Rare Ebony armchair from Longleat House

Rare ebony armchair from Longleat House, the deep pierced top-rail carved with apsaras, and winged creatures centred by a winged head, the uprights with birds, the backs of twisted spindles spaced by turned finials, carving echoing the cresting beneath, and also repeated under the seat frame, with caned ebony drop-in seats, on a ‘barley sugar’ turned under-frame, the uprights, arms, seat frame and blocks at the top and bottom of the legs all carved with formal and running leafage in low relief. South India or Ceylon, late-17th Century. One side seat-rail replaced (inscribed on its inside surface, ‘W.T. 1910’).

Height of back  43¼" (1,10m).

Width across arms  23½"  (60cm).

Provenance :-  Longleat House, Wiltshire. This armchair was originally part of a suite of ebony seat furniture at Longleat, thought to have been acquired at the beginning of the 18th Century.(1) Five other armchairs from this suite, together with seven side chairs, are in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.(2)  Two very similar ebony side chairs were sold to the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem by Harris Lindsay in 1999.(3)  Ebony armchairs of this type are rare, compared to the side chairs. Apart from the Longleat armchairs, there is another type of armchair known, an example of which is in the Rijsmuseum, Amsterdam,(4) and another of which Harris Lindsay had some years ago, from Hinwick House, Bedfordshire.(5)

Horace Walpole owned a number of examples of side chairs of this type at Strawberry Hill, some of which can be seen in a picture by John Carter of 1788,(6) and which feature in the celebrated sale of the contents of Strawberry Hill in 1842. On May 12th, 1842 (the 16th day of the sale), lot 13 was ‘TWO SPLENDID SOLID EBONY CHAIRS, the tops and frames richly carved in open scroll work, with Figures and Birds at the corners, cane seats, on twisted legs and frames, perfectly unique’, with the next three lots described as ‘ditto, en suite’, and lot 17 as ‘A SINGLE SOLID EBONY CHAIR, WITH ARMS, equally beautiful, the seat stuffed and covered with crimson satin damask’. Lot 54 of the following day’s sale was ‘A pair of beautiful old CARVED SOLID EBONY CHAIRS, of the Elizabethan period, pierced backs, richly decorated with Birds, Flowers and Figures, twisted rails, the frames finely carved in scrolls, and cane seats’, the following two lots being ‘A PAIR OF DITTO, to correspond’, and ‘Ditto’, and lot 79, ‘TWO SPLENDID SOLID EBONY CHAIRS, richly carved in open scroll work, the borders beautifully raised in carvings of alto relievo, on handsome twisted legs and stretchers, with cane seats, in the finest state of preservation’, with the two following lots, ‘Two chairs, in every respect to correspond’, and ‘Three ditto, en suite’.

Walpole had bought these chairs at auction in 1763, from a sale at Staughton House, Huntingdonshire, and he refers to his attendance at this sale in a letter from Huntingdon of 30th May, 1763, to his friend George Montagu :- ‘I believe I am the first man that ever went sixty miles to an auction. As I came for ebony, I have been up to my chin in ebony; there is literally nothing but ebony in the house; all the other goods, if there were any, and I trust my Lady Conyers did not sleep upon ebony mattresses, are taken away. There are two tables and eighteen chairs, all made by the Hallett of two hundred years ago. These I intend to have; for mind, the auction does not begin until Thursday. There are more plebian chairs of the same materials, but I have left commissions for only the true black blood’.(7) There is recorded in the Strawberry Hill Account Book of December, 1763 that these eighteen ebony chairs and two tables were bought, at the cost of £45.(8) The reference to ‘the Hallett of two hundred years ago’ is because Walpole, along with his contemporaries, believed these chairs to have been made in England in the 16th Century, having seen similar ebony chairs at Esher Place, Surrey, a house which had been lived in by Cardinal Wolsey, and the belief that this type of furniture was Tudor prevailed throughout most of the 19th Century. Six ebony chairs at Windsor Castle, presented by the Duke of York to George IV in 1824, were described as having been the ‘Property of Cardinal Wolsey’, and an illustration by Pugin for an essay on ancient furniture appropriate to the poems of Sir Walter Scott shows a chair very similar to these present examples underneath a framed portrait of Henry VIII.(9)

