Pair of chairs for Walter Morrison (1836-1921): a new discovery

Walter Morrison, the ninth (of eleven) children born to James Morrison (1789-1857) and his wife Mary (1795-1887) was just twenty-one when his father died leaving him £300,000 (a fortune that today would be the equivalent of £28m) and the Malham Estate in Yorkshire.  While he never needed to work, he inherited the Morrison habit of public service, first sitting as a radical reforming Member of Parlaiment from 1863-74; acting as treasurer to the Palestine Exploration Fund for 54 years, and performing numerous unsung acts of philanthropy.

The 10,000 acre Malham Estate, with its dramatic landscape, had been acquired in 1852 by James Morrison from Thomas Lister, 3rd Baron Ribblesdale.  Malham House (see right), on which Walter would concentrate after losing his Parliamentry seat, burned out in a disastrous fire on 23 April 1873, but was rebuilt inside the old walls.  When John Ruskin visited in 1878, he found the house ‘quite delightful’.  The chairs, in the ‘modern gothic’ taste, presumably date from the mid-1870s.


No papers have been traced to indicate the name of an architect for the restoration of Malham House, nor for the supplier of the furnishings.  Thus an attribution for the chairs illustrated here remains problematic.

Among the frustrations is our inability, so far, to trace a copy of the catalogue of the Knight, Frank & Rutley sale on the premises, 8-10 November 1927.  And although an advertisement for the sale gives no clue about the present chairs, it may be significant that the particulars note that Walter Morrison owned a copy of Owen Jones, The Grammar of Ornament.  So, perhaps his choice of furniture was influenced by his brother Alfred (1821-97), whose furniture was designed by Jones and manufactured by Jackson & Graham.  Walter’s own interest in design, notably Byzantine architecture, is confirmed by the Byzantine-inspired chapel at Giggleswick Scool, near Malham, for which he paid.

But what do the chairs themselves tell us?  The form is distinctive and idiosyncratic; surely indicative of a designer familiar with contemporary fashion.  Two details, however, provide clues that may, in due course, lead to firmer conclusions.  The use of ebonised mahogany, with patterns of a lighter wood inlaid with ivory have parallels with an octagonal centre table (private collection) and a pair of open bookcases (with Paul Reeves), which are surely from the same workshop.  While any suggestion of a designer (although Richard Charles might be considered) is little more than idle, and largely unjustified, speculation,* more certainty applies to the manufacturer.  One of the two bookcases has the label of Pratt & Prince of Bradford.

A thought worth pursuing is that these chairs, together with the table and cabinets, were in fact originally part of a single commission, and perhaps the patron was Walter Morrison.  Any suggestions would be warmly welcomed.

The blue leather upholstery replicates a sliver of the original found while the chairs underwent conservation.

*The writer of this note did, however, miss in the sale particulars the following: ‘an upright 7-octave Pianoforte, by Taubet, in inlaid mahogany case’.  Chris Morley ( points out that this might, just might, be a misspelling of Talbert, and that he can find no record of a piano maker named Taubet.

Thanks to Caroline Dakers for her help in preparing this note.