A Gillows of Lancaster William IV mahogany serpentine serving table

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Lot 800
A Gillows of Lancaster William IV mahogany serpentine serving table

Sold for £ 4,440 (US$ 6,086) inc. premium

The Chester Sale

9 Jul 2009, 11:00 BST


Lots 800 - 803: A private collection of dining room furniture by Gillows of Lancaster
Lots 800 - 803: A private collection of dining room furniture by Gillows of Lancaster

The following four lots were very probably commissioned to furnish Whitestock Hall near Ulverton in the parish of Colton in Lancashire (now part of Cumbria), owned by the descendants of George Romney (1734 – 1802), the late eighteenth century portrait painter whose name is inextricably linked with that of his most celebrated sitter, Emma Hamilton, darling of her age and long-standing mistress of Admiral Horatio Nelson [see Kate Williams, England’s Mistress (London, 2007)].

Born in Dalton-in-Furness in 1734, and married to Mary Abbot, resident at Kendal, in 1756, Romney spent little time in Cumbria, living in London and touring Italy, visiting Lancashire for abbreviated painting tours only in the 1760s. He nevertheless returned to establish himself there in 1799, only three years before his death, when he purchased the land at Whitestock upon which his son, the Reverend John Romney (1758 – 1832), built Whitestock Hall where he lived from 1806. He bequeathed his estate there to his youngest male heir – his eldest son George (1811 – 1865) was deemed by his father’s will to be unsuitable to inherit both because of his ‘incapacity of business’ and ‘his idleness and disregard for mental cultivation’ – another John (1817 – 1875), who was to take up the stewardship of the estates after his medical studies at Cambridge were complete (BD HJ 39/4/1/1). After his death in 1875, his sons John (b. 1851) and Lawrence (b. 1857) inherited, passing the estates thereafter to two of their aunts, Mrs Brooks (d. 1889) and Elizabeth Romney (d.1893). Lived in thereafter only occasionally, the hall remained part of the Romney estates until 1901/1902, when the last member of the Romney family to own it – John Orde Romney – sold it at auction. A clause in the 1902 auction catalogue states that ‘all fitted and planned furniture’ could be included in the sale at extra cost to the buyer [BD HJ/38/2/19].

The four lots sold here were at Whitestock Hall on the death of Elizabeth Romney in 1893, as the valuation and inventory of her goods undertaken in the following year for purposes of probate by Mr Salmon of Wilson & Co., ‘Auctioneers, Printers and Stationers’, lists amongst the Hall’s furniture, a ‘7ft 6in sideboard in mahogany’ – which has dimensions which are exactly the same as those of the serving table in Lot 800 – a ‘10ft dining table in do. [ditto]’ – very slightly smaller than the table offered in Lot 802 – a ‘cellarette in do.’, and ‘2 arms chairs and 10 small chairs in mahogany and leather’, which are almost certainly the same set – minus one of the armchairs – in Lot 803 below, (BD HJ 39/4/42 & 43).

Whilst no record of a payment by the Romneys for this furniture has been found, either in their own papers or amongst the records of Gillows, its presence at Whitestock Hall in 1894, which had passed in a direct line of inheritance from the Reverend John Romney to Elizabeth Romney, strongly suggests that these four pieces had been owned by the family since they had purchased them, possibly to commemorate the coming of age of the new Romney squire after 1832. That was several years after the design of the serving table was recorded, in 1829 and 1830, in Gillows’ Estimate Sketch Book, but it was not uncommon for designs to be produced for several years after they were first conceived.

Several factors combined to render the firm of Gillows the natural choice for a gentle Lancashire family keen to commission a new suite of furniture. First, and most obviously, was the fact that the firm of Gillows had been founded in Lancashire and was still very active in that county in the 1830s, despite operating also from London. Secondly, few firms could rival Gillows’ reputation, as they were highly respected both for the quality of timber and finish of their pieces. Thirdly and most importantly, however, by the 1830s the firm of Gillows and the family of Romney had been closely associated for almost eighty years: Susan Stuart’s recent publication identifies seven men named Romney who worked for, or on behalf of, the firm over a period stretching between the 1760s and the 1840s [Susan Stuart, Gillows of Lancaster and London 1730 - 1840 (2008), 2 vols.]

John Romney (or Rumney), father of George the portraitist, was a cabinet maker who is recorded as having purchased ‘9s. worth of mahogany from Gillows of Lancaster in December 1766’ (ibid., II, p. 277), but the closest relationship was forged between George Romney and the firm of Gillows in the last four decades of the 18th Century, when both were considered, at least in Lancashire, as the best practitioners of their respective trades. The relationship between the two was symbiotic: both worked for the same aristocratic and gentle Lancashire families, and thus were part of the same networks of patronage upon which advancement in the eighteenth century relied. In 1761, Romney painted Richard Gillow’s mother-in-law, Mrs Haresnape, and later in that decade painted the likeness of William Bradshaw, one of London’s leading upholsterers and weavers and foremost amongst Gillows’ important patrons (ibid., I, p. 26). Mary Hunter Rawlinson, the matriarch of a prominent Cumbrian Quaker family commissioned one of Gillows’ most ornate bookcases in the 1770s, and also sat for Romney during the same period: Susan Stuart suggests that her picture is mounted in a Gillows frame (ibid., I, p. 366). George Romney’s grand-daughter Mary, sister to the John Romney who succeeded to the family estates in 1832, married a John Job Rawlinson of Graythwaite (1798 – 1864) in February 1831. Thomas and George, possibly the nephews of John Romney, the painter’s father, and thus cousins to the painter, were engaged by the firm of Gillows in various capacities in the late eighteenth century.

