Knowsley Hall has been in the Derby family for more than six centuries, although the present Earl, who inherited in 1994, had to bring the main house back under his control after it had been let to a police college for 40 years. Thus, the new centre table, which the Countess of Derby commissioned for the garden hall of the 1960s neo-Classical house on the estate as a surprise 10th wedding anniversary gift for her husband, takes its place in the larger story of the house’s revival. It was intended to celebrate all that Lord Derby had achieved in that decade. ‘I wanted a piece that would record his achievements pictorially – to be a visual congratulation. I am so proud of what he has done,’ says Lady Derby.
Jonathan Bourne advised Lady Derby on the rearrangement of furniture in the house, which left the garden hall without a centrepiece. Lady Derby’s sister, the interior decorator Amanda Murray, suggested Thomas Messel, who regularly works with leading interior designers, including Colefax & Fowler, Nicky Haslam and Alidad. ‘Thomas was tremendous to work with’ says Lady Derby, a former exhibitions assistant to the Surveyor of The Queen’s Pictures, ‘and really educated me about woods.’ His principal influences are, he says, ‘the golden ages of British design, English Baroque to neo-Classical, as well as contemporary designers such as Juvarra.’
‘This design was a particularly enjoyable collaboration with an unusually well-informed and enthusiastic patron. We had to create something that would sit well in its architectural context and live with some high-class neighbours. In the neighbouring drawing room, for instance, is the great Derby Cabinet designed by Robert Adam and painted by Angelica Kauffman. The new table had to be spectacular, but also had to seem right.’
Mr Messel designed a round table in the late Georgian neo-Classical spirit, the base in rippled walnut, amboyna and satin-wood, with ormolu and bronze mounts and feet (modelled on the crest of the Braybrookes, Lady Derby’s family, ‘an unexpected surprise from Thomas,’ she says). The cabinetmaking was done by the firm Jonathan Rose, largely by one of the senior men there, Stuart Crowhurst, and the table has neatly concealed drawers for visitors’ books. The bronze feet were modelled by Peter Walwin, and cast by Whiteway Craft in Gloucestershire.