A George III padouk, sabicu and marquetry serpentine commode

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Lot 98
A George III padouk, sabicu and marquetry serpentine commode

Sold for £ 181,250 (US$ 252,601) inc. premium
A George III padouk, sabicu and marquetry serpentine commode
With narrow ebonised bandings throughout outlined with stringing, the moulded top centred by a floral spray with birds surrounded by a shell-crested cartouche, the two short and two long graduated drawers with conforming floral marquetry, the frieze drawers inlaid sans traverse and each drawer flanked by engraved rocaille motifs, the sides with ribbon-tied floral sprays and gilt-brass mounted corners ending in foliate scroll sabots, 135cm wide, 62cm deep, 85cm high (53in wide, 24in deep, 33in high).


  • Literature:
    M. Harris & Sons, A Catalogue and Index of Old English Furniture and Works of Decorative Art (London, n.d., c. 1930), Vol., II, p. 173 (ill.)
    Lucy Wood, 'Furniture for Lord Delaval: metropolitan and provincial',
    Furniture History, Vol. 26 (1990), pp. 198-234, fig. 6
    Lucy Wood, The Lady Lever Art Gallery: Catalogue of Commodes (London, 1994),
    cat. no. 4, pp. 64-73, fig. 54

    Almost certainly bought by Sir John Hussey Delaval, Bart. (later Baron Delaval) (1728-1808) in or before 1775. Possibly acquired for Doddington Hall, Lincolnshire, remaining there for over 150 years; but more likely bought originally for Grosvenor House, Milbank (the destination of other furniture supplied to Delaval by Henry Hill in 1776). From London it may have been removed to Seaton Delaval, Northumberland, c. 1780 (when Delaval gave up Grosvenor House for a house in Hanover Square) and placed in the Tapestry Room, State Bedchamber or State Dressing Room (each of which housed an 'Inlaid Comode with 3 Drawers' in 1786). From Seaton Delaval it would have been taken to Doddington Hall after Lord Delaval's death in 1808, when both houses were inherited by his brother Edward Delaval (1729-1814). Lord Delaval's widow inherited the contents of Seaton, some of which she sold to Edward, who lived
    thereafter at Doddington but not at Seaton. Then by descent at Doddington until sold in the early 20th century by Major (later Lieutenant Colonel) Charles Francis Cracroft Jarvis (1875-1957); published by M. Harris & Sons, c. 1930, as 'From Major Jarvis, Doddington Hall, Lincoln'.1

    Purchased from F.J. McCarthy, Nottinghamshire in the 1970s by the present vendor.

    by Lucy Wood

    The Doddington commode - since c. 1930 known only from Moss Harris's photograph - has for some time been linked to the workshop of Henry Hill of Marlborough, on the basis of both its provenance and its style: Sir John Hussey Delaval is Hill's best-known patron, and this piece forms a strong stylistic link between another very Germanic bombé commode in the Victoria and Albert Museum - with no firm provenance before the 20th century (Fig. 1)2 - and a large group of serpentine commodes that are attributed to Hill's workshop.3 The link strengthens other stylistic and documentary clues to suggest that Hill employed German immigrants, including the use of an Augsburg lining paper in the drawers of at least two commodes firmly attributed to Hill.4 Moreover, the Doddington commode's exotic bombé form reflects the most elaborate of various options presented by Hill to Delaval in a letter (the first in a short series) of 10 September 1775:

    Honourd Sir
    I am favourd with your kind letter covering a Draught of forty seven pounds seventeen shillings, bing in full of all Demands I can make two commoads full as large as yt sent for 18£=18s the casing and cariage to London to be paid for 1£=7s more as those I sent cost me ye money I had for them, my Hands[?] is greatly improvd and more Ready then at first if this be agreeable may depend on their being compleatly finish'd beg all ye time that can be given as it Requirs Time in finishing. I have lately made some in sattin Wood and all ye work secured and pollish'd with copell varnish, those never alter and is greatly aprovd of the price Delivred in London will be 25£ if commoded ends and front onley one way as comoads is generily[?] made this sort may be made in common at 14£ 14. If secured and varnish about 18=18 ...5

    Hill's offer to make a less expensive type 'with commoded ends and front onley one way' implies that the more expensive version was 'commoded' two ways - that is to say, bombé, as we see here, rather than serpentine like the vast majority of Hill's known commodes (and of other contemporary English examples).

    The re-appearance of this commode for the first time in eighty years allows us both to confirm the attribution to Hill and to re-assess its date. Its design, construction, marquetry and mounts all occupy a transitional point between the V&A commode and Hill's serpentine commodes - most notably one now in a private collection. This was probably supplied to the 9th Duke of Somerset between 1770 and 1771, when he paid Hill a total of £227 10s. 3d. (£227.51p.).6 While the Doddington commode retains the bombé form of the V&A piece, its drawers are now separated by dustboards, expressed on the front face, where those on the V&A commode are veneered sans traverse. The drawer-fronts are edged with cross-banded ovolo mouldings, but not yet with the cockbeads that are typical of Hill's serpentine commodes. The commode top has a larger cross-banded ovolo moulding, in place of the brass moulding of the same profile on the V&A commode - but not yet the more pronounced moulding, often ebonized, used on serpentine examples.

