Oh, to furnish a house with the true scraps of the Barons’ Wars

Posted by Peter Lindfield on March 31, 2016 in Blog, Peter Lindfield, Uncategorized tagged with , , , , , , ,

The collection of relics from past civilisations and places was not a new phenomenon in the 1750s when an interest in amassing and displaying medieval furniture developed. Horace Walpole (1717–97), author, collector and son of the first Prime Minster, Sir Robert Walpole, started collecting Greek and Roman antiquities whilst on the Grand Tour of the Continent in 1739. However, collecting relics from Britain and Europe’s medieval past became integral to the furnishing of Gothic interiors after the mid-eighteenth century. The character of medieval furniture and notions of authenticity were questioned in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This post considers the types of supposedly ‘medieval’ furniture that were collected by Horace Walpole for Strawberry Hill, his Gothic Revival villa in Twickenham, just outside of London, and how they were thought to be connected with medieval Britain.

Strawberry Hill. © Peter N. Lindfield

Strawberry Hill. © Peter N. Lindfield

Walpole was clearly interested in gathering together medieval relics of all kinds. On 13 February 1750 he wrote to Sir Horace Mann asking: ‘if you can pick me up any fragments of old painted glass, arms or anything, I shall be excessively obliged to you. I can’t say I remember any such thing in Italy, but out of old chateaus I imagine one might get it cheap, if there is any’. Although the preface to the 1842 Strawberry Hill auction catalogue is couched in hyperbole, the variety and importance of Walpole’s collection is clearly relayed:

‘[Strawberry Hill is a] precious museum, crowded with the tangible records of past ages – treasures concentrated by the hand of time and of genius – far exceeding in interest and importance all that has preceded it in the chronicles of auctions, and that no future sale can possibly enter into rivalry with it’.

It was not until Horace Walpole’s activities as a collector of ‘ancient’ furniture that there was a real, self-conscious, interest in gathering together furniture from the past. In a letter of 1774 Walpole wrote that he had: ‘found in a wretched cottage a child in an ancient oak cradle, exactly in the form of that published from the cradle of Edward II — I purchased it for five shillings, but don’t know whether I shall have fortitude enough to transport it to Strawberry Hill — people would consider me in my second childhood’.

Coronation Throne (or, Edward I's Chair). Image in public domain.

Coronation Throne (or, Edward I’s Chair). Image in public domain.

Three types of chairs that Walpole believed to be of medieval origin were offered for sale in 1842. They were quite different from extant medieval furniture, such as the Coronation throne, choir stalls, and examples depicted in medieval manuscripts. Instead, the Strawberry Hill sale included 24 ‘Elizabethan’ ebony chairs, 7 ‘Welch’ chairs and 1 chair from Glastonbury Abbey. Not one of these chairs, however, can be considered truly medieval. The history and origin of ebony chairs has been contentious; the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, has traditionally held that the chairs came with Catherine of Braganza from Portugal as part of the dowry in 1662. Throughout the second half of the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century, turned ebony chairs were though to be of Tudor origin and therefore entirely appropriate for the furnishing of antiquarian, or ancient interiors.

William Kent (designer) Esher Place, Surrey. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

William Kent (designer) Esher Place, Surrey. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

A letter from Thomas Gray in August 1752 concerning Esher Place, Surrey, a country house modelled around Bishop Waynflete’s medieval tower by William Kent c.1733, most probably aroused Walpole’s interest in such furniture and cemented their position within eighteenth-century Gothic interiors:

‘The true original chairs were sold […] there are nothing now but Halsey-chairs, not adapted to the squareness of a Gothic dowager’s rump. And by the way I do not see how the uneasiness and uncomfortableness of a coronation-chair can be any objection with you: every chair that is easy is modern, and unknown to our ancestors. As I remember, there were certain low chairs, that looked like ebony, at Esher, and were old and pretty’.

Although Gray continued by suggesting Walpole should get Richard Bentley — one of the designers assisting Walpole develop Strawberry Hill as his Gothic villa — to improve upon the ebony chairs at Esher, his letter connected them with the house, Cardinal Wolsey and the Tudor period. Walpole was clearly infatuated with them: he acquired 18 ebony chairs and two tables at auction for £45.0.0 and termed the highest-quality examples the ‘true black blood.’

Turned ebony chair, 'the true black blood'. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Turned ebony chair, ‘the true black blood’. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

His interest in ebony furniture was, however, misplaced because the earliest examples are dated to the mid-seventeenth century and were made in India. They are, therefore, hardly contemporaneous with the Gothic sources being used in the creation and decoration of Strawberry Hill.

