Pair of polychrome Windsor chairs – £12,000 at Lawrences of Crewkerne.

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A pair of polychrome Windsor chairs sold for £12,000 at Lawrences (25% buyer’s premium) of Crewkerne on April 8 are part of a group that pose a puzzle for furniture historians.

In construction, design and decoration they lie a little outside most Windsor chairmaking traditions.

Chairs from perhaps two sets are known that share the same general form and the distinctive red and white painted ground. They were part of the contents of Enmore Castle, a mid 18th century-Gothic revival house in Somerset, that were dispersed in 1899. The property was later demolished.

The so-called Perceval-Compton chair in the Victoria and Albert Museum is painted with the arms of John Perceval, 2nd Earl of Egmont (1711-70) impaling that of his second wife, Catherine Compton of Lohort Castle, Co Cork.

The name Enmore is painted on the arm bow alongside the date 1756 in Roman numerals – the year the couple were married.

It seems the chairs at Lawrences belonged to this particular group. Like another pair sold at Christie’s for £15,000 in 2004, they had been bought at the Enmore Castle sale by a Mrs Notley of Combe Sydenham Hall, Somerset. They were later acquired by the vendor’s parents when Combe Sydenham was sold in the 1960s.

But while provenance points generally to the West Country and specifically to Somerset, alternative attributions have also been suggested.

Broader knowledge

In an article in the Journal of the Regional Furniture Society (2004), Diana Taylor argues that these chairs “express a broader knowledge of design and construction techniques than might be anticipated among local rural craftsmen of the mid-18th century”.

Her detailed analysis of the painted heraldry concludes they are “unlikely to have been produced before 1777’ and certainly not before Catherine Compton became Baroness Arden of Lohort Castle in 1770.

The chairs may indeed reflect Compton’s Irish roots. In particular, the technique of ‘foxtail wedging’ used here to strengthen the joints that secure the spindles into the arm bow is a characteristic of chairs made in Ireland.

So, why the date 1756?

It seems probable that these Perceval-Compton chairs copy an earlier set that may indeed have been made when the couple were married. An outwardly similar chair sold for £19,000 at Brightwells in Leominster in 2003 has both significantly different heraldry (applicable to the period 1756-63) and subtle differences in manufacture.

Made in yew or mahogany (rather than the elm, beech and walnut used for the later set), its quality implies it was probably produced by specialist craftsmen in London.

“In my opinion”, said Taylor, “it is this chair that commemorates the 2nd Earl of Egmont’s marriage to Catherine Compton in 1756.”

Where and when they were made may remain a moot point. However, few could object to the new home for Lawrences’ pair of chairs.

The buyer of this pair (sold on the low estimate) plus three pictures of Combe Sydenham was William Theed, the owner of the Somerset country house for more than 60 years.

He commented that he had sat on these very chairs when he purchased the house in 1963.

“We are delighted that these lots have travelled a little in their time but are now back in the place where their relevance is so strong”, said Lawrences chairman Helen Carless.