Earl Spencer’s £700k sofa set to take pride of place at museum
IT ONCE had pride of place in one of the grandest rooms in London. The sofa was commissioned by Earl Spencer, an ancestor of Diana, the late Princess of Wales, as part of a suite of furniture ordered for his new aristocratic townhouse in the mid-18th century.
Now Spencer’s old sofa – which was valued at around £700,000 a decade ago – is going on display at the National Museum of Scotland under a scheme which allows donors to leave major works of art to the nation.
It will initially take a prime spot near the historic main doors of the museum’s grand gallery, although it is likely to be a key feature in one of four major new galleries due to open at the Edinburgh attraction in the next few years.
The sofa, which will be added to the museum’s vast collection of European decorative art, has been in a private collection over the past decade, but its owner recently passed away. It was one of a dozen new gifts to the nation under the “acceptance in lieu” scheme, which allows outstanding artefacts and artworks to be donated as a way of settling tax bills.
The sofa is of huge interest to experts as an early example of neo-classical furniture.
From its conception, Spencer House was recognised as one of the most ambitious aristocratic town houses ever built in London and remains the city’s only great 18th-century private palace to survive intact. Situated in the heart of St James’s, Spencer House is a short distance from St James’s Palace, Buckingham Palace and the Palace of Westminster.
Although Spencer House’s architect, John Vardy, who also furnished the mansion, hailed from Durham, it was a Scottish furniture-maker from Dumfriesshire, John Gordon, who was given the task of making it. Spencer House, which dates back to 1756, was initially conceived as a showcase of classical design and its lavish rooms were regularly used for receptions and family gatherings.
The Spencer family was to remain in the house until 1895, when it was let out to the first of a series of tenants, but returned briefly in the early 20th century. However, it was stripped of many of its treasures during the Second World War.
Experts at National Museums Scotland say they will now be recovering and restoring the sofa – which they describe as “an outstanding piece of giltwood furniture” – to its former glory.
A spokeswoman said: “Spencer House was one of the grandest London town houses. The sofa was created for the magnificent Palm Room, a sumptuously decorated reception room on the ground floor.
“The palm frond decoration on the sofa complemented the palm decoration on the west front of the house and on the Corinthian-columned screen in the Palm Room itself.
“The entire commission was an early example of the emerging neo-classical style. The sofa is decorated with motifs taken from ancient Roman sources, although the overall shape is in the previous Rococo style.”
Stephen Jackson, senior curator of applied art and design, said the museum was “very fortunate” to have been gifted the sofa: “When people pass away they can specifically request that an item or collection goes to a particular establishment, but that did not happen in this case.
“We effectively bid for it or put in a note of interest when we became aware that it was coming up as part of the scheme, although it didn’t actually cost us anything as it is a gift to the nation.”
The Arts Council announced that the sofa was to be a gift to the nation in December, along with an outstanding Turner watercolour of Rome, a Rubens painting rarely seen on public display and a Nativity scene by the Italian Renaissance painter Garofalo.
The National Museum has inherited the sofa just weeks after it emerged it had been donated a precious bowl acquired by a Scottish duke more than 200 years ago under the same scheme.
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