John Carter, The Great North Bedchamber, Strawberry Hill, 1788. Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

John Carter, The Great North Bedchamber, Strawberry Hill, 1788. Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

Although Gray had connected ebony chairs with Esher, Cardinal Wolsey, and the Tudors, Walpole never directly called them ‘Gothic’. The ebony timber in the ‘true black blood’, rather than their design, was the characteristic most closely associated with Cardinal Wolsey. Bentley’s improvement upon Walpole’s ebony furniture was aesthetic and harnessed the antique aspect of the ebony furniture — the material itself. Consequently the colour colour of the true black blood, rather than its design, was foremost in Bentley’s and Walpole’s minds as an indicator of age when making the turned ebony chairs ‘fit for modern convenience’, seen in the parlour chairs that they designed in 1754 and which William Hallett (Sr) supplied to Strawberry Hill in 1755.

Horace Walpole and Richard Bentley (designers), one of a set of chairs for the Parlour, Strawberry Hill, 1755. Made by William Hallett (Sr). © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Horace Walpole and Richard Bentley (designers), one of a set of chairs for the Parlour, Strawberry Hill, 1755. Made by William Hallett (Sr). © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Walpole never ascribed a detailed history to the ebony furniture. It would be more appropriate to view his classification of it as generically ‘old’ or ‘antique’. Indeed, the extended and very detailed second edition guidebook for Strawberry Hill of 1784, Description of the Villa of Mr. Horace Walpole, does not make mention of their connection with Esher, Wolsey, or the Tudors. The Description’s entry for the Holbein Chamber, in which a number of the true black blood was displayed, fails to give any detailed analysis of the ebony furniture unlike other items in the room:

John Carter, the Holbein Chamber, Strawberry Hill. 1788. Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

John Carter, the Holbein Chamber, Strawberry Hill. 1788. Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

‘In the bow window some fine painted glass, and the arms of England, and those of George prince of Denmark; the ground is a beautiful mosaic of crimson, blue and pearls, designed and painted by Price of Hatton-garden.

A table and six chairs of ebony’.

This dearth is emphasised when the subsequent entry for another chair is examined: ‘A very ancient chair of oak, which came out of Glastonbury-abbey; on it are carved these sentences, Joannes Arthurus Monacus Glastonie, salvet eum Deus: Da pacem Domine: Sit Laus Deo. Lord Bathurst had several chairs copied from this’.

John Carter, A very ancient chair of oak, which came out of Glastonbury-abbey. 1788. Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

John Carter, A very ancient chair of oak, which came out of Glastonbury-abbey. 1788. Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

Unlike the ebony chairs, the late medieval provenance of this chair is emphasised to sanction its authenticity as a piece of monastic and medieval furniture fit for display and use in a Gothic chamber. Indeed, on 1 February 1759 Walpole wrote to Chute: ‘I am deeper than ever in Gothic antiquities; I have bought a monk of Glastonbury’s chair full of scraps of the psalms, and some seals of most reverend illegibility. I pass all my mornings in the thirteenth century, and my evenings with the century that is coming on. Adieu!’

Walpole thought that he had the original medieval ‘relic’ and clearly enjoyed the metaphysical link the chair had with medieval Britain:

‘I know I am proprietor of the chair of Joannes Arthurus the monk of Glastonbury, and once made the present Archbishop of Canterbury sit in it at breakfast – but I will reserve it for a real abbot – It is too much honour for a renegade. If the Pope sends us a genuine Austin, well and good’.

The chair’s connection with the past is based upon the name carved into the right-hand arm and the historic X-frame construction. Among the list of monks who subscribed to the Act of Supremacy at Glastonbury Abbey was Jöhes Arthur, which can be Anglicised to Joannes Arthurus. Although this appears to legitimise the age of the Glastonbury chair it is not sufficient evidence to link the chair to the abbey. On the other hand, the name suggests that it was intentionally chosen to play upon connections to Britain’s past made by antique collectors.

By the early nineteenth century a number of chairs were though to be Joannes Arthurus’ dating from the dissolution of the monasteries, such as at St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall.

 

The Chevy Chase Room, St Michael's Mount. Image in public domain.

The Chevy Chase Room, St Michael’s Mount. Image in public domain.

The Rule of St Benedict, however, prevented monks from having any personal possessions. Although the Rule was abused, it is not realistic to assume that one monk could have had at least three idiosyncratic chairs featuring his own name carved into the arms. Instead, the ‘Glastonbury form’ became an iconic piece of medieval furniture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and in 1868 Eastlake wrote that: ‘as a rule, the “Glastonbury” chairs and “antique” bookcases sold in that venerable thoroughfare [Wardour Street] will prove to be nothing but gross libels on the style of art which they are supposed to represent’.

A third type of ancient furniture that Walpole introduced into Strawberry Hill was the ‘Welch’, turned, or thrown chair. In 1761 he wrote that:

‘Dicky Bateman has picked up a whole cloister-full of old chairs in Herefordshire – he bought them one and one, here and there in farm-houses, for three and sixpence, and a crown a piece. They are of wood, the seats triangular, the backs, arms, and legs loaded with turnery…Take notice, no two need be of the same pattern’.

