A particularly impressive and well-provenanced example of cabinetmaking by the celebrated firm Gillows of Lancaster has returned home.
It has been purchased by Lancashire County Museums Services for £260,000 and will join their impressive collection of the firm's furniture displayed in a 17th century town house known as the Judges' Lodgings.
The bookcase was acquired by the London furniture dealers Apter-Fredericks from a trade source in 2005. It came with little background information other than a provenance by descent to the Gurney family, but Guy Apter told ATG that he "took one look at the feet" and felt sure it was by Gillows.
Further research by the dealers, helped by Gillows scholars including Susan Stuart (in whose forthcoming book on the firm it will feature), enabled Mr Apter to confirm his initial hunch.
By comparing it to other signed pieces, tracing back through the Gurney family tree (they are thought to have owned it for two centuries prior to its sale to the trade) and by trawling Gillows' extensive records of invoices and estimates, Apter-Fredericks pinned the piece down.
The dealers managed to locate a detailed description in the Gillows' estimate book that tallied exactly with their bookcase.
It transpired that this piece had been ordered by a Gurney ancestor, Mrs Hutton Rawlinson or her daughter. Thomas Hutton Rawlinson was a Quaker ironmaster and merchant who amassed a fortune trading from Lancaster with the West Indies. His wealthy widow was left with an annual income of £5000, plenty with which to commission a very grand piece from the best local cabinetmakers. This bookcase certainly fits the bill with its carved and inlaid finely figured mahogany, delicately detailed glazing bars and chased silvered handles.
Gillows estimate book also shows that it used their top craftsmen, Thomas and John Dowbiggen to create it. The bookcase was delivered in 1772 at a cost of £21. The firm's manufacturing costs were not much less at £17 7/-.
Apter-Fredericks contacted the Lancaster Museum feeling that would be the ideal home. It took the county some time to raise the funds to match the purchase price. A large slice came from The Art Fund who provided £100,000 from a specific bequest from Mrs Gisela Gledhill. Further contributions came from The National Heritage Memorial Fund; the MLA/V&A Purchase Fund; the North West Regional Development Agency and the local community.
While all Gillows furniture carries a cachet, it is rare to find fully documented pieces from the 18th century. When the Judges' Lodgings open at Easter, visitors will be able to admire the bookcase alongside a portrait of the woman who commissioned it painted by George Romney.
Guy Apter, who delivered the cabinet to its new owners last month, was delighted with the successful outcome. "It is a highlight of anyone's business life to find a piece… identify it and see it in the museum that it should be in," he told ATG last week.
By Anne Crane