The carvings from the original clothes press are exceptionally vivacious and refined. They were almost certainly supplied by the specialist carver Sefferin Alken, who regularly carved ornaments for furniture by Cobb and his partner William Vile (who retired in 1764). The swags on the new plinth are very competent, but not of the same high quality, and were most probably carved in John Cobb’s workshop at the time of the conversion.

Physical description

Design
A large mahogany cupboard with two doors enclosing twenty drawers, decorated on the front with applied carvings of classical ornament, including two caryatid pilasters flanking the doors. The cupboard is of architectural design, the doors and pilasters raised on a plinth of dado height, and supporting a deep frieze and cornice. It is designed to be read primarily as a façade.

The doors are each divided into one tall panel between two small top and bottom panels, all framed by an enriched cyma reversa moulding. They are decorated with foliate arabesque ornament, centred on an urn in each main panel, a smaller urn in each top panel and a pair of addorsed griffin terms, with scrolling tails, in each bottom panel. The tapering pilasters on either side are decorated with interlaced drops of laurel leaves enclosing rosettes, with a larger rosette in the blocking above, and a plain, short moulded plinth below. Above the blocking, the full-frontal female bust, in high relief, is carved with long locks of hair tied across her breast and with a collar of formal lambrequins over loosely folded drapery. The frieze above, separated from the doors by a torus moulding, is carved with alternating splayed foliate palmettes (including one in each blocking above the pilasters) and enclosed anthemia (stylized honeysuckle), linked at the bottom by eight elongated S-scrolls. The cornice is carved with a series of mouldings – in ascending order, leaf-and-dart, dentil, fascia, waterleaf and a larger, inverted variant of leaf-and-dart. In this large top moulding each end of the long middle section is oddly left plain – perhaps resulting in some way from the adaptation of the cupboards. The plain plinth, finished beneath the doors by a guilloche torus moulding and a cyma reversa moulding, is faced with two leaf paterae above two wide swags of husks tied by three ribbon bows.

The cupboard sides are minimally decorated with panels and mouldings corresponding to those on the façade, but with no applied carvings.

The doors, the frieze, the cupboard sides and the plinth are veneered in mahogany, which is mitred at the corners of the doors and cupboard sides. All of the ornament is carved separately and applied to the veneered surfaces, or to the solid mahogany in the case of the pilasters.

The interior of the cupboard is fitted from top to bottom with mahogany-fronted drawers, in two tiers of ten, each with a single brass bail-handle.

Construction
The cupboard is made in three principal sections: the plinth, including the mouldings at the top; the two-door cupboard section, excluding the mouldings at top and bottom; and the entablature, including the torus moulding above the doors. The cupboard houses twenty drawers, in two tiers of ten, but there is no access to the plinth or the entablature. The two tiers of drawers are each housed in separate cases, reflecting the origin of this cupboard as two wings of the original clothes press.

Condition
In both side sections of the cornice, the back half is a replacement, very coarsely carved. Probably the cupboard was at one time fitted into a tight recess, and the cornice cut out for this purpose. On the foliate motif above the right bust, the top tip is also replaced.
[key] Key to cabinet, English, new.

Place of Origin

London, England (designed)

Date

1764 (designed)
1764-1766 (made)
1767 (altered)

Artist/maker

Robert Adam, born 1728 - died 1792 (designer)
Cobb, John, born 1710 - died 1778 (cabinet-maker)
Alken, Sefferin, born 1717 - died 1782 (attributed to, carver)

Materials and Techniques

Carved and veneered mahogany, on a carcase of mahogany and softwood; drawers of oak with mahogany fronts