 

Welch Chair. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Welch Chair. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

Welch Chair. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Welch Chair. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Although the Welch chair was not decorated with any overtly Gothic motifs, Walpole and his circle felt that the style was appropriate to furnish his Gothic villa. The collection of Welch chairs is recorded in  Strawberry Hill’s Great Cloister and their individual characteristics are clearly represented.

George 'Perfect' Harding, the Cloister at Strawberry Hill. Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

George ‘Perfect’ Harding, the Cloister at Strawberry Hill. Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

Without analysing the wood it is particularly difficult to date this style of chair. Warner, however, illustrated an abbot’s chair of this type in History of the Abbey of Glaston which he argued ‘had stood from time immemorial’ in an old house belonging to the Reverand Archdeacon Willes at Wells. He continued to by noting that it had:

‘Been called the Abbot’s state chair, and considered as having belonged to the Abbey of Glastonbury, and appropriated to the use of the abbots; and further, that tradition asserted it had been brought from the Abbey, and placed in the Town-hall at Wells, on the occasion of Richard Whiting’s trial, for the use of the prisoner; probably with the cruel intention of adding insult to injustice, by the mortifying contrast, which it forced upon his mind, between his former state and present degradation’.

Warner’s History of the Abbey of Glaston demonstrates that Walpole was not alone in considering the ‘Welch’ chair to be medieval in origin. It is important to note, however, that the collection of antique furniture at Strawberry Hill was not limited to articles in the overtly Gothic style, but incorporated anything that evoked memories and ideas about the past.

Despite Walpole’s misappropriation of turned ebony furniture for use in Gothic interiors, their popularity in such contexts blossomed. In a Gothic Revival country house designed by James Wyatt for Thomas Barrett, a friend of Walpole’s, Lee Priory, Kent (1780–90), drawings have recently come to light by John Carter indicating that Lee’s Strawberry Room and Library were furnished with these Walpolean chairs in 1791. This indicates the spread of Walpole’s canon of appropriate ‘ancient’ furniture, and, perhaps, Walpole’s involvement in the house’s furnishing (as well as architecture). See Peter N. Lindfield and Matthew M. Reeve, ‘‘A Child of Strawberry’: Thomas Barrett and Lee Priory, Kent’, in The Burlington Magazine, December (2015), pp. 836–42.

Dixon, Lee Priory, Kent, 1785, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1975.1.8

Dixon, Lee Priory, Kent, 1785, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1975.1.8

John Carter, The Walpole Closet, Lee Priory, Kent, 1791. © The British Library Board, Add MS 29930, f. 6.

John Carter, The Walpole Closet, Lee Priory, Kent, 1791. © The British Library Board, Add MS 29930, f. 6.

I would like to conclude by looking at William Beckford’s Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire. Fonthill Abbey was built in earnest between 1797 and 1818, and largely designed by James Wyatt. Large parts of the interior were executed using a Gothic vocabulary, such as the southern Entrance Hall, which was an ‘oblong apartment, scantily lighted, but of superior decoration, and entirely in the gothic style’.

J.M.W. Turner, Projected Design for Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire, 1798. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

J.M.W. Turner, Projected Design for Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire, 1798. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

A suite of three carved ebony chairs, similar to those at Strawberry Hill, a table and a pair of torchères, en suite, populate the austere fan-vaulted interior of the south end of Saint Michael’s Gallery at the Abbey. They fit in with the furnishing programme there, which was executed throughout with heraldic and genealogical decoration. Indeed, John Rutter noted that there were ‘six carved ebony chairs, from the palace at Esher, and belonging formerly to Cardinal Wolsey’ in the Crimson Drawing Room. Although ebony furniture of this type does not appear before 1660, Rutter’s assertion connecting turned ebony chairs and Cardinal Wolsey is characteristic of the period.

 

Fonthill Abbey: South End of St Michael’s Gallery. Plate IX from Britton, Illustrations, Graphic and Literary, of Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire (London, 1823), DA690.F6 B7 1823+ Copy 1 Oversize. Courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art.

Fonthill Abbey: South End of St Michael’s Gallery. Plate IX from Britton, Illustrations, Graphic and Literary, of Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire (London, 1823), DA690.F6 B7 1823+ Copy 1 Oversize. Courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art.

 

Although the ebony and Welch chairs had been used to furnish houses from the Tudor and Elizabethan period, Walpole transformed their associations to include medieval England. Together with the Glastonbury form, these three types of chair became synonymous with Gothic and antiquarian interiors throughout the UK from the mid-eighteenth century. It was thus that Walpole moved the sources for ‘ancient’ Gothic interiors and suitable furniture forward rather than backwards in time.

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