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Crace, Edward, John, Frederick, John Gregory and John Dibblee (1768-1899)

Crace, Edward, John, Frederick, John Gregory and John Dibblee

London; interior decorators, designers and furniture makers (fl.1768-1899)

The Crace decorating firm, founded in 1768 and wound up in 1899, made important furniture for bespoke commissions during the nineteenth century, but its furniture-making activities remained secondary to the high-end interior decorating carried out from its London base. The Craces manufactured one type of furniture – predominantly oak furniture in the gothic style based on the designs of Augustus Welby Pugin (1812-52) – in workshops they set up in 1844 behind the company showrooms on 14 (later renumbered 38) Wigmore Street, leaving the production of other furniture designed by them to leading makers principally in London and  Paris – notably Jackson’s of Rathbone Place, London, and the firm of Paul Mazaroz in Paris.  While such complex practice was not unknown in the nineteenth century, it sets the Craces apart from other mainstream furniture makers of their era. The five generations of Crace designers moved in the highest circles of the British design establishment during their 150-year history.

Edward Crace (b.1725-d.1799)

Crace and Son was founded in 1768 by a coach decorator, Edward Crace, the son of Thomas Crace, a coach maker on Rochester Row, London, and his wife Mary Gregory, daughter of the Surveyor to Westminster Abbey. The skills needed for coach decorating – carving, gilding, decorative painting and upholstery – were readily translated into the practice of house decorating and were used by Edward in his best-known commission, the interiors of the Pantheon in London (now demolished), designed by the architect James Wyatt about 1770. In addition to Edward Crace’s Raphaelesque painted decorative scheme for the interior, recorded in a painting by William Hodges and William Pars now at Temple Newsam Art Gallery, Leeds, Edward was paid £63 for painting and gilding mirror frames, console tables and seat furniture (some of which is visible in the painting), although the wording of the bill suggests Edward neither designed nor made the Pantheon furniture, but simply finished its surfaces.

John Crace (b.1754-d.1819)

Such occasional involvement with the decoration of bespoke furniture was continued by John Crace, Edward’s eldest son, who worked closely with the architects Henry Holland and John Soane. Directories record the firm at 158 Drury Lane from 1802, moving to 59-60 Great Queen Street in 1808. John Crace’s primary professional activity was the design and decoration of interiors, and he was known as an expert on Chinese design; his library of books on China and southeast Asia was significant enough to warrant a named sale by Sotheby’s on 7 July 1819 in London [Crace papers, V&A Archive of Art and Design]. John Crace probably designed furniture for Holland’s Chinese Dairy at Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire, designed in 1787 and constructed in 1794. Fittings in the Chinese Dairy along with a chinoiserie trestle table advertised in the London trade in the 1960s (current whereabouts unknown) bear a close resemblance to designs made by John Crace in 1802-04 for the first phase of Chinese interiors at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. Payments for work for the Royal Household were made to John Crace and Sons as late as 1826; despite his death in 1819, his sons traded under his name until 1826, when this partnership was dissolved [Aldrich, 1990, p. 30].

Frederick Crace (b.1779-d.1859)

There has been a good deal of confusion concerning the Craces’ role in furniture making, particularly with respect to Frederick Crace, the eldest son of John Crace, who is remembered as the Prince of Wales/Prince Regent’s decorator at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton. Despite the numerous faux lacquer objects of furniture misattributed to Frederick in the art market because of their similarities to the decoration of the Royal Pavilion, Frederick designed only a limited amount of furniture, all of it produced by other makers. Frederick’s earliest design for furniture may have been a tented calico bed, inspired by the avant-garde designs of Charles Percier and Pierre-Leonard Fontaine for the Emperor Napoleon, for the Prince of Wales’s bedchamber in the Pavilion c.1801, as reported in the Morning Chronicle and recorded in a surviving drawing [illus. Aldrich (1990), p. 23]. This phase of the Pavilion interiors has almost entirely disappeared and was replaced by Frederick’s mature phase of chinoiserie from 1815-22, including the design of the famous Music Room, with a suite of side chairs of faux bamboo form painted mauve to match the dado of the room, with contrasting details in gilt. These were made by the leading Regency firm of Bailey and Sanders, with two armchairs designed by Frederick’s assistant at the Pavilion, the obscure Robert Jones [illus. Roberts (1939), plate 38]. However, the numerous pieces of black and gold japanned, or imitation lacquer, cabinet furniture which have been attributed to Frederick Crace in all likelihood have nothing to do with him, nor was the Crace firm making its own furniture until the 1840s.