Dimensions

Height: 261.8 cm, Width: 188.7 cm, Depth: 79.2 cm, Weight: 340 kg

Object history note

From about 1760 Robert Adam had been engaged in decorating the interiors of Croome Court, Worcestershire, for the 6th Earl of Coventry. On 2 October 1764, Adam produced two coloured drawings of a 'Cloaths [sic] Press for the Earl of Coventry' (London, Sir John Soane's Museum, Vol. XVII (nos. 212 - 213)), for which he charged his client £7 7s. (£7.35p.), with an additional £2 2s. (£2.10p.) for "drawing at large of the ornaments and mouldings of ditto". As Adam's Bill of June 1765 (Croome Court Estate Office) states, the clothes press was intended for "My Lady's Bedchamber". John Cobb charged £137 12s. (£137.60p.) for the manufacture of this piece in his bill of 26 February 1766 (Croome Court Estate Office, F60/29):

For a Large Mahogany Wardrobe, 26 Drawers and 13 Sliding Shelves in the middle part with pannel Doors before the Drawers and Shelves in bottom and top part, a Dental Cornice and 4 Terms in front and a fret in the Attic parts, and fixing on all the Carved Ornaments on the pannel, &c, Extra good Locks to lock twice, and a Master Engravd Key and fixing up the whole in the Roome Compleate 129,, ,, ,,

For Lineing the Shelves with Baize and Baize Flaps to Ditto 3,, 12,, ,,

April 12th
For Varnishing the Large Wardrobe in the Roome 5,, ,, ,,

While this item included "fixing on all the Carved Ornaments", no charge was made for the carvings themselves, which were therefore clearly subcontracted. Although no document has emerged to prove conclusively that they are the work of Sefferin Alken, there are copious bills for elaborate and extensive carving that he produced at Croome Court, including other collaborations with John Cobb. On this evidence, combined with the very high quality of the applied carvings, his authorship seems indubitable.

On 23 July 1767 John Cobb charged £96 for converting the clothes press into two cupboards, each with a new cornice and a new base: "... Making it into two with Carvd Ends and Mouldings Making the Top part into two with a Carv’d Cornice & Carvd Ends – and a large Plinths [sic] to each with Carv’d swags of Husks, & varnishing the whole ...". The V&A cupboard was formed from the two outer sections of the original clothes press, and the wide middle section was made into the companion cupboard, which is now at Bolling Hall, Bradford.

According to Adam’s drawing for the original clothes press, the frieze below the attic incorporated three whole and two half anthemia in the central section (which was presumably retained for the conversion of the other, slightly narrower cupboard) and two whole and four half anthemia in the outer wings. The present cupboard, however, has three whole and two half anthemia in this frieze – like the smaller cupboard – and none of the whole anthemia are joined from two halves. So one of them must either have been carved new for the adapted cupboard or taken from a part of the original clothes press not shown in Adam’s drawing. The first possibility does not seem likely, as all the anthemia are of the same crisp character (indeed there is more discernible difference between the two anthemia at the bottom of the main door panels, the left one being carved more deeply than the right one). However, it may be that, in the original clothes press, these and other elements of the carving extended around the sides. So the almost exclusive focus on the façade may be a feature of the adaptation more than of Adam’s original design.

By contrast with these anthemia, there is a very clear difference in quality between the foliate palmettes on the frieze and those on the flanking blockings, surmounting the pilasters: the latter are more bushy and less crisply and confidently carved. These motifs are not shown in Adam’s design (which has fluted blockings in the equivalent positions). Moreover, they differ slightly from the others in design (at the bottom), so could not have been simply imported from the sides. So they were almost certainly carved new for the adapted cupboards.

Adam’s original drawing shows an attic surmounting the cornice – four vases on pedestals, above the pilasters, linked by a Greek key frieze. Cobb’s bill implies that this section was originally executed, as it mentions ‘a fret in the Attic parts’. However, the elements of the attic were for the most part not reincorporated in the adapted cupboards. One possible exception is the four paterae on the vase pedestals: if executed not quite as depicted by Adam, these could perhaps be the paterae that now appear on the plinth, which are of finer quality than the swags beneath them, though not as crisp as the carving on the doors. If these are indeed by Alken, it is possible that he finished them less carefully because their very high position demanded less attention.

