This was the style which Johnson described as ‘Rural’ and which he grouped together with Gothick and Chinese as being in the ‘present taste’, which collectively he called ‘contrast’. He never of course referred to ‘rococo’, a modern term, nor ‘French’ nor ‘modern’ which other contemporaries used to describe their work in the English version of the genre pittoresque.
Despite these connections with known designs by Johnson, the identity of the maker of this remarkable group remains unresolved, not least because of the lack of documentation. Although some attributions have been given for furniture made elsewhere in the house, the Gallery furniture is quite different in style and intention. There is the possibility that it might have been carved in the workshop of Thomas Johnson himself, as his recently published autobiography has revealed him to have been a sought after and celebrated carver. However, Johnson’s incompetence in running his own business affairs led him to work either as a master craftsman in an established firm, or as a sub-contractor; hence his name never appears in surviving invoices. Instead, one needs to look at furniture provided by the firms for whom Johnson is known to have worked. From 1755 – 6, just before the time when Hagley was being furnished he was working for the picture-frame maker Thomas Vials, ‘for more [than] twenty one years’, in making drawings and executing ‘the principal part of his work’. For an interlude between c1757 and c1760 he also worked as a foreman for the successful firm of James Whittle and Samuel Norman, but fell out with them over financial arrangements. Neither of these firms is recorded as working for Lord Lyttelton, nor can any of the surviving furniture at Hagley be attributed to them by comparison with their documented work elsewhere.
One may therefore look elsewhere for a craftsman, especially Johnson himself admitted that his designs were not intended to be primarily advertisements of his own skills but rather, models or ‘Assistants to young artists…And when Honoured by the hand of the skilful Workman…I flatter myself will give entire satisfaction’.
The name of a ‘Mr Griffith’ appears in Mrs Elizabeth Montagu’s correspondence with Lyttelton’s in connection with the delivery of the girandoles to Hagley and John Cornforth speculated that this might refer to Edward Griffiths, an upholsterer and cabinet maker of Dean Street and former assistant to Benjamin Goodison, royal furniture supplier to George I and II. If this is the case then it has been suggested that the candlestands and pier glasses as well as the girandoles were also supplied by him.
Yet this is not the end of the story for yet another, still anonymous, author has been suggested for the Gallery furniture. During his tour of the Midlands in 1778 Sir Richard Sullivan gave a vivid description of Hagley and its treasures (‘exquisitely fitted up. Nothing tawdry, nothing expensive, but all conceived with the happiest taste, and most admirably executed’). When he reached the ‘Long Gallery’ [sic] he went into raptures: ‘of all the rooms I have seen in England [it] is most to my fancy. It is completely furnished with chairs, tables, and brackets of carved work, by an artist in the neighbourhood of Hagley: it is really elegant, exhibiting nothing but unpresuming taste, simplicity, and ornament’. Such a tantalising clue – no doubt supplied by the housekeeper (‘our old conductress’) who showed them the house – awaits further investigation, but the name of one Thomas Gaddick, a cabinet maker of Stourbridge, Worcestershire, has already been suggested.