The mysterious Mr Cuenot
presents new evidence about the identity of the carver who provided ornament and furniture for the 9th Duke and Duchess of Norfolk’s London house, unveiled to rapturous acclaim in 1756.
Thursday, 1st June 2006
The decoration of the celebrated interiors at Norfolk House, St. James’s Square, rebuilt in 1748-56, owed much to the taste of Mary Blount, 9th Duchess of Norfolk. With her Catholic family, she had spent her formative years in exile on the continent and the early years of her marriage in the south of France. During this time she saw and admired both French and Italian interiors.At the time of the rebuilding of Norfolk House, she owned copies of the latest French engravings by the leading designer Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier (1695-1750), published by Gabriel Huquier c. 1749. Although the exterior was designed by the neo-palladian Matthew Brettingham, the interior decoration was masterminded by Giovanni Battista Borra, an architect from Turin who is first recorded in England in 1751. The white and gold interiors had a Parisian ambience, reflecting the latest French fashions, which could be paralleled in London only at Chesterfield House, Mayfair, completed in 1752, but, like Norfolk House, demolished in the 1930s. The carved decoration is by Jean Antoine Cuenot, who was paid £2643 3s 8 1/2 d for work undertaken at Norfolk House between 5 March 1753 and 24 February 1756.
Cuenot, who later worked for George Brudenell, 4th Earl of Cardigan, in 1759, is a mysterious figure.His work at Norfolk House caused a sensation when the interiors were first shown in 1756 and again when the refurbished music room was installed in the British Galleries at the V&A in 2001. At the opening reception, in February 1756, William Farington noted ‘the extreme fine Carvings, the Arts and Sciences all Gilt’ in the music room. In the next room, he saw ‘Gerandoles, fixed in the Frames of the Pictures’, an early form of picture lights, which caused an odd but novel effect, although he was concerned about the risk to the condition of the paintings. He described the festoons over the doors in the Great Drawing Room ‘as soft as Gibbons could work in wood’.
Jean Antoine Cuenot
Cuenot probably won the commission for the carving at Norfolk House through Borra’s influence and he worked closely to Borra’s designs. He was responsible for carving and gilding the ornaments of chimney and pier glasses and table frames in the five rooms of the state apartments on the first floor. The London carpenter William Edwards assisted with the carvings’ installation. It is probable that Borra also introduced the Turinese sculptor Giovanni Battista Plura, who was responsible for at least one of the marble chimneypieces.The music room (Fig. 3), the only interior to survive demolition, was approached from the Great Staircase through the Green Damask Room or the Ante Room. The Green Damask Room led through the Flowered Red Velvet Room into the Great Drawing, or Tapestry, Room, the State Bed Room and State Dressing Room. The music room’s carved woodwork is French in inspiration; the combination of white-painted panelling and giltwood carving is reminiscent of the contemporary music room at Versailles, created in the early 1750s, which Mary, Duchess of Norfolk would have seen. The decoration is a complex combination of styles and influences. The proportions of the room and the compartmented ceiling, both designed by Brettingham, are neo-Palladian, inspired by Inigo Jones. The trophies in the ceiling compartments are rococo, inspired by contemporary designs by Thomas Lightholer, although the sculptor or plasterer responsible is not recorded. The wall panels and carving, symmetrical in design and ornamental details, are taken from French engravings, the masks after prints by Jean Berain (1637-1711), designer to the court of Louis XIV, and the musical trophies from prints after Jacques-François Blondel (1705-74).
The room was sparsely furnished. The windows were hung with green silk-damask curtains, and the room was equipped with three card tables, a dining table and 14 stools of different sizes, seven of varying lengths and seven smaller square stools. There is no evidence that the room was used as a setting for music, but the Duchess of Norfolk certainly received her guests here during the reception in February 1756, when Horace Walpole remarked on the ‘scene of magnificence and taste. The tapestry, the embroidered bed, the illumination, the glasses, the lightness and novelty of the ornaments and the ceilings are delightful’.
The panelling from the music room was removed from Norfolk House before its demolition in 1938 and installed at the V&A. Reassessment prior to redisplay in the British Galleries revealed the crisp, high-relief naturalism of Cuenot’s carving. The panelling of the window embrasures and wainscot in the style of Brettingham has been embellished with ornamental frames and musical trophies carved and gilded by Cuenot. Bills indicate that he worked from preparatory drawings by Borra.They describe the pier glasses in the music room with ‘flowers folding over sticks’ and ‘an Ornament to cover the joint of the Chimney Glass’. The glass was imported from France in the 1750s, but the glass over the chimneypiece was replaced by Charles Nosotti, ‘Carver & Gilder, Upholsterer & House Decorator’, who was paid in 1869 for ‘Taking out old Silver Plates from Chimney & Consol Glasses supplying & fitting new & replacing & part gilding the Ornaments’.
