7 August 2017


By Jack Metcalfe

Given their supreme standing in Chippendale’s prestigious oeuvre, I am delighted to write about the Melbourne Cabinets that were intended for the display of porcelain and are currently housed at Firle Place, Sussex. The report and photographs that chronicle the conservation of these cabinets carried out in 1983 by the late David Hawkins first came to my notice in January 2007. Sadly, David Hawkins died in October 2006, aged 84, before I had the chance to meet him. His book “The Techniques of Wood Surface Decoration”, published in 1986, is a source of great inspiration to me, especially in providing a greater insight into marquetry techniques through the ages. Hawkins was an expert and highly respected furniture restorer, specialising in 18th century marquetry. Prior to conserving the Melbourne Cabinets David had restored the damaged pier table made for the circular dressing room at Harewood House, now owned by the Chippendale Society, and on view at Temple Newsam, Yorkshire.

Hawkins’ exemplary conservation of the Melbourne Cabinets took five months to complete (October 1983 to February 1984). Damaged marquetry was skilfully lifted and repaired. Also, missing tulipwood cross-banding had to be sourced and matched in figure and colour to blend with the existing veneers, so that on my visit to Firle Place in 2007 I found it impossible to spot the new from the original.  Hawkins’ cleaning of the marquetry revealed some of the original dyed veneers. Areas of the marquetry decorative features were sensitively reworked, finally the two cabinets were re-polished.

While these majestic cabinets will always attract academic and technical interest, they also provide an example to custodians of historic furniture as to the merits through expert conservation the furniture may be enhanced, revealing vital, but hitherto hidden techniques in the process. David Hawkins’ discoveries will hopefully aid future students to better understand the working practises of eighteenth century journeymen. In my opinion, The Melbourne Cabinets are unique, and provide the very best example of ‘design and build’ from Chippendale’s workshop.

Basic construction information

The cabinets, measuring 2470mm (8′ 1¼”) high, 1370mm (4′ 6″) wide at the back, 1130mm (3′ 8½”) wide at the front, and 550mm (1′ 9½”) deep at the base, are identical in size and design. They form the tallest pieces of all   Chippendale marquetry furniture. The single glass door opens on the front of the upper section of each cabinet, which are fitted inside with adjustable mahogany shelves for the display of porcelain, while down either side the two incurving doors reveal further fixed shaped shelves, once again lined in mahogany.  The lower section of the cabinet has three drawers, two small, left and right, and a larger central drawer. Dummy drawers fold around the two incurved sides. Three cupboard doors match the three drawers above, with the central door revealing three draw units of varying depths, with drop ormolu handles.

The veneer used for most of the marquetry is holly. Tulipwood is used to provide the cross banding throughout. Padauk and ash are also evident. The carcases are constructed in pine, while in contrast the visible timbers on the doors, drawers, shelves etc. are mahogany, as a display of opulence. Christopher Gilbert referred to the background veneer as satinwood, while David Hawkins opined that it was sycamore, a simple mistake to make in both instances, since aged holly mellows to the same colour: however, I have no doubt as to the correct species. Holly veneer was also used as the background foil for the Renishaw Commode, now housed at Renishaw Hall, Derbyshire. Recent research confirms that both the Renishaw commode and the Melbourne Cabinets, belonged to the same suite commissioned by the 1st Viscount Melbourne for Melbourne House, Piccadilly, London (Albany today). We can only speculate that the patron requested holly, which would have had the appearance of a white background in the eighteenth century, to suit the decoration of a room? Certainly the multi-coloured dyed marquetry set against a white foil, would have produced the maximum impact when displayed at Melbourne House!

Hawkins’ Restoration report

David’s report reveals many fascinating details. For example, there is evidence that the cabinets were made by two different journeymen at the London workshop. The clue is the way the incurved ends were coopered. One cabinetmaker used a different technique to that used on the partner cabinet. Coopering refers to a cabinet making technique whereby the panels are shaped to form curved sides, similar to the construction of barrels.  Only the most talented journeymen gained employment at such a highly prestigious establishment, yet each had his own methodology. However, the application of the marquetry is consistent on both pieces, and thus confirming the hand of one talented marqueteur.  The three fans made for these cabinets echo the same techniques found on the Renishaw Commode and the Diana & Minerva Commode commissioned for Harewood House.

As one would expect of such a quality workshop, Thomas Chippendale engaged a marqueteur who used 18th century techniques for producing marquetry, which eliminate gaps between the background foil veneer and each decorative element.  This was achieved through the use of templates and precise cutting with a knife, such as in the construction of the fans.  Similarly two-part fret sawing – one part to the foil veneer and the other part to the multitude of foliage, torchere and the impressive vase on the central door medallion resulted in tight joints throughout. The addition of engraved or decorative embellishments applied with a brush to the ram’s heads provides the all-important finish associated with the neo-classical style.

I am indebted to Viscount Gage for allowing me to reproduce illustrations relating to David Hawkins’ conservation of the Melbourne Cabinets in 1983 in my forthcoming book: “Chippendale’s Classic Marquetry Revealed”, due for publication by 2018 to coincide with Thomas Chippendale’s tercentenary exhibition at the Leeds City Museum, 9 February to 10 June, 2018.

Jack Metcalfe

Freelance Marqueteur