An entry in the Royal Household accounts for 1821 records a bill of £233 in which the firm was described as Frederick & Henry Crace, trading from 60 Great Queen Street. Henry Crace was a younger brother of Frederick Crace who, with another brother, Alfred, worked in partnership with Frederick Crace until 1826, trading as John Crace and Sons. By 1827 Frederick was in sole charge. [Aldrich, (1990), p. 53] There is a surviving copper plate for Frederick Crace’s engraved business card c.1820, which describes him as ‘House and Decorative Painter, Paperhanger and Gilder to His Majesty’, along with ‘Glass, Staining Glazing etc’, and gives his address as 13 North Street, Brighton [private collection] – this remained his private residence until 1833, when he returned to London. In 1827, shortly after dissolving the partnership with his brothers, Frederick Crace had leased premises at 14 Wigmore Street. [Aldrich (1990), pp. 58-9]. After the Pavilion, Frederick was much involved in interior decoration at the future Buckingham Palace and at Windsor Castle, where he undoubtedly met Augustus Charles Pugin, father of the renowned gothic designer Augustus Welby Pugin (1812-52), whose partnership with the Craces is discussed below. Several bills for furniture supplied to the Royal Household survive from this period, although it is not clear who actually made it [TNA, LC11/31].

John Gregory Crace (b.1809-d.1889)

Frederick’s residence away from London and the fact that he worked almost exclusively for the Prince Regent/George IV was a source of concern to his eldest son, John Gregory Crace, who in 1830 had inherited money from his late mother which he intended to invest in the family business. John Gregory Crace entered into partnership with his father in 1830, at which point the firm became known as ‘Frederick Crace and Son’. New showrooms were created at 14 (later renumbered 38; by 1872 the firm had expanded next door into 36) Wigmore Street in the west end of London, which Frederick had leased in 1827, and the firm began to feature the ‘Old French’ style, a hybrid of French eighteenth-century styles as part of a broader rococo revival sweeping Europe in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars. This new European style was presented to potential clients at open house evenings in Wigmore Street, and the character of the decorations is visible in a watercolour by Thomas Shepherd now in the Crace Collection in the British Museum. Crace and Son were not yet making their own furniture, but J. G. Crace designed sumptuous maplewood and amaranth furniture incorporating French baroque features for the private library of the 6th Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth House, Derbyshire which is still in situ [maker unknown]; the duke had attended one of the open house evenings in Wigmore Street. 

The Crace firm began to produce its own furniture during the 1840s; it was apparently at the suggestion of Augustus Welby Pugin, who had formed a house decorating partnership with J. G. Crace late in 1843. The workshops were located at 4-5 Little Welbeck Street and 11-12 Welbeck Mews, behind the Crace showrooms fronting Wigmore Street, and by 1844 carved Gothic furniture was being made in the Crace workshops to the designs of Pugin. However, shortly before the joint venture to decorate and furnish interiors in the Gothic style, Frederick and J. G. Crace were engaged by the 2nd Marquess of Breadalbane to refurbish a series of rooms in Taymouth Castle, Perthshire, for a visit by the young Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The invoices for the Craces’ work, dated 1842, are now in the Scottish Record Office [GD112/20/1/46/1]; they show that the firm was producing items of stuffed and upholstered furniture such as divans and ottomans for the large and small drawing rooms, as well as the lavish and extensive re-upholstery of existing furniture such as several ‘state chairs’, plus remodelling the state bed and its carving. The bills show that the Craces supplied Taymouth with entire suites of bedroom furniture in both walnut and mahogany, though it is probable that this furniture was acquired from another mainstream manufacturer and supplied as part of the Craces’ complete furnishing service rather than being made by them. In the Barons’ Hall, they invoiced for supplying velvet valances nailed to ‘two Gothic Buffets with Brass Nails’, but the wording of the bills suggests they did not make these items. 