    The composition of the marquetry finds clear parallels in the V&A commode (the flowers and birds on the top, the bouquets on the ends), but even more striking is the similarity of the floral groups on the drawer-fronts to those on the Somerset commode (which also has loosely comparable bouquets on the ends). Specific details are also paralleled in the V&A commode - the drawing of the birds, and the flame-like rocailles (on the drawer-fronts of the Doddington commode and the top cartouche of the V&A commode). The V&A and Doddington commodes share the use of staining and mastic-filled engraving; but scorching, used extensively on the V&A commode, scarcely features on this one (and the isolated instances may be later repairs).

    The mounts are another obvious point of comparison: the angle and toe mounts are of the same model as on the V&A commode - models that are also paralleled on numerous commodes attributed to Pierre Langlois, which may therefore have been procured from Dominique Jean;7 while the drawer-handles match those on the Somerset commode - this pattern of handle also being found in the work of London makers (fig.5).8

    The construction follows the same pattern, being directly comparable in many ways to the V&A piece, but with differences that mark the development towards the neater, more characteristically English manufacture of Hill's serpentine commodes (fig.3). Like the former it is made, without great attention to internal finish, predominantly of deal; but the top is mahogany and the frames to support the drawers, open on the V&A commode, are now infilled as solid dustboards (fig.2). Each infill board, however, instead of being made integrally with the frame (as in Hill's serpentine commodes), is nailed up from the underside. This might suggest that the infill was an afterthought, but curiously the bottom board - which must always have been intended to be solid - is made in the same way. The drawer construction shows this transition even more clearly: on the V&A commode the drawers have laminated deal fronts, but are otherwise oak, the grain in the bottom board running from front to back. The Doddington commode's drawers also have deal fronts, which are almost certainly laminated as they are veneered on the back face in mahogany - the same distinctive treatment as adopted in the majority of Hill's later commodes (fig.4). Each drawer otherwise has a laterally grained deal bottom and
    mahogany back and sides - again as in Hill's later commodes, but without the lining paper typically used on those pieces to cover the deal bottom. Hitherto it has been proposed that this piece was one of two 'sattin Wood' commodes that Hill made for Sir John Delaval in 1776, as recorded in further correspondence about the progress of the order - on the supposition that 'satinwood' was Hill's shorthand for marquetry on a satinwood ground. However, the Doddington commode incorporates no satinwood at all, making it hard to sustain this identification. And as noted above, its construction is distinctly rougher - and more Germanic - than in other, earlier pieces from Hill's workshop. The only serpentine commode with any documentary link to Hill is the Somerset piece (1770 or 1771), but the sheer number of serpentine examples extant must undoubtedly have been made over a period of several years before Henry Hill's death in 1778. A pair of 'French Commodes' in mahogany with rosewood banding, supplied by Hill to Paul Methuen in 1770 for £13 13s., were probably also of this characteristic model.9 So a date as late as 1776 for the Doddington commode seems increasingly improbable: Hill might perhaps have made a piece in an old-fashioned style at a client's request, but it is very unlikely that the techniques of construction would be so ill-matched to his usual manufacture, long established by 1776.

    A review of the documentary evidence also suggests that the Doddington commode pre-dates Hill's correspondence with Sir John Delaval. In his opening letter of 10 September 1775 (quoted above) Hill thanks Sir John for payment of £47 7s., for a consignment that evidently included one or possibly two commodes (the letter is ambiguous about this).10 He then offers to make 'two commoads full as large as yt [that] sent for 18£ 18s [£18.90p.]', adding, 'I have lately made some in sattin Wood ... secured and pollish'd with copell varnish', priced at £25. So the cheaper version (at £18 18s.) was perhaps in mahogany, and both models were by implication bombé. A serpentine version (with 'commoded ends and front onley one way') of the satinwood type would cost £14 14s. (£14.70p.) or £18 18s. (£18.90p.), depending on the quality of varnish used. Given that Hill's mahogany commodes for Paul Methuen cost £13 13s. each, these prices must have been per piece rather than for a pair. No reference is made to the use of marquetry in the prospective commodes. We do not have Sir John Delaval's side of the correspondence, confirming his choices, but we do know that his next and only further payment to Hill through Hoare's Bank was for £51 2s. (paid on 9 April 1777) - by which time Hill had made him two mahogany wardrobes as well as two commodes. Even if the wardrobes were of the cheapest type offered - £9 each - Delaval paid no more than £33 2s. (£33.10p.) for the commodes, one of which (the larger of the two) was given the superior varnish. So these would appear to have been serpentine (not bombé) and in satinwood (not marquetry).11

