Books

The forgotten cabinet makers who were more influential than Chippendale

William Ince and John Mayhew may not be the best known cabinet-makers of the 18th century, but their influence still resonates. In a new book, Hugh Roberts and Charles Cator explore the enduring legacy of a pair of quiet achievers

Cabinet illustrations

Left: Robert Adam’s Derby House commode design. Right: illustration from design book The Universal System of Household Furniture

The partnership of William Ince and John Mayhew ran from 1758 to 1804 and was one of the most enduring and well-connected collaborations in Georgian London’s tight-knit cabinet making community. Although the partners’ clientele was larger and arguably their work was more influential over a longer period of time than that of leading and highly celebrated metropolitan furniture makers – such as Thomas Chippendale – very little is known about the firm’s considerable output, or its impressive tally of important commissions. 

Multiple advances have been made to better understanding Ince and Mayhew’s partnership, practices and commissions, including articles published by the authors on individual cabinet commissions (these have appeared in The Journal of the Furniture History Society). In our book we not only build on this research by further extensive investigation into bank archives, private family archives, deposits with country record offices and in saleroom records, but also aim to promote the reinstatement of these makers to their proper position in the pantheon of great and innovative English cabinet makers of the 18th century, detailing 97 commissions.

Both Ince and Mayhew were raised in the heart of the capital’s artisan quarters and the centre of the cabinet-making trade, Soho and Covent Garden, and were therefore extremely well placed to exploit their trade connections. Thus carvers, gilders, painters, upholsterers, brass founders and metal workers, as well as suppliers of timber, mirror glass, fabrics and upholstery materials, were all easily within the partners’ reach (and many of these within their employ at different times). 

These circumstances enabled the partners to offer their clients a service which, in its range and thoroughness, anticipated the working practices of the larger 19th-century cabinet-making, furnishing and decorating companies, and certainly more than equalled the capabilities of the modern interior decorator. The partners’ working relationships with many leading architects, notably William Chambers and Robert Adam, were of significant value to their business. And unlike many of their competitors, for a substantial period of the partnership they enjoyed a considerable degree of financial independence. 

This collaborative capital is most clearly seen in their cabinet creation in 1775 of the celebrated Kimbolton Cabinet (now in the Victoria and Albert Museum). Created to Robert Adam’s numerous and detailed designs for the Duchess of Manchester, it was inlaid with Florentine pietra dura plaques and with gilt-bronze mounts supplied by Matthew Boulton. It is a masterpiece of 18th-century design. 

Your support changes lives. Find out how you can help us help more people by signing up for a subscription

Ince and Mayhew created furniture for a number of Adam’s other patrons, including the Duchess of Northumberland and the Earl of Kerry. They developed a number of stylistic hallmarks over their 40-year partnership, one strong feature being delicate marquetry work, inspired by the fashion for the classical. For Lady Derby’s Dressing Room at Derby House, London, they executed a demilune commode to Adam’s design of October 1774, delivered in November 1775. It combined strongly contrasting richly engraved satinwood and harewood marquetry in an ‘Etruscan’ taste with painted panels and gilt-bronze mounts. This design of commode would influence many further commodes throughout the 1770s.  

A striking feature of many of the commissions is their great longevity. More than 20 years was not unusual, 30 years also occurs, and in one case the accounts ran for more than 40 years. In a conscious imitation of Thomas Chippendale, the partnership released a design book – The Universal System of Household Furniture – in 1762. Mayhew’s role in the business, despite his contribution of 11 plates, was essentially managerial. As the book stated: “The paying & receiving money or the keeping of the Books of Accounts and the making out the bills was chiefly but not entirely under his management.”

By contrast, Ince “principally took that part of the business which required drawing and designing patterns for furniture”, and was without question the firm’s primary designer. He was also the creator of the great majority of plates in The Universal System and owner of a small but distinctive collection of design books to which he subscribed.

Industry and Ingenuity

While this division of labour between the partners seems clear, it was evidently by no means absolute. In his dealings with the Dowager Duchess of Beaufort for example, Ince was involved not only in discussions about matters of decoration and cabinet design, but also in concerns about the payment of bills.

Industry and Ingenuity: The Partnership of William Ince and John Mayhew by Hugh Roberts and Charles Cator is out now in hardback (Philip Wilson, £75). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article appears in The Big Issue magazine. Buy a copy from your local vendor. If you can’t buy in person, you can purchase magazines from The Big Issue Shop or download a digital version via The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

Support your local Big Issue vendor

If you can’t get to your local vendor every week, subscribing directly to them online is the best way to support your vendor. Your chosen vendor will receive 50% of the profit from each copy and the rest is invested back into our work to create opportunities for people affected by poverty.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Top 5 books about state control, chosen by Icelandic author Fríða Ísberg
Books

Top 5 books about state control, chosen by Icelandic author Fríða Ísberg

Fighting for justice for women in a system that's rigged against them
Justice

Fighting for justice for women in a system that's rigged against them

One Grand Summer by Ewald Arenz review – an understated and empathetic coming-of-age story
Books

One Grand Summer by Ewald Arenz review – an understated and empathetic coming-of-age story

The Eyes Are The Best Part by Monika Kim review – tension-filled horror debut delivers
Books

The Eyes Are The Best Part by Monika Kim review – tension-filled horror debut delivers

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know

Support our vendors with a subscription

For each subscription to the magazine, we’ll provide a vendor with a reusable water bottle, making it easier for them to access cold water on hot days.