Upholstery formed a major part of the Craces’ professional activity throughout the firm’s history, along with gilding and mirrors, but wood carving was added in 1844 at the time of the partnership with Pugin. Among the earliest commissions was that for Alton Towers, Staffordshire, though these furnishings have been long dispersed; other early furnishing commissions included Chirk Castle, near Wrexham, Denbighshire, and Pugin’s own residence, The Grange in Ramsgate, Kent. At Eastnor Castle, Herefordshire, Pugin and Crace were active in 1849-50 in refreshing the Gothic revival interiors for the Earl Somers. Although Pugin’s sketches for this commission clearly indicate his input into the design process, including furniture, he visited the house only once after it had been completed by Crace and his team, and was critical of what he saw. 

Today it is possible to appreciate the splendour of the restored scheme for the Eastnor Saloon, where examples of the Pugin-designed Gothic x-frame chairs survive, along with the classic trestle and octagon tables in carved oak and marquetry that were to become recognisable elements in a Pugin-Crace furnishing scheme. Two trestle tables with coloured marquetry for Eastnor were shown in the Medieval Court at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, an important showcase for Pugin and his partners, along with an oversized carved oak ‘armoire’ with a brass grille now in the V&A, London.

Copyright (Attribution/Credit)
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Armoire or bookcase, oak, carved, with painted decoration and brass panels, handles and hinges. Designed by A.W.N. Pugin and made by J. G. Crace for the Great Exhibition,1851 [V&A 25:1 to 3-1852]. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The star piece of furniture from the Medieval Court, however, was the octagonal table with a carved oak base and a walnut and coloured marquetry top, the most elaborate example of this type of Pugin-Crace table, of which about six examples survive. This piece, now in the library of Lincolns Inn, Holborn, closely resembles the table shipped in April 1853 to Abney Hall, Cheshire, as part of a large suite of gothic oak and marquetry furniture supplied to James Watts, who had visited the Medieval Court. Now in the V&A, London.

Copyright (Attribution/Credit)
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

An octagonal table inlaid with walnut in a Gothic design. Designed by A.W.N. Pugin and made by Crace and Son, 1853 [CIRC.334-1958]. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The Abney Hall furnishings, executed 1852-57, included suites of Gothic furniture for the drawing room, dining room, library and bedrooms. Stockport Borough Council now owns some of the Abney furniture, including the dining room sideboard now displayed in the house, which is leased to a private firm.

Other commissions for Gothic furniture of comparable date (1853-55) were undertaken by Crace for Uphill Manor, Weston-super-Mare (sold Greenslade Hunt Fine Art, 10-11 December 1992); Tyntesfield in Somerset; Pippbrook House, Dorking, Surrey, now dispersed (some sold Christie’s, 22-24 September 1986, lots 125-146); and for the renowned collector Francis Cook at his summer house in Portugal. Crace made Gothic x-frame chairs and probably bookcases and a writing table for the library of Monserrate, Sintra which is contemporary to the library furniture at Tyntesfield, Leighton Hall and Abney.

The Gothic furniture exhibited at the Medieval Court and manufactured in the Crace workshops created demand for such furnishings, and the decade of the 1850s was a busy one for John Gregory Crace. He carried on in the Gothic style, using the large collection of Pugin’s sketches for furniture and other designs which he retained intact as a collection in his workshops. This act of preservation allowed for the later recognition of Pugin as a leading furniture designer of the nineteenth century. The Pugin drawings preserved by the Craces are now divided between the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Drawings Collection, London, and the V&A.

