Musical Chairs!

March 9 2010, 7:40pm

Highly unusual lyre-back armchair. English, circa 1795. Carlton Hobbs LLC.

The use of the form of the ancient lyre in the square back of a chair was an innovation of the first phase of post-Rococo Neo-Classicism in the second part of the Eighteenth Century.  The lyre itself was derived from depictions of the instrument in Greek and Roman vases; these vases were central to the revival of interest in the antique that exercised a profound influence on the development of the decorative arts in the period. Apollo Cup, circa 480-470 BCE; Delphi Museum, Greece.

The form of these vases and the scenes they depict began to exercise a great hold on the imagination of the age through the propagation of works such as Pierre François d’Hancarville’s four volume Catalogue of the Collection of Etruscan, Greek and Roman antiquities from the cabinet of the Hon. William Hamilton, published between 1767 and 1776. Robert Adam made use of the lyre form in chairs of the 1770’s, as did designers such as John Linnell who worked under his influence.  Visiting Adam’s Osterley in 1773, Horace Walpole observed: “The chairs are taken from antique lyres and make a charming harmony.” A chair from Osterley, designed by Adam and today in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, is an example of his use of the lyre splat; conceived in a highly stylised mode of scrolling decoration and lapping acanthus leaves.  A second chair from the V&A, also designed for Osterley, probably by John Linnell, illustrates the way that the form of the lyre became highly stylised in some of the furniture of the 1770’s. Matching lyre-back side chair. English, circa 1795. Carlton Hobbs LLC.

In the present set of chairs, however, the lyre takes a highly unusual naturalistic form, with knots in the curving arms and carved undulations in the wood. The striking effect is accentuated by the simplicity of the overall form of the chair; the back itself is filled only by the form of the lyre, in contrast with the more exuberant stylization of the chairs from earlier in the century.  They are related to a similar pair of English painted armchairs sold by Christie’s London, 21 April 1994 (below). Pair of Late George III lyre-back armchairs. Sole by Christie's London, 21 April 1994.