We may speculate as to why Cobb discarded the old attic storey and vases, and replaced the former base section with an entirely new, much less refined (and lower) plinth. Part of the answer may be that the new cupboards, halved in width, would be disproportionately tall if the attic and vases were retained; indeed the vases would look absurd on them. Adapting the original plinth façade would also have been difficult. The outer strigillated panels could not have been re-used to mirror the other cupboard, but would have had to be replaced by a new single, wide panel. The fact that this was not done suggests that they were of a quality that could not be replicated in Cobb’s workshop – endorsing the evidence that Alken was engaged in the original commission, and not in the conversion. It remains rather surprising that Cobb’s solution for the new plinths is architecturally so crude

In replacing the original plinth façade, Cobb also dispensed with the original cupboards and fittings at this level. One reason for this decision may have been practical: the middle section of the original plinth appears to have opened in a single very wide door, the weight of which may well have made the hinges tear on the carcase wood. Making the plinths 'blind' means that, where the original clothes press had twenty-six drawers and thirteen sliding shelves, divided between the main section and the plinth section, the present cupboard has only twenty drawers, and there are ten sliding shelves in the companion piece at Bolling Hall. The other six drawers (in two tiers) and three sliding shelves must have been in the plinth of the original clothes press. This is consistent with the wording of Cobb’s original bill, dated 26 February 1766, slightly ambivalent though that is: “…26 Drawers [in the outer sections] and 13 Sliding Shelves in the middle part with pannel Doors before the Drawers and Shelves in bottom [plinth] and top [main] part …” The bill goes on to mention the "Attic parts", so clearly the "top part" was below the attic.

By 1909 both cupboards had been moved to Combe Abbey, Warwickshire, the seat of the 4th Earl of Craven, who was a great nephew by marriage of the 9th Earl of Coventry. One of them is illustrated in the Bohemian Room (Country Life, 11 November 1909). They were acquired in April 1923 by Lord Leverhulme for £400 and sold from his house in Hampstead, The Hill, in February 1926. The 6th Earl of Craven, who recovered them at an unknown date, sold them at Sotheby's London on 8 October 1965 for £1,300 (Lot 138). They were loaned by M. E. Behrens to the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1969, but sold by him through Christie's on 1 December 1977. Following an Export Licence deferral, the The V & A purchased one of the pair and Bolling Hall the other (inventory number D8/1978).

Historical significance: The Croome Court cupboard is a very well documented piece designed by the architect Robert Adam and executed by John Cobb. Both architect and cabinet-maker were leading members of their professions, and Adam's work at Croome Court was one of his longest-lasting and most important commissions. Indeed the 7th Earl of Coventry, who commissioned this piece, was a pallbearer at Robert Adam's funeral in 1794. Although by no means the first British architect to design furniture for his interiors (Talman, Kent and Gibbs all did so before him), Adam's attention stretched to unprecedentedly small details. This cupboard is an important example of Robert Adam's earlier designs: the solid and statuesque nature of this piece, particularly the female figures, is reminiscent of the designs of William Kent. Adam may well have borrowed the female-term motif from Kent's design for an organ case, engraved by John Vardy in about 1744. At the same time, the scrolling arabesques in the carving are borrowed from a panel in the rotunda at the Villa Pamphili, which Adam saw and drew during his stay in Rome during 1757. His drawing of this is the V&A (Museum No. D362 - 1885). This style of decoration was becoming fahionable in France during the 1760s: similar arabesques were included in schemes attributed to Rousset, proposed for the Hôtel Uzès. In Adam's work, the ornament on the doors of this cabinet anticipates his much more profuse use of arabesque ornament in the 1770s and 1780s.

Countless pieces of furniture are altered in the course of their use. It is most significant - and rarely recorded - that a surviving piece on this scale should have been altered within less than a year, and by the same firm, that produced the original.

