72 St. Martin's Lane, London; upholder and cabinet maker (b.c. 1715– 78)
John Cobb was probably the person from Ashby, Norfolk who was apprenticed in 1729 to Tim Money, a Norwich upholder, at a consideration of £45. He was the son of John and Mary Holmes Cobb who married in 1705. Some support for a Norfolk origin appears in Cobb's will , where in a codicil of August 1778 leaves interest on £20,000 to ‘William Cobb, infant boy, grandson of William Cobb at Marlingford in Norfolk’.
Nothing further is known of John Cobb until he entered into partnership with William Vile in 1751. Having completed his apprenticeship about 1736, he may have continued as a journeyman until some chance brought the contact with the slightly older Vile. Cobb registered apprenticeships in 1752, 1753, 1754, 1762 & 1768.
The accepted assumption is that because Cobb trained as an upholsterer, he was responsible for this side of the business and Vile dealt with the cabinet making. This may well be part of the pattern, but late in life Cobb showed himself to be a very capable cabinet maker, or more correctly of having the knowledge to oversee cabinet work of very high quality. In later years he was renowned especially for marquetry furniture. Hester Thrale (Mrs Piozzi) described in 1775, the inlaid floors at Sceaux for her journal (Observations and Reflections … through France, Italy and Germany, 1789) noting 'the floor of every Chamber is finished like the most high prized Cabinet which Mr Cobb can produce to captivate the Eyes of his Customers’.
Apart from the participation in the successful partnership with Vile, John Cobb was also a son-in-law of Giles Grendey. On 31 March 1755 he had married Sukey Grendey. At her death he was remarried to Mary Babel, the widow of Pierre (Peter) Babel, a papier maché frame maker, on 24 February 1772, by license at St. Paul’s Covent Garden, Cobb then described as a cabinet maker and salon decorator. Mary outlived him and married for a third time.
There was perhaps some advantage in the connections the first marriage brought, but little to condone his ‘singularly haughty character’ as ‘one of the proudest men in England’. J. T. Smith in Nollekens and his Times (1829, 11, p. 243), recorded how Cobb ‘in full dress of the most superb and costly kind, strutted ‘through his workshops giving orders to his men’. Smith also relates George III's placing Cobb in second place through annoyance at his pomposity and imperious delegation of duties to his man Jenkins.
William Vile retired three years before his death (1764) and Cobb continued in business for a further thirteen years. He had long since abandoned any work at the bench and presumably concerned himself with the design, quality control, and administration of the business. In this he was served ably on the large Croome commission by his foreman, Samuel Reynolds. Mindful of the upsurge in Neo-classical taste he introduced work in woods other than mahogany. This is apparent in particular in a series of commodes and other pieces, veneered, and incorporating marquetry of excellent quality. There was probably a need to do this to withstand the competition from, in particular, Ince & Mayhew.
Seminal to this late style is the inlaid commode and pair of satinwood pedestals, 1772–74 supplied to Paul Methuen (still at Corsham Court, Wiltshire). In 1772 Cobb was implicated with others, including James Cullen, in the smuggling of furniture from France by the use of the diplomatic bag of the Venetian Resident, Baron Berlindis and the Neapolitan Minister, Count Pignatelli, thereby intending to evade import duty. It is however unwise to speculate if this furniture (which was seized by the Customs) gave him ideas about style and technique.
He had in any case started several years previously to design in a French way, making the lower drawer or part of his commodes to form the apron, rather than in the usual English way of incorporating the apron as part of the carcase. This feature can be noted on a wide group of commodes attributed to Cobb (e.g. GCM, pls 70–71; Sotheby's, 6 October 1967, lot 227), including that at Alscot Park (Commissions, 1766), and one similar to that at Corsham (Connoisseur, September–December 1964, illus.). Vile & Cobb usually incorporated tulipwood banded in kingwood, inlaid with natural and green-stained fruitwoods, with gilt-metal mounts including cabochons and berried leaves continuing in twisted ribbon to pierced scroll and cabochon feet.
We may never know the respective roles Cobb and Vile took in the firm. There is some evidence of Cobb taking apprentices to himself during his partnership with Vile, and he may have had the arrangement to deal with some kinds of furniture, particularly upholstered items, for certain customers. We would need to know much more about the terms of the arrangement made for backing from William Hallett snr, although this was offered to Vile as the principal partner.
