When I photographed this Regency-era chair at the Victoria and Albert Museum, it was apparent that its style was Gothic Revival.
The tempestuous past of its owner, however, was not so apparent.
The chair was one of set Sir Godfrey Vassal Webster ordered for his country estate, the famous Battle Abbey. The manor began as an ecclesiastical complex, established as a memorial to the Conqueror’s victory over the Saxons. The Abbey was later dissolved and the abbot’s house became the nucleus of the Webster family country seat.
The Websters were proud to own a piece of history. Battle Abbey was a place that hearkened to the distant past–when a descendant of Vikings put himself on England’s throne.
Sir Godfrey was 5th Baronet Webster. His mother was the notorious Lady Holland, who abandoned the 4th baronet for another man, and took up the active life of a Whig hostess. His father committed suicide, and young Godfrey was brought up by older relatives. Achieving his majority, he inherited an estate already encumbered by debt, and in tumble-down conditions.
His expensive campaign to restore the estate was a long endeavor, punctuated by notable distractions elsewhere.
One of those distractions was romance. Sir Godfrey was Caroline Lamb’s lover. They carried on openly in spite of her marriage to another; their affair deplored in relatives’ correspondence. Eventually they broke off, Caro falling into a mad infatuation with Byron. Later, she sketched Sir Godfrey’s character as the devil-may-care Buchanan in Glenarvon. It seems she cared deeply for him.
Others did not.
I never remember to have heard of anybody more generally disliked, or more completely excluded from the pale of good company.
— John Williams Ward, April, 1810
The furnishings Sir Godfrey ordered for his manor house reflect his taste for the Romantic, a movement that flourished during the Regency. The Gothic Revival style, sometimes called Elizabethan, of the Webster chair signals a desire to make Battle Abbey look the part.
George Bullock (1782 – 1818) was one of several Regency-era furniture makers who were responsible for developing the Gothic Revival style:
“Battle-axes, battering rams, Roman fasces, halberds and shields should only be introduced into military apartments. (Bullock) was the only person who ventured into a new path: though some of his designs were certainly too messy and ponderous, nevertheless grandeur cannot be obtained without it.”
— The Rudiments of Drawing Cabinet and Upholstery Furniture…, Richard Brown (1835)
The emphasis in such a design is not just a departure from the classical Greek and Roman influences, but a desire to return to one’s roots, to recall the past as it was thought to be, in Britain. Indeed, Ackermann’s boasts that this style of furniture is particularly favored there because it is the only place where the style can be fully understood and appreciated.
Interestingly, Bullock supplied the furniture for Longwood House, Napoleon’s last home in exile. The foot-bath he designed for L’Empereur was a notable departure from his Gothic style, bearing the leaves of victory in the Greek manner. The commissioners in charge of this task rejected the bowl, of course.
As for Webster’s check made out to Bullock, that too was rejected!
Ceremonial chair for Battle Abbey: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O58202/ceremonial-chair-bridgens-richard/