    The bombé marquetry commode from Doddington was therefore almost certainly made before the work carried out in 1775-76 - and probably well before the Somerset commode of 1770 or 1771. So we can reasonably date it to the second half of the 1760s. The same date range, incidentally, was ascribed by Peter Thornton and William Rieder to the bombé and serpentine commodes attributed to Pierre Langlois that feature the same angle mounts.12 Since Delaval's earliest recorded payment to Hill, through Hoare's bank, is the £47 7s. of 1775, this
    dating might indicate that Delaval paid for the commode by other means - and perhaps before 1768 when he opened his account with Hoare's. Another possibility, however, is that this is the commode (or one of two commodes) referred to in Hill's opening letter to Sir John Delaval - which by implication was bombé - and that it came from stock some years old at the time: Hill's reference to the commode(s) as 'yt sent' (and later 'those I sent'), with no mention of its being made, or being for Sir John, is slightly
    suggestive of such a circumstance. Delaval secured a bargain on the same basis the following year, when he bought another elaborate commode and pair of
    corner cupboards, heavily discounted, which had been in John Cobb's warehouse for several years.13 If the inscription on the drawer-front of the Doddington commode, '£21-', refers to the original price of this piece, that too tends to suggest it was kept in stock rather than made to commission. This price is consistent with Hill's charges for less elaborate but more carefully finished commodes made a few years later - especially if it too was discounted to attract potential purchasers.

    The re-assessment of this commode, made possible by its appearance in the flesh, allows us to identify it as the earliest known piece of marquetry furniture from Henry Hill's workshop. It is critical in demonstrating the link between the even more Germanic commode in the V&A (which may or may not have been made under Hill's supervision) and his characteristic model of 'French commode'. It therefore forms the strongest evidence that one or more immigrants were employed by Henry Hill in Marlborough - the only regional furniture maker of his time known to have had such cosmopolitan ambition.

    1 Harris c. 1930, Vol. II, p. 173; Wood 1990, p. 204 & n. 51.

    2 Museum no. W.10-1957; Wood 1990, p. 206 & n. 57 and figs 4-5; Wood 1994, p.
    69 & n. 12 and fig. 54. The commode came from Hagley Hall, Worcestershire, but
    it is not known if it had always been there or was acquired to refurnish the
    house after a major fire in 1925.

    3 Wood 1990, pp. 201-07, figs 4-15, 19-23; Wood 1994, cat. no. 4, pp. 67-73.

    4 One in the Lady Lever Art Gallery (Wood 1994, cat. no. 4); the other on the
    British art market in the late 1990s.

    5 Wiltshire and Swindon Record Office, 2DE/34/2/79; see Wood 1990, pp. 217-22,
    where the rest of Hill's correspondence with Delaval is also transcribed.

    6 Wood 1990, p. 202 & n. 41 and fig. 8; Wood 1994, pp. 67 & n. 3, pp. 68-69 &
    n. 11 and fig. 55. No later payments to Hill are recorded in these accounts.

    7 Peter Thornton and William Rieder, 'Pierre Langlois, Ébeniste', Parts 2-4,
    Connoisseur, Vol. 179, Nos 720-722 (February-April 1972), pp. 105-12, 176-87,
    257-65, passim.

    8 See for example Christopher Gilbert, The Life and Work of Thomas Chippendale
    (London, 1978), fig. 270 (the same back-plates combined with a different
    bail). The handles on the V&A commode are later replacements.

    9 Wiltshire Record Office: 1742/5073. See Wood 1990, p. 206.

    10 In this respect and in setting out his options for commodes of various
    qualities, Henry Hill's letter is not entirely clear, as it lacks punctuation.
    The interpretation offered below is argued in detail in Wood 1990, pp. 203-04
    & n. 50.

    11 They probably resembled the satinwood commode attributed to Hill from the
    collection of Edward James, West Dean house sale, Christie's, 2-6 June 1986,
    lot 229; see Wood 1990, fig. 19.

    12 Thornton and Rieder, 'Pierre Langlois' (1972), Part 3, p. 178, fig. 6; Part
    4, pp. 260-65, groups IX-X, figs 8-11 (and, more tentatively ascribed to
    Langlois, groups XI-XII, figs 12, 15-17 and 19).

    13 Wood 1990, pp. 200-01, 215-17, figs 2-3; Wood 1994, cat. no. 6.

Saleroom notices

  • Please note that the record office referred to in reference 5 to the footnote should read the Nortumberland Record Office and not the Wiltshire and Swindon Record Office.
A George III padouk, sabicu and marquetry serpentine commode
A George III padouk, sabicu and marquetry serpentine commode
A George III padouk, sabicu and marquetry serpentine commode
A George III padouk, sabicu and marquetry serpentine commode
A George III padouk, sabicu and marquetry serpentine commode
A George III padouk, sabicu and marquetry serpentine commode
A George III padouk, sabicu and marquetry serpentine commode
A George III padouk, sabicu and marquetry serpentine commode
A George III padouk, sabicu and marquetry serpentine commode
A George III padouk, sabicu and marquetry serpentine commode
A George III padouk, sabicu and marquetry serpentine commode
A George III padouk, sabicu and marquetry serpentine commode
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