There is some parallel in stylistic outlook and the seizing of opportunity, between Vile & Cobb and their successful rival, and near-neighbour, Thomas Chippendale. However, with great acumen, Chippendale both took on board the prevailing Rococo and Chinese styles for the first edition of the Director 1754, changing to Neo-classical observance by the 3rd edition 1762, when of the two partners, it was only the younger Cobb who then had the energy and flair to follow. Vile was a superb craftsman at creating carved mahogany furniture. However, could the inlays of Queen Charlotte's jewel cabinet (1762) have been incorporated at Cobb's suggestion presaging his own development? In any case, Vile was preparing to retire in 1764, the year Cobb created the important early Neo-classical chairs for the 6th Earl of Coventry. In these later years Cobb was assisted by the experienced Samuel Reynolds and by John Graham (?–1808) who received money on his master's behalf at Audley End (1772). He also signed an affidavit at his master's death (together with William Hallett snr) that he knew him well. Graham then entered into partnership with one Litchfield, as ‘Litchfield and Graham’ and continued to supply furniture from Cobb's old address at 72 St Martin's Lane to Croome Court until c.1785.
In 1777 Cobb insured his property together with stock, utensils and goods for £6,550 in a total insurance of £9,000. However the best guide to his success is his will noted above. He had his dwelling house in St .Martin's Lane; a house at Highgate; and a chariot, horses, and a large fortune to leave to Mary Cobb. Probate was granted to his wife on 21 August 1778, and as noted, Hallett snr and John Graham signed to their knowledge of the deceased. A subsequent notice in the Gents Mag., 6 September 1783 recorded that Cobb was ‘formerly partner with the late Mr Hallett of Cannons’, a fact well attested by the financial arrangement between himself, Vile and the third partner of ‘for Self & Co.’
Commissions by Vile and Cobb are listed under Vile. The following are in Cobb's name only, and normally date from about 1764 onwards. Exceptions are the first two entries:
- BOYNTON HALL, Yorkshire (Sir George Strickland) 1754 and 1767–73. (a) 1 March 1754, a bill to Mr Cobb £3 2s. 17 November 1754, a bill to Mr Cobb £6 6s. (b) In 1767–73 a further three payments were made to Cobb, that of 4 May 1767 being for £251 17s. Some of this furniture may be at Temple Newsam House, Leeds, through acquisition at the Boynton Hall sale, November 1950, e.g. No. 327, sideboard table, almost identical one at National Gallery of Australia; No. 347, sideboard pedestal and urn; both illus. Gilbert, Leeds Furn. Cat., pls 337, 347.
- LANGLEY PARK Norfolk 1754-61 for Sir William Beauchamp-Proctor, bill totalling more than £130 for 1754 alone (Stabler, FHS Newsletter, February 2006)
- WILLIAM GREER, GIBSIDE OR LONDON Payments to Cobb 1754-7 amounting to £127 (Medlam, Furniture History (1990)
- MADINGLEY HALL, Cambridge (Sir John Hinde Cotton). 1757 28 May: ‘upholder, Cobb, on account £200’.
- UPPARK, Sussex (Sir Matthew Featherstonhaugh). 1764 1 January ‘Paid Mr Cobb in full for Gouty Chairs £5. 13s. 0d.’.
- HOLME HALL, Yorkshire (Lord Langdale) 1765 7 November: ‘For Repairing the frames of three Arm'd Chairs with an Addition of new Canvas, Brass Nails &c. 3 Setts of Strong Brass Castors to Ditto Compleat £1. 11. For Repairing the frame of a french arm'd chair Putting a new Back to Ditto and new Burnish'd Nailes &c Compleat – 4s. 6d. Lord Langdale, Golden Square £1. 15. 6. Receipted on Cobb's behalf on 9 December 1765 by George Day.
- BURTON HALL, Lincolnshire (2nd Lord Monson) 1765–66 and 1769–71. (a) 3 pp. bill including hanging India paper; painting papier-mache border ‘gilt in burnish'd gold’; repairing window frames; ‘For a large pier Glass in a pediment gilt frame, and fixing Do Compleat £14’; ‘… For 4 men's Time taking down Glasses & Gerrondoles and Sundry other jobs …’. (b) 8 pp. bill totalling £730 13s 11d including: ‘A Large handsome frontispiece for a Chimney Carv'd & Gilt in Burnish Gold with Borders in Compartmts with Double branches for Candles Wrot leaf Nossels & pans’, (£47 5s); ‘For 2 Paper Mache Girandoles Gilt in Burnish'd Gold with branches for Candles wrot leaf Nossels & Pans, brass plates &c Compleat’ (£5 10s); ‘For 2 Large Handsome Oval Glasses Carvd & Gilt in Burnish'd Gold with Ribbons & Husks at Top Brass plates Screws &c Compleat’ (£41); ‘For 2 Mahog Circular Tables Cross banded with Carved Bracketts &c Compleat’ (£13); ‘For 4 India Pictures of basketts & flower Potts for Chimney Boards’ (£4 4s).
