‘The Royal Chair’, Marylebone St, London; joiners, chairmakers and carvers (fl. 1685-1714)
Possibly the same man who was apprenticed in January 1677/8 to Richard Price. Succeeded Richard Price as the chief supplier of bed frames, seat furniture and fire-screens to the Royal Household in 1686, and who held this important position throughout the reigns of James II, William and Mary, and Anne. Roberts’ name has become almost synonymous with the elaborate walnut chairs and stools of the period, carved with ‘festoons and flowers’ or ‘mouldings and foldings’, as they are often described in the accounts. Their scrolling arms and stretchers, also referred to in the documents as ‘horsebone’, derive contemporary French designs. The gilded caryatid frames of the seat furniture in the Venetian Ambassador's Room at Knole, supplied en suite with a state bed for James II only a few months before his flight and exile, may have been directly influenced by similar sets sent over from Paris by the carver Peyrard and the upholder Delobel towards the end of Charles II's reign. Many references to ‘French tables’ and ‘French beds’ are found in his later bills of the 1690s. To judge by the vast amount of routine furniture which Roberts made for the use of ambassadors, court officials and military officers, as well as more elaborate items for the sovereigns themselves, he must have had one of the biggest workshops of any London furniture-maker of the period. Like his contemporary, the cabinet maker Gerrit Jensen, he is recorded as making models of proposed furniture for William III's own use — for instance ‘two Pattern chairs and two stooles made to show the King’, and intended for Windsor Castle, in 1697. His bills for ‘saffaws’ or sofas made for Chatsworth, as well as for the royal palaces, are among the earliest recorded references to this form of furniture, and as well as carved and gilded pieces he could produce exotic finishes such as the ‘blue and white Japan’ frames for twelve round stools with caned seats sent to Hampton Court in 1693, at a cost of £52 15s. Thomas Roberts’ premises at the sign of ‘The Royal Chair’, were in Marylebone St, Westminster, as recorded in a policy taken out with the Sun Insurance Co. on 7 November 1713 and he was succeeded here by Richard Roberts, almost certainly his son, who also took over as carver and joiner to the Royal Household in 1714. ROYAL PALACES. 1686–1714: Thomas Roberts held the royal warrant as joiner to the Royal Household, providing beds, chairs and firescreens for Whitehall, Kensington, Hampton Court, Windsor Castle, the Treasury, the Great Wardrobe, royal yachts such as the William and Mary and the Charlotte, as well as furniture for coronations, funerals, embassies and other state occasions from 1686 until 1714. One of his earliest commissions was to supply caned chairs for James II's tent on Hounslow Heath, while in 1687 he provided Mary of Modena with ‘20 leaves of cedar skreenes to Stand round the bed (in the Queen's Dressing Room at Whitehall) all hinged together and wyred with gold & silver wyre’. Occasionally Roberts seems to have made carcase pieces such as ‘a large Cedar Table to fall doune with two drawers in it’ (1686) and ‘a glass case with shelves in it made of right wainscott to hold books’ (1697), but on the whole he was responsible for the moveable pieces, called in France the courant, as opposed to the meublant, which came within the province of the royal cm Gerrit Jensen. One of the most elaborate of all the items in the accounts is a ‘large rich fire skreene, the top piece carved both sides into leaves and cyphers, the pillows (i.e. pillars) into festoons and flowers and two firepotts on top, the two claws into Lyons …’, made for Windsor in 1697. In the same year he made another screen and set of stools for the long gallery at Kensington Palace. Among the surviving pieces which can be firmly attributed to Roberts are the bed and matching chairs and stools in the Venetian Ambassador's Room at Knole, upholstered by Jean Poitevin, and made for James II only a few months before he fled to France in 1688, and other chairs in the Brown Gallery and Cartoon Gallery at Knole (also acquired as perquisites by the 6th Earl of Dorset) which closely match descriptions in the royal accounts — e.g. ‘chaires of state carved all over very rich with scrowles and leaves and figures in the forefeet and crownes and sceptres in the fore rayles and … on the top of the backs’, supplied in 1689. For the funeral of Mary II in 1695 he made a state bed of oak, the tester ‘with 4 great shields in the 4 corners and 4 crowns’, and for the coronation of Queen Anne in 1702 a ‘rich Chaire of state the Top of the back carved with a Lyon and Unicorne and Shields Cypher and Crowne and scepters’. This throne and its accompanying footstool was acquired as a perquisite by the 5th Earl of Salisbury and is still at Hatfield. Three years later Roberts also made for the Queen's use at St James's Palace a ‘wallnuttree gout chair frame & footstool to run on wheels, & ironwork fixed to the feet to turn with handles’. PENSHURST PLACE, Kent (Earl of Leicester). c.1700–01: An elaborate day-bed and matching suite of chairs and stools have been attributed to Roberts because of their similarities with a pair of stools at Hampton Court made by him in 1700–01. The Penshurst set, upholstered to match some remarkable wall-hangings in the style of Daniel Marot, may in fact have royal origins, and could well have been acquired as a perquisite by the 5th or 6th Earl of Leicester some time after William III's death. MOOR PARK, Herts. (Duchess of Monmouth). 1701: Work amounting to £103 19s 5d and including two ‘saffaws’ (or sofas) with carved frames, and a ‘twisted walnuttree foot for a bed’, is recorded in account books among the Buccleuch Collection at the Scottish RO. Some of the furniture from Moor Park, including chairs in the style associated with Roberts, may well be among the contents of Boughton House, Northants., a seat of the present Duke of Buccleuch. CHATSWORTH, Derbs. (1st Duke of Devonshire). 1702: From an account of ‘Goods bought at London, June 2 1702’ in ‘Mr Whildon's Account Book’ it appears that Thomas Roberts was paid a total of £34 for a variety of items including ‘14 chair frames Carv'd and Japan'd black for a dineing roome’, ‘8 large Armed Chairs of wallnuttree for a Bedchamber’, ‘6 Banketts of wallnuttree all carved with Mouldings round the seats’, and ‘9 large packing Cases to pack up a Rich Bed and furniture, and all the Chaires and Banketts’. Roberts may also have made the frame for the earlier state bed at Chatsworth, upholstered by Francis Lapierre in 1697 — whose tester survives as a canopy in the Long Gallery at Hardwick. A pair of armchairs with matching stools in the same room, upholstered with red velvet embroidered with silver thread, also seem to parallel descriptions in Roberts’ contemporary Royal Household accounts (e.g. ‘a large Chaire of State made to spread out at Top’) and may have been acquired by the Duke of Devonshire as perquisites at a later date. BOUGHTON HOUSE, Northants. (1st Duke of Montagu). 1703: Thomas Roberts supplied ‘a feild Bedstead of Walnuttree with 4 posts made to ffold up altogether with ironwork and Springs’ at a cost of £14.
Source: DEFM; Joiners’ Company records.