The Norfolk House Chimneypiece
The Norfolk House Chimneypiece

The Norfolk House Chimneypiece

18th century United Kingdom

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A mid 18th century English carved statuary marble chimneypiece designed by G.B. Borra for the Green Damask room of Norfolk House, St James's Square. Probably carved by James Lovell circa 1755 with later replacements and repairs.
Edward, 9th Duke of Norfolk (1686-1777), Norfolk House, St James’s London; Thence by descent until sold Christie’s London, 7-9 February 1938, lot 269.
The Norfolk House Chimneypiece

A very important George II Carrara marble chimneypiece circa 1755, the design attributed to Giovanni Batista Borra.

The Norfolk House chimneypiece was removed from the Saloon of Norfolk House, the birth place of George III. It embodies the qualities of outstanding design and superb craftsmanship with an impeccable provenance.

The chimneypiece has a serpentine gadrooned shelf above leaf-carved egg and dart mouldings, the frieze with a central cartouche carved with a winged mask of Mercury flanked by his attributes, the stepped and shaped aperture with similar mouldings and flanked by outset jambs headed by corbels above trailing foliage; replacement plinth blocks, inground mouldings and shelf.

This chimneypiece is one of a number designed for Norfolk House, the London residence of the 9th Duke and Duchess of Norfolk, which was completed in February 1756. The house occupied the site of the earlier St Albans House, the first mansion to be built on St. James’s Square. The parish of St. James was a newly fashionable and expanding area which was being developed by Henry Jermyn, Earl of St. Albans (c.1604-84), often regarded as the founder of London’s West End. The Earl was awarded this land in the early years of the Restoration- he had been a favourite with Henrietta Maria, and had spent much time with the exiled royal family in France. The Earl sold the site 1n 1676; it changed hands several times but was eventually purchased in 1722 for £10,000 by Thomas, 8th Duke of Norfolk. When Thomas died childless, the house passed to his brother Charles, 9th Duke, who together with his wife Mary, was responsible for building the later Norfolk House.

The building of the new house was begun in 1784, its frontage having been increased by the purchase of the adjacent Belasyse House for £1,380. Both houses were in bad repair by this time and so were pulled down to make way for the new. The architect was Matthew Brettingham (1699-1769), ‘an orthodox but unenterprising Palladian whose dull, well bred facades betray neither the intellect of a Burlington nor the fancy of a Kent. No masterpiece stands out from the list of his works, but in nearly all of them the solid virtues of mid Georgian architecture are evident’ (Howard Colvin, A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, p.136, quoted in Pearce, London Mansions, p.77). However the plain exterior of the house belied its sumptuous interior, which alone took four years to complete. The survey of London notes Norfolk House as containing ‘one of the first extensive displays of French-inspired rococo decoration in London’. (Survey of London, p.196). It is thought that it was primarily the Duchess who was the driving force behind the adoption of the rococo style, her taste formed by many visits to the French Court.

At the grand opening assembly in 1756, Horace Walpole was one of the guests; ‘All the earth was there last Tuesday. You would have thought there had been a comet, everybody was gaping in the air and treading on one another’s toes. In short you never saw such a sense 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,’ (quoted in Pearce, op.cit., p.77). The principal rooms of Norfolk house were on the first floor, arranged around Brettingham’s innovative central, top lit staircase. These rooms displayed a variety of styles, ranging from the Palladiansim of the drawing rooms to the splendid Music Room, now preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and ‘considered to be the most fluent expression of the rococo to be found in England’, (Sykes,Private Places, p.133). The offered chimneypiece was situated in the drawing room which was next door to the Music Room referred to in the inventory as the ‘green damask room’. Another guest a the opening party was William Farington, who included a description of this room in a letter to his sisters; … ‘the next room was Hung and Furnished with Blue {sic} Damask, covered with Fine Paintings, the Gerandoles, fixed in the Frames of the Pictures, which had an odd effect, and I can’t think will be so good for the paint’, quoted in Sykes, ibid., p. 133.

The room also contained a pair of pier tables, now at Arundel Castle, which reflected the head of Mercury in the centre of the chimneypiece. Although no bills survive for the chimneypiece, John Cuenot’s bill for ‘Sundry Articles of Work done and Goods delivered’ lists his charge for ‘carving two Tables with three heads and different Ornaments & a bottom Rail to each’. This section of the bill for the ‘Green Middle Room’ further indicates the carving of ‘a Mercury’s head with ornaments a top’ together with ‘the ornaments to go over the heads with sweeping festoons of flowers, with various foldridge 4 feet by 3 feet 6’ , (reproduced in Desmond Fitz-Gerald, The Norfolk House Music Room , pp/55-6). This seems to relate to then overmantel, which together with the pier tables, can be seen in situ with chimneypiece in the photograph of the room taken by Country Life in 1937, see illus. (By this time, the Green Damask Room had been combined with what was known as the ‘red flowered velvet room’, the adjacent drawing room, to form a long saloon.)

