Following on from a brief discussion about provenance, one of my readers reread my blog entry of late last year about provenance. Her specific interest was how provenance aids attribution, and, in our brief e-mail exchange, she suggested that attribution is one of those terms that loosely fly about, but should be defined. Your wish is my command.
Within the context of the material that makes up the core business of Chappell & McCullar, i.e. 18th century English furniture, attribution refers specifically to who made the piece. As readers of my occasional articles about English furniture will know, attribution is often difficult to determine, as English furniture is seldom marked or labeled by the maker. There are exceptions to this rule, and enough of them to have a volume devoted to marked London made furniture. Christopher Gilbert’s Pictorial Dictionary of Marked London Furniture illustrates the pieces that are labeled, obviously, but it does not necessarily follow that unmarked pieces that match those illustrated can be attributed to the same maker as the marked or labeled examples. The fact is, London, as the style center, was a veritable hothouse of design, with workshops all copying fashionable styles and motifs from one another. One of the most prolific and best known shops, that of Thomas Chippendale, didn’t label or mark anything.
However, a number of makers, Chippendale included, completed some huge suites of furniture in the 18th century, and invoices from the various workshops survive in the inventories of some of the great houses. This, of course, is where provenance aids attribution, in that, if it is known who owned the piece before, this ownership can be matched against surviving documentary information and an attribution can then be determined. This is still tricky work, as invoices and inventories are seldom exact. ‘Armchair in the French taste’ might be enough of a description to determine an English-made bergère, but often the inventories run to the likes of ‘divers(sic) chairs & stools’. As well, house contents were added to, and, given the size of some of the commissions, a number of workshops were simultaneously providing contents- all to the same sets of designs.
Speaking of design, furniture makers in the 18th century were awash with pattern and design books, with Chippendale’s Director … only one of very many. As with the finished product, the design books were repositories of fashionable motifs of the day, not what was original to either the workshop or the designer. In fact, some of the most prominent designers were not cabinet makers at all. Thomas Sheraton, for example, earned his living as a drawing master, with his furniture designs perhaps functioning primarily to promote his prowess as a draftsman. Consequently, design motifs drawn from pattern books are seldom any real help in determining attribution. Although use of a pattern along with quality of workmanship can reflect a sophistication that might indicate a piece as London made, some non-London makers, Wright and Elwick in Leeds, Gillows of Lancaster, and Henry Hill of Marlborough as examples, were as up to the minute as their London colleagues.
The use of the phrase ‘In the manner of…’ or ‘In the style of…’ as a prefix to signify a design relationship with a particular 18th century maker is perfectly acceptable in the antiques world. At present, we have an exquisite pair of late 18th century pier tables the frieze of which has an anthemion motif favored by the architect Robert Adam. We have, then labeled these ‘in the style of Robert Adam.’ But this motif was a neoclassical design element used with some frequency during the period. Although sophisticated, the maker of the pier tables is unknown. ‘Style of…’ and ‘Manner of..’ should not be confused with attribution.
Attribution, then, is tough to arrive at absent some fairly compelling support.