A pair of George II Virginia walnut hall chairs designed by William Kent, circa 1735.
These chairs belong to a suite of furniture which includes a pair of benches at Holkham and a smaller bench recently acquired from Edward Hurst by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
All share an idiosyncratic construction, including grooves at the top of the inner back legs (by which the back panels were slid into place) and rough-hewn undersides to the seats; these are deeply rebated to accommodate the hand-cut nails which hold the arms to the seat.
The recent discovery that the present chairs were at Melton Constable (only a few miles from Holkham) in the early 20th Century raises a possibility that the suite could have originated there.
Were that the case it would most likely have been commissioned by Sir Jacob Astley (1692-1760) who succeeded in 1739. There is, however, no record of any involvement by William Kent at Melton Constable.
What seems more likely (and in the absence of further evidence this must remain speculative) is that the suite originally furnished Kent’s great Marble Hall at Holkham and was subsequently partially dispersed.
Neither the 1760 nor the 1774 Holkham inventories include an entry for the Marble Hall, which does not help. The absence of an extensive and grand suite of hall furniture at Holkham is puzzling:
‘Wooden settees and matching hall chairs were created by Kent for the great halls and corridors of the Anglo-Palladian mansions townhouses and villas that he designed.
Hall furniture, the first furniture a visitor would encounter, created a dramatic impression, communicating the importance of the house through the form, proportions, and quality of wood used in its making’ (S. Weber, ‘Kent and the Georgian Baroque Style in Furniture: Domestic Commissions’, William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain, New Haven and London, 2013, pp. 482-483).
The idiosyncratic construction of the suite (probably indicating a local maker or joiner) may also lend credence to a Holkham origin for the suite. Thomas Coke, 1st Earl of Leicester (1697-1759), is known to have ordered sample chairs from London makers and then have local makers copy them.
The clear prototype (followed almost exactly) for the suite is the set of seat furniture around the Stone Hall at neighboring Houghton, which were in place by 1728.
The Houghton suite is clearly the work of a London maker, possibly James Richards. It seems likely that Thomas Coke commissioned a local maker to make the suite, closely based on that at Houghton.