For many years, it was a subject of debate as to how Brettingham could have been responsible for both the Palladian and the rococo elements of the house, but in 1973 it was discovered that much of the interior decoration was designed by Giovanni Battista Borra, a Piedmontese architect. The aforementioned bills of work, which were discovered among the Norfolk manuscripts at Arundel Castle, clearly indicate that much of the work was carried out ‘according to Mr Borra’s Design.’ Borra (1712-86) was a pupil of Vitone who worked extensively in Piedmont in the middle of the 18th century. Between 1740 and 1767 Borra worked intermittently with Alfieri on the Palazzo dell ‘Accademia Filarmonica in Turin, completing it after the death of the latter. He also worked for the Savoyard Prince, Ludovico Vittorio do Carignano at the Palazzo Carignano in Turin and at the Hunting lodge of Raccognigi, just south of the Piedmontese capital. In 1750-1 he accompanied Robert Wood and James Dawkins on their expedition to Syria and Asia Minor and later prepared the drawings for the engraved plates of their two volumes The Ruins of Palmyra (1753) and The Ruins of Balbec (1757). His documented commissions in England consist largely of work for Lord Temple on both the park and state apartments at Stowe, although his name has also been associated, on stylistic grounds, with work at Stratfield Saye and Woburn.

Through his research on the Music Room, Desmond Fitz-Gerald has concluded that ‘it seems more than certain that Borra designed and supervised all the high rococo decoration for the Duchess’, (Fitz-Gerald, ibid, p.25). Fitz-Gerald also attributed the series of chimneypieces from the house to Borra, particularly those in the Great Drawing Room, the Music Room, and the offered example from the Green Damask Room.

This attribution seems to rest in part with their similarity, both in proportion and decoration, to the chimneypiece built for the Garter Room at Stowe, known to be by Borra, - a Stowe guide of 1763 notes the ‘very curious Chimney- Piece of White Marble, designed by Signor Borra, and executed by Mr Lovel’. Fitz-Gerald further points out that as all of these chimneypieces are ‘comparable to other Piedmontese examples in the Royal Palace and in the Palazzo Carignano and Palazzo dell ‘Accademia Filarmonica in Turin, it is logical to attribute the design of the Norfolk House series to Borra’.

Cuenot probably won the commission for the carving at Norfolk house through the influence of Borra and it also seems highly probable that Borra introduced the Turanese sculptor, Giovanni Battista Plura. He is known to be responsible for the carving of at least one of the marble chimney pieces. There is reference to him in the accounts for Norfolk House. In William Edwards, Carpenter’s and Joyner’s bill 1751 to Oct 1755 (Arundel Castle Archives (ACA), MD 18/3 top Pleura {sic}: On 27 October 1755 Edwards charged ‘To Cutting away & making good to the chimneypiece put up Mr Pleura’. It seems highly likely that he was responsible for the execution of the present chimney piece.

The Norfolk House chimneypieces were included in the sale of the contents of the house, which was held by Christie’s prior to its demolition in 1938. The house had fallen victim to the same inter-war fate as many of London’s great aristocratic townhouses, and was sold and demolished, with an office building erected on the site. The Times lamented the loss: ‘The passing of Norfolk House is regretted for its own sake and also as a symptom of the wholesale destruction of these buildings which lend dignity and grace to the capital…It is not an exaggeration to suggest that since the war the damage done by the housebreaker and the flatmonger to the aesthetic value of London is comparable to the results that may be conceived from an air raid of the future’.


John Cornforth, London Interiors: From the Archives of Country Life, London, Aurum Press 2000

Desmond Fitz-Gerald, The Norfolk House Music Room, London, Victoria and Albert Museum 1973

Arthur Oswald, ‘Norfolk House’, Country Life, 25 December 1937

David Pearce, London’s Mansions: The Palatial Houses of the Nobility, London Batsford 1986

F H W Sheppard (ed.), Survey of London, The Parish of St. James Westminster, 1960, Vol. XXIX, London, The Athlone Press, 1960

Christopher Simon Sykes, Private Places: Life in the Great London Houses, New York, Viking, 1986

Tessa Murdoch, A French Carver at Norfolk House, The Mysterious Mr Cuenot, Apollo Magazine, June 2006, pp. 56-57.
Height 1451.00 mm (57.13 inches)
Width 2165.00 mm (85.24 inches)
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194 - 200 Battersea Park Road
SW11 4ND

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