Descriptive line

Two-door mahogany cupboard of architectural form, with applied carved decoration, the doors flanked by pilasters surmounted by female busts; converted from a larger clothes press designed by Robert Adam, made (and converted) by John Cobb, with carvings by Sefferin Alken, 1764-67

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Avray Tipping (?: article signed ‘T'). Combe Abbey Warwickshire, a Seat of the Earl of Craven. Country Life. 4th December &11th December 1909, vol. XXVI, pp. 794-805, pp.840-848 (one wardrobe illustrated on p. 845).
Lenygon. Francis. Furniture in England, 1660 - 1760. London: B.T. Batsford. 1914. p. 260
Bolton, Arthur. The Architecture of Robert and James Adam 2 vols. Country Life. 1922, vol. I, pp. 178-191.
Christie's, 11th April 1923 (lot 68)
P.Ward-Jackson. Furniture Designs of the Eighteenth Century. London. V&A. 1958. pl. 205.
Harris, Eileen. The Furniture of Robert Adam . London. Alec Tiranti. 1963. pp. 10, 11, 16, 25, 49
Sotheby's 8th October 1965, lot 138.
Musgrave, Clifford. Adam and Hepplewhite Furniture. London. Faber & Faber. 1966. p. 152
Christie's, 1st December 1977, lot 156.
Tomlin, Maurice. Catalogue of Adam Period Furniture. London. H.M.S.O. (reprinted 1982). p. 12
Rykwert, Joseph and Anne. The Brothers Adam - The Men and the Style. London. Collins. 1985
Wilk, Christopher (ed.). Western Furniture - 1350 to the Present Day. London. Philip Wilson and V&A. 1996. pp.116-117 ISBN: 1856674435
P.Macquoid and R.Edwards. The Dictionary of English Furniture. II, p. 18, fig. 28 and p. 179.

Labels and date

The doors originally formed the outer section of a large four door clothes-press, which was executed by the firm of Vile and Cobb, with specialist carving carried out by Sefferin Alken. In 1767 the same firm divided the clothes-press to form to cabinets. [Unknown]
CLOTHES-PRESS
ENGLISH; about 1764
Mahogany

Designed by the architect Robert Adam in 1764 for the 6th Earl of Coventry's house, Croome Court, Worcestershire. The decoration was inspired by the plaster panels at the Villa Pamphili.

The doors originally formed the outer section of a large four door clothes-press, which was executed by the firm of Vile and Cobb, with specialist carving carried out by Sefferin Alken. In 1767, the same firm divided the large clothes-press to form two cabinets. [pre October 2000]
Cupboard
1767
Robert Adam (1728–92)

England (London)
Originally made as a wardrobe by John Cobb, 1764–6, with carving by Sefferin Alken
Adapted 1767 by John Cobb

Carcase: mahogany and softwood
Carving and veneer: mahogany
Drawers: oak with mahogany fronts

Supplied to the 6th Earl of Coventry for Croome Court, Worcestershire

Museum no. W.20-1978

The carvings are applied to the carcase, which could therefore be planed and veneered to give a smooth background. A specialist London carver, Sefferin Alken, executed the exceptionally lively carving of the arabesques and busts. The swags on the plinth, though well carved, are not as good. This plinth was probably added by Cobb’s workshop in 1767. [01/12/2012]

Production Note

The original clothes press was made in 1764–66 to Robert Adam’s design by John Cobb (after the retirement of Willliam Vile from their partnership). The applied carvings were almost certainly supplied by the specialist carver Sefferin Alken. In 1767 the press was converted by John Cobb to form two cupboards (of which W.20-1978 is one). Alken apparently made no new contribution to the converted cupboards, and the swags on the new plinth do not look like his work. The unrefined design of the new plinth also strongly suggests that Adam had no involvement in the alteration.

Materials

Steel

Techniques

Carving; Applied work; Cabinet making

Subjects depicted

Acanthus; Festoons; Rosettes; Scrolls (motifs); Palmettes; Busts; Urns; Griffins; Anthemions

Categories

Furniture; Scotland

Collection code

FWK

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Qr_O8221
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