- AUDLEY END, Essex (Sir John Griffin Griffin Bt) 1 May 1765–74: ‘For 2 Large Mahogony night tables the top parts made to open with Catch Locks and the one with a Biddoc [bidet?] all Compleat made to turn out on Castors and the other with a Close Stool all Compleat & brass handles to the sides. £11 For 2 Cases, Battens, Screws, nails & paper Cover &c to pack Ditto 10s. 1776: ‘Feby 18. For a Solid Mahogony Dineing Table, the top made to fold as a Card Table £3. 16s. Bill amounting to £29 7s 6d receipted 29 November 1766 by Samuel Reynolds (see Croome Court, below). Further bills 1769–72 including: 1769 3 October, ‘For a large Book Backgammon table’, £1 5s; 24 January 1772, ‘For a Mahog Clothes Horse’, 10s; 16 September, ‘For a neat Inlaid table on a Mahog frame. 6. 6s. Packing 6s. 6d.’ Bill receipted 20 November 1772 by John Graham (one of the executors of Cobb's will).
- CROOME COURT, Worcestershire (6th Earl of Coventry). 1765–73 Vile and Cobb's most extensive commission (cf. Vile). However, the following bills are in Cobb's name only (numbers in parentheses relate to the xerox copy of the Croome archive, V & A archives). (29) 1765: 16 items (£202 9s 6d) including: July, ‘For 8 Mahogony Armd Chairs the Seats Stuffd & Coverd with blue Morrocco Leather and finishd with burnish'd nails and Carving, all the Arms and 2 front feet, all the rest Carvd by Mr Alkin, £30’. (The chairs are owned by the Croome Court Trustees, and are a fascinating example of collaboration between Cobb and the carver Sefferin Alken who did the splats; illus. Musgrave, Adam and Hepplewhite Furniture, pl. 58; Coleridge, Chippendale, pl. 38). (29) 1766 26 February: ‘For a Large Mahogony Wardrobe, 26 Drawers and 13 Sliding Shelves in the middle part with Pannel Doors before the Drawers and Shelves in bottom and top part, a Dental Cornice and 4 Terms in front and a frett in the Attic part, and fixing on all the Carv'd Ornaments on the pannel &c. Extra good Locks to lock twice, and a Master Engrav'd Key and fixing up the whole in the Roome Compleate 129 – – For Lineing the shelves with Baize and Baize Flaps to ditto 3 12 – (The money was received on Cobb's behalf on 23 June 1766 by Samuel Reynolds.) (34) 1766–67 25 July: ‘For a Extra neate & Large Mahogony Shaveing Stand with a Glass to rise & 2 Drawers and on Castors 4 15 – For a Mahogoney Child's Chairs, the seate Stuff'd and Coverd with Hair Cloth 1 5 – Aug. For a neate India Cedar work Box with a brass handle at Top & a Good Lock & Key to Do. – 16 – Oct. For a neate Mahogony Carv'd Pillar & Claw Table on Castors 115 – (40) 1767–68 1767 24 June: For an Hovanah wood Cloths press, with 6 shelves with Baize Flaps and Drawers at Bottom 9 10 – 23 July: For Carving a pattern Top and Rail, for a Chair – 6 – 12 Sept.: For Wood, Holdfasts, Screws, Nails, & 2 Men's Time putting Batterns round the doors & Chimneys in three Rooms in Order to fasten the Hangings too 115 – For 329 yds of strong Cloth, thread and sewing do to go under the damask Hangings of the Dressing Room, Drawing and antichamber at 6d 846 For 40 Quires of Carteridge Paper, tax [tacks], paste and Men's Time putting up the Canvas and paper 11 – – For strong Waintscott downrights, screws, nails and Men's time Making and putting up do in the Corners of the 3 rooms to fasten the Damask hangings too 4 15 – To Men & Women's Time Cutting making and putting up the Crimson silk damask hangings in the 3 rooms 24 – – For Making your Crimson Silk damask into 2 festoon Window Curtains lin'd and Fring'd &c 1 8 – (The account included various charges for fringes, brackets, thread, tape etc.) 1768 January: For 8 french pattern arm'd Chairs Carv'd and gilt in burnish'd