Gothic furniture by John Gregory Crace was principally made for country house owners. An important commission was for John Naylor at Leighton Hall, Welshpool, Montgomeryshire. Pugin’s designs for Leighton Hall date to 1851-52 and Crace’s designs and furnishings to 1853-55 [V&A]. The invoices documenting this extensive commission survive in the library of Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, and have been reproduced in Aldrich and Shifman (2005). Along with x-frame chairs based on Pugin’s designs, a version of the 1851 octagon table with a cruck-form base was supplied to Leighton in addition to trestle and occasional tables, a carved oak dining room sideboard with other dining furniture, and a complete set of Gothic library furniture. The Crace firm also supplied extensive sets of bedroom furniture for this major commission. 

John Gregory Crace’s interpretation of Pugin’s Gothic designs continued in furniture produced during the later 1850s and 1860s, including the completion of the furnishing scheme for the Palace of Westminster in conjunction with the firm of Holland and Sons. A carved oak Gothic clock now in a private collection, with characteristic carved ivy leaf spandrels and a pierced, brattished top, resembles clocks made for Westminster during this period.

Copyright (Attribution/Credit)
Private collection

Clock made by Thwaites and Reed for an oak case supplied by John Gregory Crace,1866. Private collection.

The clock itself can be firmly dated to 1866, as it is recorded in the daybooks of the London clockmakers Thwaites and Reed, where ‘Mr Crace’ is given as the client, who supplied his own case [information courtesy of N.D.D. Williams, 2019; the daybooks are on deposit in the Guildhall Library, London]. In 1886 the furniture workshops at the Craces’ London premises were still active, though demand for such furniture had clearly lessened owing to new styles of design becoming more fashionable. 

John Dibblee Crace (b.1838-1919)

In 1854-5 J. G. Crace had called in his eldest son, John Dibblee Crace, as well as his retired father, Frederick, to assist in preparing a lavish suite of rooms at Windsor Castle for the visit of the French Emperor Napoleon III and the Empress Eugenie. The partnership between J. G. and J. D. Crace was later formalised in 1873 under the designation ‘John G. Crace and Son’. The Windsor Castle work involved extensive re-gilding and re-upholstering, and rococo-style console tables made in carton pierre made by Jackson’s of Rathbone Place were supplied by the Crace firm for the revamped Van Dyck Room, now a sitting room for the Emperor; the tables were lavishly gilded by Mr Weeks, one of the specialist employees working for the Crace firm.

John Dibblee Crace continued the family tradition of designing bespoke pieces of furniture to complement high-end interior decorating and refurbishing schemes. His extensive and refined work for the 4th Marquess of Bath in the interiors of Longleat House, Wiltshire, between 1878 and 1885, involved the design of Italian Renaissance-style walnut and marquetry bookcases and doors for the Lower Library which were made in Florence to J. D. Crace’s designs [Longleat House archives]. The most important of J. D. Crace’s late commissions were those carried out for the Anglo-American millionaire William Waldorf Astor during the 1890s in the French Renaissance style, principally at the Astor Estate Office in London, now known as 2 Temple Place. Crace designed rich table, seat and cabinet furniture of carved walnut, ebony, ivory, and red stone inserts, deriving inspiration from French court furniture of the sixteenth century. The glamorous, bespoke pieces were made for Astor to Crace’s designs, many of which survive in the V&A, by the firm of Paul Mazaroz in Paris, with whom the Craces had collaborated since the later 1860s. 

Despite the survival of a large collection of designs, drawings, notebooks, travel diaries and autobiographical accounts of the Crace firm, much of it donated to the V&A Archive of Art and Design by Crace descendants in the 1990s and early in the 21st century, the majority of the Crace firm’s business records were destroyed early in the 20th century [information from the late Mrs Eileen Crace, 1988]. However, one important record survives:  the Record of Partnership between John Gregory Crace and his eldest son, John Dibblee Crace, which covers the period from 1872-86, when the firm was at its largest extent with about 100 employees [V&A Archive of Art and Design]. Produced on the occasion of John Dibblee Crace’s entering into partnership with his father, the Record sets out in considerable detail the credits and debits owed to the Crace firm from the year end in 1872 until 1886, and it gives the names of not only private clients but the other firms engaged in the furniture and decorating trades, mainly in Britain and France, with whom the Craces were doing business. Examples include the well-known names of Gillow, Axminster, Mintons, Wedgwood, Jacksons, and Cope and Collinson in Britain, and Arles Dufour, Gillon Fils, and Josse et Fils, as well as Paul Mazaroz in France. The relationship with the famous silk merchant François Arles Dufour (1797-1872) was a close one, as John Gregory Crace apprenticed one of his sons to the firm in Lyons in order to learn the trade. François was an annual visitor to London and presumably socialised with J. G. Crace during these visits.

