Follow Us on Twitter

The Burlington House Commodes return home

Arts feature

THE BURLINGTON House Commodes are the only known surviving pieces of furniture from the early history of Burlington House in Piccadilly, once one of the grandest private houses in London and home to the Royal Academy of Arts since 1866.

Their provenance, lost for fifty years, has recently been pieced together by Joseph Friedman, an independent fine art agent and consultant. As a result, their present owner is generously allowing them to return to their former home, a building from which all such contents were long ago removed and presumed lost.

The elegant demi-lune commodes, veneered with glowing West Indian satinwood, are on public view in the splendid Saloon, one of the Royal Academy’s John Madejski Fine Rooms, until December 31, 2009.

Securely recorded in the collection of the Hon. Charles Compton Cavendish (1793-1863), later 1st Lord Chesham, who inherited Burlington House in 1834, the commodes were almost certainly made for his father, Lord George Cavendish (1754-1834), later 1st Earl of Burlington, who moved to Burlington House following his marriage in 1782 and who is known to have commissioned a quantity of related satinwood and marquetry furniture at this period.

There is also evidence that the commodes were specifically altered as part of the remodelling of the state apartments at Burlington House for Lord George Cavendish in the early 19th century, having added side panels of that date which are shaped to match the re-configured profile of the walls and skirting in these interiors.

Removed from Burlington House when it was sold in 1854, the commodes remained in the Cavendish family at Latimer, the family seat in Buckinghamshire, until they were sold by John Compton Cavendish (1894-1952), 4th Baron Chesham, at Sotheby’s in 1945 when it was clearly stated in the catalogue that they came from Burlington House.

The commodes then entered the collection of the 2nd Lord Glenconner, who sold them at Christie’s for £5,040 in 1957 when the Burlington House provenance was overlooked and the connection was lost and not recovered when they were sold again at Christie’s in 1984 for £59,400. It is only thanks to Joseph Friedman who spotted a label on the reverse of one of the commodes that their history has again come to light.

The label indicates that in 1854 they belonged to Lord Burlington’s younger son, the Hon. Charles Compton Cavendish (1793-1863), later 1st Baron Chesham, who had inherited Burlington House following his father’s death twenty years earlier. The date of the label coincides with the sale of Burlington House by Lord Chesham to the Government as the eventual home for the Royal Academy and other cultural institutions.

Friedman concluded that the label must have referred to a lost inventory compiled when the house was sold and further research led him first to the 1945 Sotheby’s catalogue and then to the 1957 and 1984 Christie’s catalogues.

The commodes represent the highest standards of Neo-classical design and craftsmanship, having almost certainly been produced by the leading London cabinet-makers John Mayhew and William Ince (fl. 1758-1804) who also worked extensively for Lord George Cavendish’s elder brother, the 5th Duke of Devonshire, from whom Lord George originally leased Burlington House before acquiring the property outright.

These important commodes are constructed of deal, mahogany and oak, veneered with figured West Indian satinwood and holly with rosewood bandings, hare-wood and burr-yew marquetry and ormolu mounts. Their presence in Burlington House will significantly enhance both the recent restoration of the state apartments and the public’s understanding of these interiors as well as being the first time in over 150 years that any of the historic furnishings from the house can be seen in their original context.

Location: John Madejski Fine Rooms at the Royal Academy of Arts.

Times: Tuesday to Friday from 1pm to 4.30pm, Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 6pm (closed Monday).

Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, W1J 0BD