gold, with hollow backs, stuff'd & quilted in Linnen, finding stuff to the backs, gilt nails, all small Materials & Covering do Compl. with your Crimson silk Damask 46 – – For 7 Sattinwood arm'd Chairs on Castors with fluted arms, varnish'd and stuff'd in Linnen … Covering do with your Crimson silk Damask 25 11 – For 7 red & white Turkey Cotton Check Cases to the Sattinwood Chairs, thread, tape &c. 4 11 – For 8 do Cases to the GiltChairs to hang to the ground 6 8 – (Money received for Cobb ‘by a draft on Mr Child’ by Samuel Reynolds, 2 July 1768.) (50) 1768–69 January: For the use and double porteridge of the mahogy Cloaths press 18 months 2 2 – 24 Dec For two french Sofas, stuff'd and quilted in Linnen with a Bolster at each end, the frame Carvd and gilt in burnish'd gold 23 8 – For Covering the 2 Sofas with the Crimson silk Damask finish'd Compleat with ye gilt nails 2 – – For 2 Check Cases to do. 5 4 – For Carteridge paper Covers to the Gerrondoles & Vauses and Serge Bags to the bell Tossells – 5 6 (Money received by Samuel Reynolds, 13 June 1769.)(57) 1769: For the use and porterage of a Mahog Dineing table – 4 – Mar. For a Crimson Silk tossell and a Man's time putting Do to a bell – 5 6 Apr For 3 brown Damask'd Leather Spotts for Candlesticks – 3 – (Money received by Samuel Reynolds, 2 July 1770.) (62) 1770–72 July 7: For 4 brown Damaskd Leather Covers to 4 tables (Various other small tasks of hanging, repairs, hiring ‘Lew tables’, mahogany bowls etc. £37 14s 6d received by Samuel Reynolds, 4 July 1772.) 4 18 – (66) 1772: 30 July, ‘for and Inlaide Hankercheid table on a Carved pillar and claws… £6 6 0 (illus. Coleridge, FHS Newsletter, August 2007, fig s 1 & 2) 1773: One item only, a breakfast table, £4 7s.
- SIR JOHN DELAVAL correspondence and payments amounting to at least £348 relating to the years 1765-1776. (Wood, Furniture History (1990) The furniture went to Doddington Hall, Lincolnshire, and Seaton Delaval and Ford Castle, Northumberland. The last commission, of 1776, concerned the sale of a commode and two corner cabinets by Delaval to John Carrack, with Cobb acting as middleman. The commode is possibly that now at the Lady Lever Art Gallery (LL4376)
- ALSCOT PARK, Warwickshire. (James West) 1766: For an ‘Extra fine wood Commode chest of drawers with large Handsome wrought Furniture, good brass locks &c to do’. £16. An almost identical commode was sold Sotheby's, 5 March 1971, lot 165. Includes, 24 March, ‘For 2 extra neat carv'd Pillars and Claws, and straining Frames, and mounting yr 2 Pieces of Tapstry & Silk for fire screens’, £6 10s; ‘For a neat Japann'd Teaboard’, £1 1s; he also charged for the use of a ‘Lew Table’ and 2 mahogany card tables. Bill receipted 9 May 1771 by Samuel Reynolds. HAMPTON, Middlx (David Garrick). 1766–72: An explanation of Garrick's patronage of Chippendale and others at Hampton, 5 Royal Adelphi Terr, and 27 Southampton St, London is given in Gilbert, Chippendale, pp. 236–48. Cobb provided brass lanterns, a ‘manilla wood Tea Chest with 3 Tinn Canisters’, £1 15s; in 1768 a plate warmer, bottle tray and dish tray, £11 8s 6d; and in 1772 a ‘Box to Contain 8 Bottles with Ground Stoppers and 4 Glass Tumbers with a Lock Comp’, £22.
- CAMPSALL HALL, Doncaster, Yorkshire, 1768: Cobb wrote on 28 July 1768 to say that he was ‘much put to it for money at this time’ and asking for settlement of his account for unspecified work.
- CANNON HALL, Yorkshire (John Spencer), 1768: Spencer refers in his diary to visiting Cobb's workshop or showroom. There are a number of payments for unspecified work.
- COBHAM HALL, Kent, 1768: An account was closed in September in the 3rd Earl of Darnley's account book.