A Pair of ebony chairs of this type at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, are traditionally said to have come to England from Portugal in 1662, as part of Catherine of Braganza’s dowry.(10) Other examples of ebony furniture were at William Beckford’s Fonthill, six chairs of which were bought by the dealer John Swaby in the sale of 1823, possibly the same six which were presented by the Duke of York to George IV in 1824 for Windsor Castle, where they remain,(11) and where there are other ebony chairs of this type.(12) A group of ebony chairs and other furniture survives at Boughton House, Northamptonshire.(13) Cothele House, Cornwall, has ebony furniture definitely known to have been there since the 18th century because of an embroidered inscription on the maroon velvet cushions of an ebony settee, recording the visit to the house of George III and Queen Charlotte in 1789 and the fact that they sat on the settee whilst breakfasting,(14) and the Victoria & Albert Museum has a chair of this type (ref. 413-1882), bought from the Hamilton Palace sale and previously also owned by Beckford. A rare ebony centre table of this type, sold by this firm to the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1981, was in the recent major exhibition Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, 2009-2010.(15)

Interestingly, Horace Walpole must have seen this present armchair, as he had remarked on the ebony chairs at Longleat when visiting the house in July, 1762,(16) and this visit may well have encouraged his purchases from Staughton House in the following year.

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Footnotes

1)  There were 12 armchairs and 12 side chairs, as well as an ebony table, according to a Longleat inventory of 1740. See Amin Jaffer, Furniture from British India and Ceylon, 2001, p. 133. Some of this furniture remains in the house.

2)  Museum no. 92.DA.24. See The J. Paul Getty Museum Journal, Vol. 21, 1993, p. 143. See also Amin Jaffer, op. cit., fig. 64, p. 137.

3)  Amin Jaffer, op. cit., no. 1, pp. 135-137. Two other side chairs from the same set as this pair are currently in Harris Lindsay stock.

4)  Amin Jaffer, op. cit., fig. 62, p. 134, and p. 133.

5)  See Arthur Oswald, ‘Hinwick House, Bedfordshire’, Country Life, 29th September 1960, p. 677, fig. 3.

6)  See Clive Wainwright, The Romantic Interior, 1989, fig. 72, p. 94.

7)  Clive Wainwright, op. cit., pp. 90 and 92, and ‘Only the True Black Blood’, Furniture History, 1985, pp. 250-255.

8)  Clive Wainwright, The Romantic Interior, 1989, p. 92.

9)  Clive Wainwright, Furniture History, 1985, fig. 4, p. 257.

10)  Nicholas Penny, Catalogue of European Sculpture in the Ashmolean Museum, 1992, Vol. II, p. 225.

11)  Hugh Roberts, For The King’s Pleasure, 2001, fig. 326, p. 260, and pp. 242 & 247.

12)  op. cit., figs. 324, 325, p. 260, illustrating two of a group of eleven ebony side chairs, bought in May 1825.

13)  Boughton House, The English Versailles, 1992, ed. Tessa Murdoch, pp. 139-141.

14)  Clive Wainwright, Furniture History, 1985, pp. 252-253. He makes the point that he knows of only two houses in Britain still with ebony furniture of this type that is actually documented to the 18th century, Cothele and Longleat, the previous home of the present armchair. ‘There is a whole group of houses where ebony chairs survive with traditions which seem to show that they have been there for a long while’, he says, ‘but in none of these cases can I find documentary evidence showing them to have been in the houses before the nineteenth century’.

15)  Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, ed. Michael Snodin, 2009, the catalogue of the exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art and the Victoria & Albert Museum, 2009-2010, no. 124 and fig. 329, p. 304. (V. & A. no. IS73-1981.)

16)  P. Toynbee, ‘Horace Walpole’s Journals of Visits to Country Seats’, Walpole Society, xvi, 1927-28. Walpole writes, 'The Gallery has a table, settee, and 24 chairs of ebony, and is hung with portraits'

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