The Record of Partnership gives valuable insight into the relative weighting of furniture making in the overall professional activities of the Crace firm. The Stock Inventory for 1873 documents in descending order by value that the most valuable stock was timber in the yard, (£963), followed by timber at the wharves at Millbank, London (£854); this was followed by £612 for stock in the upholstery shops, £560 in the painters and gilders’ shops, and £400 of stock in the cabinet makers and joiners’ shops. The Gothic showroom had a mere £115 in stock, but furniture in the showrooms at 36 and 38 Wigmore Street was valued at £760, with chair-frames at 36 Wigmore Street valued at an additional £240. This was dwarfed, however, by the stock of paper hangings (£1,230), ‘Silks and Stuffs’ (£2,000) and carpets (£2,335). In 1876 the largest amount of stock was again held in textiles, with a total value of £3,040, and the smallest in furniture, including cabinets and chairs in the ‘Gothic showroom’, with a total value of £835. The value of timber in the yard, the workshops, and in store in Millbank totalled £1,690; all these figures represent a slight reduction in the value of stock since 1873. 

A careful reading of the Record of Partnership is, therefore, helpful in gauging the overall activity of the Craces as furniture makers relative to the other elements of their business, but it is through surviving invoices in private and public collections that individual pieces of Crace furniture are best researched, given the paucity of business records remaining from the firm’s history and the different ways in which they approached the furnishing of interiors. From bespoke designs, to the manufacture of gothic furniture, to the supply of mainstream, high-quality furniture by other makers, the Crace firm had a diverse and varied practice as British furniture makers.

In the 1890s J D Crace began to wind the business down, shedding staff and finally ceasing to trade in 1899. The firm’s former premises were torn down in 1900 and the present Wigmore Hall built on the site. Crace himself continued to work privately as a consultant and he died in 1919.

By Megan Aldrich

Sources: DEFM; Roberts, A History of the Royal Pavilion, Brighton (1939); Morley, John.  TheMaking of the Royal Pavilion (1984); Aldrich, ‘Gothic Interiors of the 19th Century: John Gregory Crace at Abney Hall’, V&A Album 5 (1986), pp. 76-84; Christie’s, Callaly Castle, Alnwick, Northumberland  (22-24 September 1986); Aldrich, ‘Fit for an Emperor at Windsor: J. G. Crace at Windsor Castle’, Country Life (Dec. 8, 1988), pp. 56-59; Aldrich, ‘The Marquess and the Decorator: J. D. Crace at Longleat House’, Country Life (Dec. 7, 1989), pp. 162-67; Aldrich, ed., The Craces:  Royal Decorators, 1768-1899 (1990); Aldrich, ‘The Furniture of J. G. Crace and Son’, The Magazine Antiques 139 (June 1991), pp. 1140-49; Aldrich, ‘Marquetry in the Medieval Court: the Octagonal Tables of Pugin and Crace’, Journal of the Decorative Arts Society 21 (2001), pp. 48-58; Belcher, Collected Letters of A.W.N. Pugin (2001); Aldrich, ‘Furniture by Crace for Mr Astor Reunited at Linton Park’, Camellia Journal, (winter), pp. 18-20; Aldrich and Shifman, ‘Crace, Pugin, and John Naylor’s Leighton Hall’, Furniture History (2005), pp. 117-87; Miller, James, Fertile Fortune: the Story of Tyntesfield (2006); Aldrich, ‘X-frame side chair’, in Maria João Neto, ed.  Monserrate Revisited: The Cook Collection in Portugal, ex. cat. (2017), pp. 334-35; Goodman, ‘A Tale of Two Dragons’, Furniture History (2019), pp. 101-17.