- CLAREMONT For Robert Clive, payments for furniture between September 1768 and March 1771 totalling several hundred pounds (transcribed in Fairclough, Furniture History 200, Appendix, note 5)
- SAXMUNDHAM, Suffolk (Charles Long). 1769 11 June: a mahogy flowerstand12s. a mahogy Candlestand6s. a Dressing Glass in a mahogy frame 18s. Discount£1. 16s. 1s. £1. 15s.
- SANDON HALL, Staffordshire (1st Lord Harrowby): 1 June 1769. To Cobb Cabt maker£1. 4. 6. 26 July 1770. To Cobb Cabinet maker£9. 8. 6. 23 July 1774. To Cobb Cabt maker for a Present to Mr de l'Andre£9. 14. 6.
- PETWORTH Sussex (Lady Egremont), unspecified payment to John Cobb 26 August 1769, £48 (Cator, Furniture History (1993).
- CORSHAM COURT, Wiltshire (Paul Methuen): ‘30 April 1770. Pd Cobb's bill for a Screen etc. £3. 8. 8.’. 1772: ‘Extra neat Inlaid Commode … with brass Ornaments, your Coat of Arms inlaid in the ends … £63. 5. 3’. 1774: Two vase stands. The commode and stands are among Cobb's finest achievements. The pieces are veneered in satinwood, and the side panels of the commode as indicated in the bill have Methuen's arms quartered with that of his wife Catherine Cobb (seemingly no relation to John Cobb). At Corsham they stand beneath and flank an Adam pier mirror. The Adam drawing at Corsham (almost identical to one at the Soane Museum, see E. Harris, Furniture of Robert Adam, p. 80) has the pencil outline of the Cobb commode and stands substituted for the table. For a similar commode and related items see E. T. Joy, Conn., September/December 1984; GCM, p. 56; C. Streeter, Furn. Hist., 1974, pp. 52–53; Christie's, NY, 30 January 1982, lot 170 etc.
- CUSWORTH HALL, Yorkshire (John Battie). 1770: ‘Mr Cobb upholster £31. 9. 0.’ was recorded following a bill of 19 November 1768 for £21 19s. The ‘Cusworth suite’ of 2 arm and 6 side chairs with original upholstery, water-gilt nailing and silk fringeing was illus., Apollo, December 1971 and attributed c. 1760 to Vile & Cobb on the basis of the later payments (above) to Cobb. The similarity to the work of Paul Saunders was however noted. The usual hazards of attribution are ever-present.
- SOUTH AUDLEY STREET, London (Hon. Mrs Henrietta Howard). 1770: One-page bill including: ‘For a Mahog Cabriole Settee with arms, made with Back & Seat loose to take out, stuf'd in Linnen & Cover'd with your Needlework, finding Tammy Back & All Materials, to make do Compleat, £8. 16s.’. The bill (£1716 3d) was receipted 26 March 1772 by Wm. Eversley (who had been mentioned in Vile's will.
- STRAWBERRY HILL, Middlesex (Horace Walpole). 1770: ‘Cobb's bill for furnishing the Round Room, Tapestry chairs for the Cottage, carpet for ditto. £99. 8s. 6d.’.
- FOREMARK HALL, Derbyshire (Sir Robert Burdett). 1771 21 June: ‘To Mr Cobb for a japan tea tray, £1. 12. 0. and a Mahogy —£1. 7. 0.’ (£2 19s) — ‘for ye countrey’.
- 9th VISCOUNT IRWIN. 1773 1 April: For 3 Mohogy Pole Glasses at 8/61. 5. 6. Discount0. 1. 0. £1. 4. 6. Rec'd May 7, 1773 the Contents in full for Mr Cobb, — Joseph Dennison.
- HATFIELD PRIORY, Essex (John Wright). 1774 Paid £26 to ‘Mr Cobb’.
Sources: DEFM; Medlam, ‘William Greer at Gibside’, Furniture History (1990); Wood, ‘Furniture for Lord Delaval: Metropolitan and Provincial’, Furniture History (1990); Beard, ‘Decorators and Furniture Makers at Croome Court’, Furniture History (1993); Cator, ‘Haupt at Petworth’, Furniture History (1993); Fairclough, ‘A Suite of Furniture for Clive of India’, Furniture History (2000); Stabler, ‘John Cobb in Norfolk’, FHS Newsletter (February 2006); Coleridge, ‘John Cobb's 'Handkerchief' Table’, FHS Newsletter (August 2007).