The Great Drawing Room
For the Great Drawing Room, Cuenot carved elaborate doorcases that picked up the principal decorative feature of the room. Framed in his carved gilt mouldings, the ‘Nouvelles Indes’ tapestries – depictions of flora and fauna in the Dutch colonies based on paintings by Albert van der Eeckhoudt and Jan Post – were specially woven at the Gobelins factory in Paris for the 9th Duchess of Norfolk under the direction of Neilson.The scene of ‘La Négresse portée dans un hamac’ includes two figures of monkeys in palm trees, which inspired the carved monkeys and palm trees above the doors and the monkey perched on the original pier table support carved by Cuenot. (The 9th Duchess’s menagerie at Worksop included at least one monkey, for on 10 July 1755 the carpenter William Edwards charged for ‘making a house for a Monkey’). William Farington described the tapestry here as ‘the finest Picture I ever saw, chiefly with Beasts, it cost in France nine Pounds a Yard, the Hangings just cost nine Hundred Pounds, the Glasses a Thousand, being the largest Plates, I fancy that were ever brought over.’
The doorcase in the V&A has been regilded and painted (Fig. 2) and is now displayed outside the music room in the British Galleries; the Metropolitan Museum’s example has been stripped of its original gilding and provides an opportunity to study the quality of the carving (Fig. 1). Similar to those designed by Borra for Palazzo Racconigi, near Turin, they are carved in pine and mahogany. As the carving was so elaborate it was itemised separately. The carving of ‘2 pieces of Mosaick with flowers a top’ cost £2 1s 6d; the turning of ‘2 vauzes carv’d with four different ornaments’ £3 10; the ‘two Palm Trees for the top of the Vauzes’ (these no longer survive) £3 and the ‘four Monkies in different postures’ £19 12. The ‘4 large festoons of fruit & flowers supported by the Monkies measure 24 feet’ cost £17 6. Gilding all the ornaments and architraves of these two doorcases came to £31 16 alone.
Cuenot also supplied tables and pier glasses for the principal rooms. These were made up to designs by Borra and are Italianate in style, with a high-hipped profile to the legs and pierced trellis frieze and central mask. They relate to furniture in the Gabinetto delle Miniature in the Palazzo Reale, Turin, which was also designed by Borra. For the ‘Green Middle Room’ Cuenot charged £48 12s ‘To carving two Tables with three heads & different Ornaments & a bottom Rail to each’, which can be identified with tables now in the East Corridor at Arundel Castle supporting white ‘statuary’ marble slabs (Fig. 4). They are shown in situ in a Country Life photograph (Fig. 5).Cuenot also charged for painting and gilding the seating furniture, indicating that, as the 1755 inventory records, furniture was painted to match the upholstery. The stools in the music room had ‘Green and Gold’ frames. The Third Red Room was ‘green guilt’; according to Cuenot’s bill ‘the carving and guilding two Tables with three heads to each festoons of flowers & foldridge leaves with bottom Rails’ cost £52 12s. These tables (Fig. 7), now in the East Drawing Room at Arundel, support dove-grey marble tops inlaid and bordered with Sienna marble (Fig. 6). Although Cuenot did not supply the seating furniture, he was again responsible for decorating it, ‘painting and guilding two Sophys’ and ‘12 chairs’. For the confectioner’s room, below stairs, he supplied ‘5 Desert Tables’, which he described as ‘lacquered’, but were presumably decorated in imitation of lacquer, furnished looking glasses, which were scalloped and silvered, and supplied for 3s 6d ‘a Branch of China flowers sorder’d & painted to go on the Desert Tables’. Although these porcelain flowers may have been supplied by the Chelsea or Derby factories, it is more likely that they were imported from Sèvres.