Despite the fact that this direct professional connection between George Romney and Gillows of Lancaster ceased on the death of the former in 1802, the relationship between the two families endured, not least because yet another George Romney, son of Thomas Romney and thus a distant cousin of the Reverend John Romney and his sons, worked for Gillows as a stainer until at least 1841, and is possibly the foreman mentioned in 1834 (ibid., Vol. II, pp. 275 – 277). The link between the families of Romney and Gillow was at a further remove than it had been in the eighteenth century, and somewhat diluted, but the connection was strong enough to render the firm of Gillows the natural choice of cabinetmaker for the Romney family in the 1830s.
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A Gillows of Lancaster William IV mahogany serpentine serving table
The top with raised shaped back carved to the edges with 'C' and 'S' foliate scrolls over two scroll-edged frieze drawers, raised on two scroll and shell-carved cabriole front supports terminating in circular gadrooned feet, and raised to the rear on rectangular-section supports with moulded feet, 228cm wide x 71cm deep x 131cm high, (89.5in wide x 27.5in deep x 51.5in high)


  • Although neither stamped nor signed, this serving table is attributable to Gillows of Lancaster on the basis of the close stylistic comparison it bears to two drawings in the firm’s Estimate Sketch Books [3744 and 3795], records which begin in 1784 and comprise some 20,000 furniture patterns held at the City of Westminster Archives. Albeit identical to neither design, the serving table offered here nevertheless draws heavily upon features from both.

    Sketch 3744, dated 1829, shows a ‘Hall Table’ smaller, at ‘6ft 3 by 2ft 4’, than the present lot, and raised on four cabriole legs rather than two. The raised back of the sketched design is lower and decorated to each end with foliate scrolls which are nevertheless less prominent than the unadorned but larger scrolls of Lot 800. The outline for the front frieze, drawn straight and seemingly without drawers in the Estimate Sketch Book, is serpentine in outline in the piece offered here and with two drawers of unequal size in order to allow for the unbroken line of the central tablet decoration. The legs differ mainly in terms of decoration and the platform foot upon which they are raised. The legs of the table of drawing 3744 are carved to the knee with a festoon of acanthus, whilst those of Lot 800 are channel-moulded and are raised upon the distinctive, slightly flattened and gadrooned bun foot so often found on pieces of 19th Century Gillows’ furniture, rather than the square platform foot of the serving table in the sketch.

    Different in terms of detail, however, the serving table in the present lot was clearly conceived in the same spirit as sketch 3744, to which it bears a closer resemblance than that depicted in sketch 3795, dated for 1830. The latter shows an altogether more austere piece of furniture than that in sketch 3744, with a lower and simpler panelled gallery to three sides of the top, echoing the design of the frieze and the rear legs. It is, however, a closer match to the present lot in terms of dimensions, being marked as 7ft 5in wide, which is only one inch narrower than the serving table offered here. The table in sketch 3795 also shares the two drawers to the frieze and the rectangular-section rear supports. The front legs are also more comparable, as they were designed without the carved acanthus to the knee, relying upon channel-moulding and beading to decorate the leg’s scrolling silhouette. The octagonal platform feet upon which the front legs are raised are also different, although the sketch does show a gadrooned moulding just above the platform, which bears a close resemblance to the feet of the serving table in this sale.

    The octagonal feet of the serving table in the second sketch correspond more closely to the feet of the cellaret sold here as Lot 801. This cellaret’s design has not been found in the Estimate Sketch Books, but both its timber and the profile of the scrolls to the feet – with the inner scroll projecting beyond the edge of the outer scroll – are very similar to those of the serving table with which it is being sold. They were almost certainly, therefore, purchased as part of the same commission. The dining table and chairs (Lots 802 and 803 respectively), albeit of a different design, may well have been purchased at the same time. This was common practice: George Wilson, who purchased from Gillows in 1827 an extravagant sideboard with very similar ‘massive scroll legs’ to those of Lot 800, also purchased ‘a patent Imperial table with turned and reeded legs which measured over 23ft in length’ (Susan Stuart, Gillows of Lancaster and London, 1730 – 1840 (2008), 2 Vols., I, pp. 324 – 235). The dining table sold here is unstamped, but as all eleven of the chairs in Lot 803 are, the close similarity between the design of the legs (if allowance is made for the difference in scale), notwithstanding the fine quality of the table’s timber and construction, strongly suggest that the table was also made by Gillows.

    Provenance: As introduction, thence by purchase and descent to the present owner.
A Gillows of Lancaster William IV mahogany serpentine serving table
A Gillows of Lancaster William IV mahogany serpentine serving table
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