A highly important pair of semi-elliptical marquetry and ormolu commodes, each with a central drawer and two hinged, sprung quadrant drawers in the frieze, over three graduated front drawers and two quadrant cupboards enclosing shelves, standing on four short legs with vase-shaped feet. Each commode is veneered with panels of harewood and West Indian satinwood, with tulipwood cross-banding, purplewood banding, and ‘white’ and ‘black’ stringing and cockbeads. The harewood and satinwood serve as dark and light grounds to the marquetry decoration of each commode, which centres on a coat of arms on the top (Birch impaling Ryves), surrounded by ribbon-tied husk festoons, crossed palms and foliate trails, with urns, semi-paterae, acanthus and further ribbon-tied husks on the frieze, the cupboard doors and the ‘pilasters’ that divide the cupboards from the front drawers. The lower drawers (veneered without marquetry) are each mounted with a pair of ormolu ring handles with pierced patera back-plates; and the architectural form is further defined by three horizontal ormolu mounts – gadrooning around the top, rosettes and ribbon beneath the frieze, and reed and ribbon at the bottom. The legs have shallow blocks of marquetry fluting above ormolu-mounted vase-shaped feet, clad in acanthus with ball terminals.
Attributed to Mayhew & Ince.
These commodes are attributed to the large London cabinet-making practice of Mayhew & Ince, established in Soho in 1759, who appear to have been responsible for a group of commodes of related design, decoration and technique. The attribution was first proposed by Hugh Roberts, comparing these pieces to the seminal Derby House Commode, which was designed by Robert Adam in 1774, for the Countess of Derby’s ‘Etruscan’ Dressing Room at her house in Grosvenor Square, and delivered by Mayhew & Ince the following year. The group of semi-circular or semi-elliptical commodes all appear to be inspired by this important prototype, sharing with it the same bow-fronted form, organized as a classically-proportioned architectural façade (a wide central bay between narrower upright bays, divided by ‘pilasters’ and surmounted by a frieze), the same repertoire of classical ornament (including ‘antique’ vases, husks, ribbon bows and paterae), similar techniques of marquetry (stained, engraved and filled with coloured mastics), and several recurring models of ormolu mount (gadrooned and reed-and-ribbon mouldings being especially favoured).
Supplied c. 1775–80 to Robert Birch (d. 1810) and his wife Catherine, née Ryves (d. 1819) – whose arms, impaled, are depicted on the top of each commode – probably for Turvey House, Donabate, co. Dublin.
Perhaps Arthur S. Vernay, Inc. (before 1918), interior decorators to the next owner:
Mrs Morton F. Plant (Mae or Maisy, née Caldwell, widowed 1918, from 1919 Mrs William Hayward, from 1954 Mrs John E. Rovensky, d. 1956), at the Plant Mansion, 5th Avenue and 86th Street, New York (probably by 1918, certainly by 1927); her posthumous sale, Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, 19 January 1957, lots 965 and 966.
Claude Leigh (d. 1964), West Riddens, Cuckfield, West Sussex.
A private collection, sold Christie’s London, 25 June 1981, lot 133; sold to another private collector, by whom sold Christie’s London, 5 July 2012, lot 33.
The Irish history of these commodes has inevitably raised the question whether they could alternatively come from the workshop of William Moore, who had trained with Mayhew & Ince before moving back to Ireland in 1777 and setting up his own business in Dublin two years later. That the accredited output of the two firms has much in common is therefore to be expected. However, Moore is very unlikely to be responsible for the manufacture of these commodes, particularly in view of their very close relationship to the pair of small commodes discussed above, which are securely attributed to the London firm (though lacking direct documentation). Moore’s marquetry, while sharing certain motifs with Mayhew & Ince’s output, is generally less adventurous and less sophisticated in composition. Above all, the furniture attributed to Moore’s workshop is conspicuously bereft of ormolu mounts; whereas the mounts deployed here are all of models very characteristic of Mayhew & Ince. The majority of their mounts were almost certainly made in London, probably in or near their own premises. The difficulties of remotely co-ordinating the provision of mounts and cabinet-work are demonstrated by the correspondence between Mayhew & Ince in London and Boulton & Fothergill in Birmingham, over the Duchess of Manchester’s celebrated cabinet. Even for this piece, of a fairly simple rectilinear form, some of the mounts as first supplied did not fit and had to be altered, involving unwanted compromises. Any attempt to procure mounts to fit a bow-fronted facade, with precisely the right curvature, by correspondence between Dublin and London (or Birmingham) would doubtless have been a challenge too far.
Robert Birch and Turvey House.:
Robert Birch belonged to a different social spectrum from other known Irish clients of Mayhew & Ince, but this may be primarily a factor of the chance survival of archival records. His own patronage of the firm, after all, would be unknown but for the coat of arms proudly depicted on the commode tops. At the time of his marriage in 1759 he was described as ‘an eminent merchant of this City’ (Dublin) in Faulkner’s Dublin Journal. He later became an MP in the Irish Parliament, attracting uncomplimentary remarks in parliamentary sketches of 1782. By that date he may have run into financial difficulties (partly alleviated by his appointment as Clerk of the Quick Rents for £150 a year). In 1768, however, he had loaned money to Viscount Kingsland, on the security of Turvey House, where he and his wife subsequently lived. This late seventeenth-century house of two storeys, nine bays wide, was altered at various stages in the eighteenth century. Birch seems to have made architectural improvements there in the early 1770s (the date 1773 was recorded on a Venetian window), and these could well have led to the commissioning of the present commodes. Whether they were an isolated order or part of a larger furnishing scheme has yet to be investigated. Much relevant evidence may have been lost in the demolition of the house itself, as recently as 1987.
D.Nickerson, English Furniture of the Eighteenth Century, London, 1969, pp. 66 - 67, figs. 68 - 69.
Geoffrey Beard and Judith Goodison, English Furniture 1500 - 1840, Oxford, 1987, p.187, pl.4.
F. Lewis-Hinckley, Hepplewhite, Sheraton & Regency Furniture, New York, 1987, p. 209, pl. 175, no. 348.
Arthur S. Vernay, Decorations and English Interiors (New York, 1927), plate 36.
Hugh Roberts, ‘The Derby House Commode’, Burlington Magazine, Vol. 127, No. 986 (May 1985), pp. 275–83 (pp. 280, 282, no. A.4, fig. 15)
J. Peill and The Knight of Glin, Irish Furniture (New Haven and London, 2007), pp. 162–67 and figs 220–26; p. 256, cat. 208.
E. Harris, The Genius of Robert Adam: His Interiors. London and New Haven, 2001, p.289-292.
CONDITION REPORT ON REQUEST.