In the Great Room in 1755 the inventory listed ‘3 Corner Sienna Marble Slabs on carv’d & gilt frames – 2 window Cornishes Carv’d and gilt’. To match the monkey doorways, Cuenot supplied a table with ‘ornament cut through 3 heads, festoons of Drapery, & a Trophy with festoons of flowers & a Rail between the legs with a Monkey on it’.If this table survives at Arundel, the monkey has long since disappeared. The tables now in the Picture Gallery at Arundel, on either side of the door into the drawing room, are traditionally described as from the Great Drawing Room at Norfolk House (Fig. 11). But their Sicilian jasper tops were supplied by the architect James Paine in 1768 and the carved breakfront frames were probably made to Paine’s design to support the new tops at this date, six years after Cuenot’s death, by an unidentified craftsman. The carving is stylistically much more robust than surviving documented examples supplied by Cuenot. They came to Arundel Castle from Worksop in 1838 and can be identified with the ‘2 Jaspar marble slabs on rich carved Frames’ in the Crimson Damask Drawing Room at Worksop in 1777.
The Chinese Looking Glass (Fig. 9) in the York Bedroom at Arundel Castle was made as an overmantel glass for Norfolk House. It can be identified with the ‘Chimney Trumo Glass Frame’ in the Duchess’s Dressing Room, for which Cuenot charged £8 14. Three panels of looking glass are back-painted with Chinese pastoral scenes with cattle, sheep and pigs that reminded the Duchess of her farm at Worksop. The glass was an appropriate addition to the ‘intirely Chinese’ interior with its painted ‘Sattin or Taffity’ hangings ‘in the most Beautiful India Pattern you can Imagine, Curtains & Chairs the same’.Even the brass fender and sconces were described as Chinese.
In the drawing room at Arundel are the serving table (Fig. 8) and two matching pier tables of brass (Fig. 9) with black Derbyshire marble tops that were installed in the dining room on the ground floor of Norfolk House in February 1756.They were described in the 1777 inventory on the death of the 9th Duke of Norfolk as ‘3 large Dove Coloured Marble Slabs on Solid Brass Frames highly Chased and Leather covers’ and were accompanied by a ‘Large Brass Oval Cistern Highly Chased & Leather covers’. At Arundel these remarkable tables have been reassembled with their matching giltwood pier glasses, which are carved with vines – appropriate symbolism for a dining room. These were listed in the 1777 inventory as ‘2 large Pier Glasses in Glass Bordered Frames with 4 Girondoles for 2 lights each Bottom plate 3 foot 9; Middle plate 3 ft 10; Top plate 2 ft’. The precise sizes of mirror glass were recorded, as such glass was expensive and had to be specially imported from France. In 1777 the Dining Room was furnished with a glass above the chimney with ‘bordered frame’ 5 ft 6 long 2 ft 1 high. There were 6 double branches on the picture frames to serve as lights for the room and to illuminate the pictures.
The brass tables are unique for this date and it seems likely that they were made in London from models supplied by Cuenot to Borra’s designs. As Cuenot was paid for supplying brass fittings for the lanterns in the hall and a substantial brass cross for the tabernacle for Worksop Chapel he must have had access to a foundry with the experience and capacity to produce such sophisticated work, but its identity has yet to be discovered, although the initials DL may provide a clue.A comparison of the cast heads with versions carved in mahogany on a centre table that recently passed through the London trade suggests that Cuenot may have carved on this scale in mahogany as well; his bills demonstrate that he used this hard wood for his decorative carving.
Giltwood picture frames
Cuenot was also paid for frames for the portraits and landscapes that originally hung in the state rooms at Norfolk House. Of the portraits in the Barons’ Hall at Arundel Castle today, Ludovic Stewart, 2nd Duke of Lennox and 1st Duke of Richmond by Daniel Mytens, the 7th Duke of Norfolk by Simon Verelst, and Henry Frederick, Earl of Arundel after Mytens all hung at Norfolk House and retain frames that have been attributed to Cuenot. The portrait of Charles, 2nd Duke of Grafton by J.B. Van Loo was acquired only in 1834 but is framed en suite. In the drawing room at Arundel, Mytens’s portraits of Alatheia Countess of Arundel and her husband Thomas Howard, 14th Earl of Arundel retain their later ‘Cuenot’ frames.Cuenot charged 6s 6d per foot for carving and gilding a picture frame, but he may well have subcontracted the work to a specialist frame-maker, particularly given his association with Joseph Duffour, a well-established frame maker by 1753. For the Green Middle Room, Cuenot charged ‘for making carving & guilding Six new Branches with floroons to hang on the sides of the picture frames, and new guilding two other branches which were done before £36 16’. There are no surviving examples of these branches, which were attached to the frames to support lighting. A set of capricci by Canaletto that hung in the family room on the ground floor at Norfolk House are in their original frames, which have also been attributed to Cuenot (see page 36).
