Described as a "Gillow masterpiece" the bookcase, which measures seven feet tall and four feet wide, was made for Mary Hutton Rawlinson (1715-1786), widow of wealthy Lancaster Quaker merchant, Thomas Hutton Rawlinson (1712-1769), in 1772. The piece has remained in the ownership of Mary Rawlinson’s descendants for more than two centuries.
This magnificent bookcase is one of the most outstanding and fully documented examples of furniture made by Gillows of Lancaster in a period only some forty years after its establishment by Robert Gillow (1702/3–1772) in 1728. Very little of the firm’s pre-1790 production is even accredited, let alone fully documented like this piece. Gillows employed their most skilful craftsmen, Thomas and John Dowbiggin, to make the piece at a total cost of £17.17s. 0d.
The bookcase is richly ornamented with carving, marquetry, superb highly-figured book-matched veneers, gilding, traces of which are still on the glazing bars, and finely-chased silvered handles. This combination in one piece is exceptional for Gillows, who made minimal use of such techniques in the18th century. It is also surprising that such a sumptuous commission was made for a member of the Society of Friends, which invites questions for the study of taste as well as trade and manufacture.
Of prime importance is the estimate for the bookcase which survives in the Gillows archives in Westminster City Library. So detailed is it – recording the use of mahogany veneer on the inside surfaces of the lower section as against solid mahogany in the upper section; the ‘16 Leaves of Gold & Size’ used on the glazing bars; and the exact number of hinges, screws, bolts and escutcheons deployed – that the bookcase can be identified from this written description alone. The estimate is also significant for the evidence it provides of the operations of the furniture trade, instanced in this bookcase. Furniture historians frequently pronounce, but can rarely demonstrate, that 18th-century tradesmen distinguished between the extra costs incurred in the use of especially good materials or refined execution. Here we have proof: the use of inlay in an object otherwise ‘like the Sketch’ is noted together with the ‘Extra Cha[rge] for Extraordinary finers [veneers]’. We also learn that the several tasks of carving, inlaying and gilding were carried out by the same Gillow craftsmen, reflecting perhaps a difference in furniture-making practices between London (where it seems that there was generally a greater division of labour) and provincial towns such as Lancaster.
It has been conjectured that Thomas and John Dowbiggin, the craftsmen employed on the bookcase, were forebears of the well-known Thomas Dowbiggin (1788-1854), Royal cabinet-maker and upholsterer, of Mount Street, London. With the help of Diane Main, historian of the Dowbiggin family, we have established that Thomas Dowbiggin (Oct. 24, 1738—1811) and John (born May 31, 1741) were brothers; that Thomas was the father of Francis Dowbiggin (c. 1765-1832), cabinet-maker at Gillows 1787-1816; and that Francis himself was the father of Thomas Dowbiggin, the Royal cabinet-maker. By an extraordinary coincidence, the Judges’ Lodgings Museum recently acquired a splendid Gillows lady’s marquetry workbox made by the above Francis Dowbiggin in 1808 (Art Fund, Annual Review 2006).
Thomas Hutton Rawlinson's fortunes had progressed from the ownership of a Lancashire ironworks to a close involvement in the Slave Trade. Rawlinson’s commercial interests in the West Indies included the importation of mahogany into Lancaster, some of which was supplied to Gillows and may well have been used in the construction of this bookcase.
Portrait’s of Thomas and Mary Hutton Rawlinson also hang in the Judges' Lodgings, along with portriats of their son Abraham Rawlinson (1738-1803) and daughter Lydia Rawlinson (1733-1798).