Industry and Ingenuity: The Partnership of William Ince and John Mayhew by Hugh Roberts and Charles Cator

Hugh Roberts and Charles Cator, Industry and Ingenuity: The Partnership of William Ince and John Mayhew (London: Philip Wilson Publishers, 2022). 448 pages, 533 col. illus. ISBN 978 1 78130 109 8. £75.

This book, so long awaited, is no disappointment. It has been a prodigious undertaking and has brought into clear light the full extent of the creativity of this leading firm. All furniture historians must be grateful to the authors for their persistence as well as their scholarship.

The format follows the earlier monographs on Thomas Chippendale and the Linnells, which appeared in 1978 and 1980. It is clear and eminently useable, starting with a history of the firm that underlines the complexity and variety of its business. This section gives us the origins of the success of the young partnership, examining the early connections of the partners with different tradesmen involved in the furnishing business, from their apprentice masters, the tapestry maker Paul Saunders and upholsterer and cabinet maker George Smith Bradshaw, to James Whittle and Samuel Norman, with whom Mayhew worked briefly in 1758. This section gives an account also of their business practices, the range of their clients and their relationship with architects, as well as the development of their recognizable style that won them such widespread approval.

From the second section, which deals with the commissions, it is clear that the success of the firm took off precipitously after the 1762 publication of The Universal System of Household Furniture. This manifesto, like Chippendale’s Director, with which it was in acknowledged competition, was the work of a young partnership and must have served to bring their name to public awareness, even though their designs soon departed from the rococo style shown in the engravings. Only five commissions had been started in the three years between the beginning of the partnership and this important publication, but twenty followed in the five years between 1762 and 1767. Several of these proved the start of long- standing relationships with clients or client families, of thirty years each with the Earl of Coventry and the Duke of Bedford. Clearly these young men, only just in their thirties in 1767, had skill not just in cabinet-making and upholstery but in the care and cultivation of their clients. They positioned themselves carefully in the market and it is noticeable how titled clients dominate in the list of commissions. Despite the strongly rococo flavour of the engravings in The Universal System, the success of the firm was established with a brave adoption of the emerging neo-classical taste, the designs often with strong French influence.

The second section, a detailed study of the firm’s known commissions, is a deeply satisfying narrative development of the list of clients, many of which did not appear in the Dictionary of English Furniture Makers in 1986. The extent of information on individual commissions varies inevitably and though some may yearn for full transcriptions of the surviving bills, it is no mean accomplishment to turn invoice and inventory entries into descriptions that allow one to visualise interiors that have mostly disappeared. Details of colouring and of the smaller items provided as well as the grandest pieces contributes to a lively sense of the tailored personal service that the partners gave to their clients, often here characterised by pithy comments from contemporary writers such as Walpole or Gibbon. The partners must have early worked out the importance of keeping their clients happy.

In the section on putative commissions, we are given a very clear sense of the forensic work that has gone into this book, with complex links of friendship and family brought into play as evidence for the authors’ suggestions, together with an unrivalled knowledge of pieces which have come to market in the last century and which meet their demanding judgement on design and detail to be put forward as candidates for possible supply by the firm. The bar is set high here, and the authors are exact in recording any hesitancies or caveats.

Both these long and detailed textual sections are supported by the large number of colour illustrations, of the highest quality. Looking back at the earlier works on Chippendale and Linnell, one can only be thankful for the technical developments of photography and printing in the last forty years.

This might seem the last word on Ince and Mayhew. We welcome it as authoritative, but the very quality of the text and the illustrations will, I am sure, prompt ongoing thoughts about the firm and its position in the cabinet-making world of London in the later eighteenth century - not least the whole question of design exchanges between London and Paris.

The book is as intellectually weighty as it is physically weighty. It is no mean feat to write, fund and produce such a fine volume and we are all in debt to the authors for it.

Sarah Medlam

Review originally published in Newsletter 230 for the Furniture History Society

Find a BAFRA Restorer