Miscellaneous giltwood furnishings
The documentation for the decoration of Norfolk House includes extensive bills from Cuenot. He supplied glass, and silvered glass for mirrors. He made branches to support lamps for the hall and staircase that were carved, gilded and lacquered, and carved two ‘illuminating lanthorns with an Eagle at the top of each’one of which features in a Country Life photograph of the Grand Staircase.
The bills indicate that Cuenot also supplied furniture for the 9th Duke and Duchess’s great house at Worksop. For their chapel he made, carved and gilded in ‘oyl gold a Tabernacle with 4 graddains & a Reposoir and 10 candlesticks’ for £28 10s.Cuenot supplied the 10 nozzles, sockets and pans for the candlesticks for £1 2s, ivory to lengthen the cross of the crucifix at 8s, and a Brass Cross 3 feet 3 inches by 14 inches 2 1/2 in thick for £4 8s, which survived the fire of 1761 and is recorded in the chapel there in 1777. He also supplied a ‘Great table to have been prepar’d for burnish gold’ for the Worksop Great Room for £18 17s.
Who was Jean Antoine Cuenot? He appears in the rate books for St James’s, Piccadilly from 1744 to 1762, and his workshop was in Warwick Street, Golden Square.His will, written in 1762, confirms that he was French by birth, and that he came from Morteau, a small town near Pontarlier in Franche Comté, near La Chaux de Fonds and the Swiss border. His younger brother Claude Nicholas Bernard and his sisters Gertruyd and Maria Theresa were still living there at the time of his death. The will was written in French and translated after his death, on 22 January 1763. He gives his mother’s name as Jane Frances Piaire, and she also was still alive in 1762. Claude Nicholas Bernard’s birth is not recorded but it seems likely that he and the carver shared the same mother and that Claude was the son of a second marriage. The will indicates that Cuenot was still in contact with his former neigbour Joseph Bobilier of Grand Combe, a nearby town, to whom he had lent 200 livres Tournois. In his will, he generously converted this loan to a gift.
The will also mentions Philip and Bridget Esmon, who receive a legacy of £10 each, and names James Esmon or Emon as his executor. On 17 December 1769 John Cuenot and Bridget Emon were married at St Martin’s in the Fields.Was Bridget perhaps James Esmon’s daughter? John Cuenot was Jean Antoine’s natural son, mentioned in his will as his other executor but still under 22 years of age in 1762. It was in that year that John Cuenot the younger received a 7 guinea premium from the Society of Arts for a ‘model in clay of ornaments’ and he exhibited a ‘piece of flowers’ at the Free Society of Artists’. He won another premium in 1763, when he was away in Paris. Cuenot the younger was taught by his father and after his father’s death lived with his guardian, James Emon, in Soho.
The carver’s will was witnessed by three craftsmen who shared the same profession. Robert Ansell, of Great Portland Street, is recorded as working at Blenheim for the 4th Duke of Marlborough in the later 1760s. Joseph Duffour, at the Golden Head in Berwick Street, Soho had worked as a carver and gilder for Frederick, Prince of Wales and the 2nd Duke of Montagu in the 1730s. He is associated with the portrait painter Thomas Hudson, for whom he provided frames. His trade card, in the Heal collection at the British Museum, claims that he was the ‘Original maker of Papie Machie’ used as a substitute for carving in ceiling and wall decoration.Did Cuenot perhaps subcontract the picture frames for Norfolk House to Duffour? Henry Barrell was based in Swallow Street, St. James’s. He evidently knew Cuenot well as he was present when the will was found in Cuenot’s bureau and it seems probable that he worked closely with the carver. John Cuenot the younger was probably still a child when his father was working at Norfolk House.
Cuenot presumably trained in France. It is not known when he came to London or what he was working on between 1744 and 1753, but it is probable that his talent as a carver of boiseries was employed on other French-style interiors, such as those at Chesterfield House, Mayfair, begun in 1747 and completed in 1752, timing which dovetails perfectly with the work at Norfolk House.Unfortunately, no documentation survives for the building and fitting- out of Chesterfield House, but it is hoped that new light on a hitherto shadowy figure will inspire a closer study of surviving carvers’ and gilders’ work from mid-18th century London.
Tessa Murdoch is deputy keeper, Department of Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics and Glass, V&A.
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