Sunday 19 November 2017

Treasures: Transformer furniture

Ireland’s fine arts, antiques and collectables column By Eleanor Flegg

Library Chair transforms into steps
Library Chair transforms into steps
Library Chair

The "Patent Metamorphic Library Chair" was the "best and handsomest article ever invented". That's according to Rudolph Ackermann's Repository of Art (1811). In the chair, Ackerman raved, "two complete pieces of furniture are combined in one - an elegant and truly comfortable armchair and a set of library steps".

The short flight of steps, suitable to reach the upper shelves of a book case, could "by merely lifting up with the right hand the back of the chair, be metamorphosed into a complete arm chair." This versatile piece of furniture was manufactured by Morgan and Sanders of London, specialists in patented metamorphic furniture. They advertised "sofa-beds, chair beds, brass screw four-post and tent bedsteads, newly invented imperial dining tables and portable chairs". These were advertised as "perfectly new in principle, extremely fashionable and universally approved of". It was, frankly, a clever bit of advertising.

Extendable dining tables were standard issue in wealthy Georgian houses, as were flip-top card tables, the more ingenious of which incorporated separate parts for backgammon and chess.

Practicality aside, multi-functionality attracted the efforts of early furniture designers. The diary of John Evelyn (1620-1706) described "a whimsical chair, which folded into so many varieties, as to turn into a bed, a bolster, a table or a couch". Thomas Chippendale's Gentleman And Cabinet-Maker's Director (1762) included a design for a sofa-bed, complete with Chinese canopy. Ten years later, Thomas Gale took out a patent for a "newly invented bedstead" which "when shut up presents the appearance of a bookcase or a wardrobe".

It had also occurred to other designers that gentlemen needed adaptable furniture to access the upper reaches of their library. Chippendale had made a stool containing library steps in 1767.

A chair that concealed library steps was originally patented by Robert Campbell in 1774 and a version of it was published in Thomas Sheraton's The Cabinet Maker's And Upholster's Drawing Book (1793). The top of the handrail of the steps included: "a small flap on which a book may rest, so that a gentleman, when he is looking at a book in his library, may note down a passage from it without the trouble of going down again".

But not every patented and published invention was actually made. Where Morgan and Sanders excelled was manufacture. They ran a large workshop, extending over six houses, where they employed "nearly 100 mechanics, besides other necessary servants". This enabled them to bring their metamorphic furniture to the middle classes. Their designs captured the imagination of Regency London and several hundred Patent Metamorphic Library Chairs were made between 1811 and 1840.

A Regency Metamorphic Library Chair is coming up for sale at Adam's Townley Hall Auction on October 11. It carries an estimate of €6,000 to €8,000 and is catalogued as "to a design by Morgan and Sanders".

The work of Morgan and Sanders is lamentably hard to identify. Some pieces carry a brass nameplate, which adds considerably to their value, but most do not. To add to the confusion, the rival furniture manufacturer, Gillow's of Lancaster, produced an almost indistinguishable Metamorphic Library Chair from the 1830s. The firm embraced the fashion for metamorphic furniture in their 1782 design for a writing or library table "of New Construction and Plan of our Invention". The desk boasted internal drawers with lettered compartments and a double-ratcheted top that enabled the user to write standing up, making it an early instance of the now-trendy sit/stand desk. It was the most expensive piece of furniture the firm had made to date and they guarded its design, insisting it could only be sold to "gentlemen".

A desk that follows Gillow's pattern, complete with a hinged top that folds out to reveal a double adjustable drawing table, is also included in Adam's Townley Hall auction with an estimate of €2,000 to €4,000.

The sale boasts nine Irish George III folding top card tables, all of which are metamorphic in design. They range from two magnificently carved pieces, complete with acanthus leaves and paw feet (est €30,000 to €50,000 and €20,000 to €30,000 respectively) to several with estimates between €2,000 and €3,000.

Adam's Country House Collections takes place at Townley Hall, Slane Road, Drogheda, Co Louth, on October 11 at 11.30am. Viewing is at Townley Hall, from October 8 to 10, with full details on

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