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Roberts, Thomas

Roberts, Thomas (1685–1714) and Richard (1714–1729), at ‘The Royal Chair’, Marylebone St, London, joiners, chairmakers and carvers. Thomas Roberts was a carver and joiner, who 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. His 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’, seem to derive from Flemish and Dutch prototypes in the so-called auricular style, but Roberts was also influenced by contemporary French design. 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 u Delobel towards the end of Charles II's reign. [C. Life, 9 June 1977] Many references to ‘French tables’ and ‘French beds’ are found in his later bills of the 1690s, and the description of that made for ‘his Majesty's great Bedchamber at Windsor Castle’ in 1697, 16 feet high, with ‘a large moulding Ovall Tester and headboard, and ironworks to support the tester and cornices’ as well as ‘rich carved work’ on the tester, cornices, headboard, vases and feet, makes it very likely that he was carrying out the elaborate designs of Daniel Marot, William III's Huguenot architect and ornemaniste. 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 cm 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 [GL, Sun MS vol. 3, p. 75] 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. Richard appears in the Sun Insurance Co. records at the same address in 1723 [GL, Sun MS vol. 17, p. 49], when the goods and merchandise in his dwelling house were valued at £150, those in his warehouse at £150, and those in the yard at £200. However, he had moved to Air St, Piccadilly by 1728 when the London Journal, 19 October recorded that ‘on Wednesday Night some Rogues attempted to break into the Kitchen Windows of Mr. Robert's house, Chairmaker to His Majesty, in Air Street by Piccadilly; but were disturbed by a Maid Servant, who happen'd to be up a Washing; so that the Villains were obliged to make off before they had compleated their Design’. The younger Roberts continued to supply bed frames, firescreens, chairs and stools to the Royal Household until 1729, though with ‘bended backs’ to the chairs, cabriole legs and hoof feet, showing that he kept up with the latest fashions. The very large debt owed by Sir Robert Walpole to ‘Thomas Roberts’ for furniture at Houghton in 1729 is puzzling, unless Richard had just died (quite likely in view of his disappearance from the Household Accounts at this time) and the business had been taken over by his brother or son, a second Thomas. To confuse matters still further a ‘Mr. Roberts’ of St Bartholomew's Close in the City provided chairs for Moulsham Hall in 1730, and there may well have been other London furniture-makers of the same name. [Conn., vol. 57, 1920, pp. 89–92; C. Life, 15 January 1921; Old Furniture, vol. 2, 1927, pp. 16, 32, 79, 82–83, 181; Conn., June 1933, August 1933, October 1933, October 1935; Burlington, September 1967; C. Life, 9 June 1977; Conn., June 1977] ROYAL PALACES. 1686–1729: 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. [Burlington, September 1967, p. 66] 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’. [Symonds papers, Winterthur, Delaware, 75x69 pp. 14, 17] Richard Roberts succeeded Thomas as the chief joiner to the Royal Household in 1714, supplying a bed to Queen Anne at Windsor a few months before her death, and another for the Prince of Wales at Hampton Court in 1716, together with window cornices, eighteen walnut stools, a firescreen and two armchairs en suite, all with upholstery by Phill and Fletcher. [Old Furniture, vol. 2, 1927, pp. 82–83] Peter Thornton [Conn., June 1977] has associated this account with a surviving bed at Hampton Court, and another set of eighteen walnut chairs with ‘India backs … bended … for H.M.'s eating room at Hampton Court’ have also been identified with the remainder of a set still at the palace. [DEF, III, p. 41] Roberts’ name appears in the Lord Chamberlain's accounts for the last time in 1729. 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. [DEF, III, p. 41] 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. [GD 224/Box 29] 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’. [Chatsworth papers] 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. [MS account book at Boughton] (See also under Moor Park). WESTMINSTER ABBEY 1727: Richard Roberts supplied four new lions for St Edward's Throne and ‘a rich carved and gilt Footstool Frame for Do’ in preparation for George II's Coronation. [Conn., vol. 133 (1954), pp. 80–81] HOUGHTON HALL, Norfolk (Sir Robert Walpole). 1729: Furniture to a value of £1,420 8s 7½d ‘less £200 by cash’ is recorded as being owed to Thomas Roberts in Walpole's accounts. [Cambridge Univ. Lib. MS] MOULSHAM HALL, Essex (Earl Fitzwalter). 1730: A bill of March 10 ‘To Mr Roberts of Bartolomew Close for 6 Dutch Chairs & packing sent to Moulsham £2’. [A. C. Edwards, The Accounts of Benjamin Mildmay, Early Fitzwalter, p. 101] HARDWICK HALL, Derbs. (see Chatsworth) HATFIELD HOUSE, Herts. (see Royal Palaces) KNOLE, Kent. (see Royal Palaces) G.J.-S.

The original entry from Dictionary of English Furniture Makers, 1660-1840 can be found at British History Online.