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Commode, by Thomas Chippendale

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About the artwork

Lot 128, auctioned at Christie’s on 10 June 1914, was described as follows:

'AN ADAM COMMODE, designed in the French taste, with drawer in the frieze and folding doors below enclosing drawers, inlaid with vases of flowers, rosettes and link ornament in marquetry on satin-wood ground, with tulip-wood borders, mounted with ormolu corners chased with rams’ heads holding laurel-wreaths, and bands of scale pattern - 4 ft. 10 in. wide.
Formerly the property of the Rev. Thomas Cooke, of Brighton, to whom it was presented by the Duke of Wellington.'

The Rev. Cooke was the Iron Duke’s campaign chaplain. It is thought that the commode - one of a pair from His Lordship’s London residence Apsley House - was given to the clergyman when he became Perpetual Curate of St. Peter’s Church, Brighton in 1828. Sold locally after Cooke’s death, the piece came into the possession of Leonard Clow of Hove, from whose collection it was sold by Christie’s to a Mr Partridge for £693. Within a month Partridge had sold it, at a healthy profit, to William Hesketh Lever, for £900.

It is one of 41 articles of English 18th Century furniture described as ‘commodes’ (otherwise chests-of-drawers) in the Lady Lever Art Gallery. However, the collection represents only about a quarter of the total number William Hesketh Lever originally amassed in what amounted to a lifetime’s campaign of buying British. ‘English Art’, he declared at the opening of the Gallery in 1922, ‘transcends in beauty of outline, form and colour that of any of our neighbours, however famous they may be.’

Pre-eminent in the art of 18th Century cabinet-making the ‘neighbours’ he referred to were the French. Even the term ‘commode’ itself is French. In buying and championing the English product in preference to the French, Lever was going against the taste and fashion followed by most other wealthy English and American collectors.

Contrary to Christie’s designation of this piece as an Adam commode, it has been confidently attributed instead to the London workshop of Chippendale, Haig & Co in St. Martin’s Lane, on the grounds of stylistic similarities (the splayed sides with their quartered panels of radiating satinwood, the marquetry sprays of roses on the doors and the rams’ head mounts at the corners) to other documented works from that firm.

There is less confidence in attributing its manufacture to Thomas Chippendale (1718-79) himself. Ascribing it a date is also problematic because it is known that Chippendale the Younger continued producing furniture to variations of his father’s most successful designs for several years after Chippendale the Elder’s death.

But whatever uncertainties remain as to its attribution there is no doubt that the craftsmanship displayed in this article is of an extremely high order and the variety of woods used in its manufacture reads like a bosky litany: oak, mahogany, East Indian rosewood and satinwood, purplewood, pear, apple, sycamore, harewood, tulipwood and box.

An mp3 download of Dr Paul O'Keeffe's gallery talk on Thomas Chippendale's commode is available online.