The ‘Billy Ruffian’ of Antique Chairs!

8th July 2024

HMS Bellerophon, known to sailors as the ‘Billy Ruffian’, was a ship of the line of the Royal Navy. A third-rate of 74 guns, she was launched in 1786. Bellerophon served during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, mostly on blockades or convoy escort duties. An HMS Bellerophon oak armchair, 1805. This oak chair was commissioned by Captain Cumby from the timbers of his famous ship Bellerophon. It is of rectangular form with an upright back with four spindles, the cresting rail carved with the ship’s name ‘Bellerophon 1805’flanked by two scrolls, the arms with further bobbin-turned spindles and scrolling terminals, all raised upon turned legs with the original brass castors. A most striking feature is the gros-point needlework of the upholstery. The armrests and seat cushion show vivid coral branches, seaweeds and exotic shells while the back cushion depicts the ship from the stern, under full sail on port tack and with her flags streaming from the masthead and stern. English, 1805. The very realistic depiction of the shells in this embroidery can no doubt be attributed to the custom of sailors to collect shells for their loved ones. Many were made into pictures or glued into frames as shell valentines. One of Captain Cumby’s life-long friends (see Hilary Jackson in A Country Durham Man at Trafalgar, Cumby of the Bellerophon) Lieutenant Thomas Symonds, of the sloop Tweed, rescued an 11-year old French twin called Lucinde who subsequently wrote a charming book ‘Les Jumelles’ in which she describes going ‘to the bay of Honduras … collecting shells and other curiosities for Captain S., who was making a collection for one of his sisters,’. Lucinde and her twin Zébée were orphaned during the siege of San Domingo (Haiti), adopted by Symonds, brought to England and committed to the care of his aunt, Theresa Whitby, at the home of Admiral Sir William Cornwallis. Thomas and Lucinde were married in Boldre where he built her a house named Tweed, they called their youngest son Cumby and the two families corresponded and visited each other in the years after retirement. Around this time Pryce Cumby commissioned two chairs, the present one made from the timbers of the Bellerophon and another from the timbers of Hyperion. Both were exhibited in the Bowes Museum, County Durham (a copy of the photograph accompanies this piece) until acquired by a private collector, who later sold the Hyperion chair. In his will Cumby left to his wife his Patriotic Fund Sword, all silver and plate marked ‘C’ and ‘his cabinet of shells.’

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