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Important Irish Furniture: The 'Blessington Commode' at Townley Hall

September 29, 2023

Expected to lead our ‘Country House Collections’ sale at Townley Hall on the 9th and 10th October with a low estimate of €100,000 is the ‘Blessington Commode,’ attributed to John Kirkhoffer.

This important Irish walnut and seaweed marquetry serpentine chest features a top inlaid with the arms of William Stewart, Earl of Blessington, and is decorated overall with Berainesque marquetry inlay with elaborate ormolu side carrying handles en suite with the drawer handles.

The history of the commode and its designer has been developed over the past seventy years. The note in the Auction Catalogue traces this history:

‘It was the renowned furniture historian and collector R.W Symonds who first posited in 1956 that a curious collection of early to mid-18th century marquetry inlaid writing cabinets had an Irish origin. Indeed, the piece in the Victoria & Albert Museum was traditionally known as ‘Dean Swift’s Cabinet’. The Knight of Glin, who had worked in the furniture department of the V&A, was convinced that this was so and went on a hunt to find other examples.

This culminated in his article in the Irish Arts Review Vol 13 (1997) where he conclusively demonstrated that the marquetry inlay incorporated into unequivocally Irish types of furniture was supplied by the same workshop which must have been in Dublin. The ‘Blessington Commode’ had just appeared at the London Art market and the armorials of an Irish nobleman, similarities of the motifs in the inlay and the use of native veneers such as holly, were enough for him to publish it in this article as 'probably Irish' and assigned the date of 1745, the creation of Stewart’s earldom. The continental influenced design of the piece and this late date puzzled him.

A breakthrough came when in 2007 the Art Institute of Chicago revealed that their desk was signed John Kirkhoffer/fecit/1732. Kirkhoffer from the Palatinate is recorded in Dublin in the early 18th century, and he founded a cabinet making business that lasted into the 19th century. Indeed, it became “by appointment to the Lord Lieutenant and The Board of Works,” and supplied most of the official buildings with furniture, fitted bookcases and fixtures.

The same inlay on the Chicago cabinet of opposed winged griffins appears on the ‘Blessington Commode’ and the continental shape of the base of the Chicago cabinet clearly demonstrates that Kirkhoffer continued to work in this style. Also, the V&A revisited the inscription on their piece which connected it to Dean Swift. It didn’t, but, more importantly, it recorded a Dublin address.

The ‘Blessington Commode’ is unique, and its history lost. Stewart lived in Henrietta Street and possessed the great mansion house at Blessington. Buthe had vacated Henrietta Street before his earldom was created and Blessingtonwas burnt in the 1798 rising.

The ‘Blessington Commode’ keeps many secrets, but Kirkhoffer would surely have made others like it and most probably they are adrift somewhere, their Dublin origins unrecognised. As it stands the ‘Blessington Commode’ is the most important piece of Irish mid-18th century inlaid furniture extant.’

Explore this lot
Niamh Corcoran
Fine Art Department

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