Though this firm is not widely known today, it was the most important interior decorating firm in England through the nineteenth century. The Crace family was a favorite of the British Royal Family, particularly the Prince of Wales. They were commissioned to decorate a number of notable rooms at both Carlton House and the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, among other royal residences. In addition, several noble families regularly commissioned work from John Crace and his sons. However, many other clients during the Regency also commissioned the Crace firm to provide them with fashionable furnishings and interior decor. Regency authors who have affluent and/or pretentious characters who want the most fashionable decor in their London town house or country home may want to allow those characters to commission the Crace family firm to do the work.
The firm of John Crace & Sons through the Regency . . .
The patriarch of the Crace family was Thomas Crace, who was born about 1695. In 1718, Thomas established himself as a coach-maker in London, with premises in Rochester Row, situated south of Westminster and west of Lambeth. Thomas had three sons, Edward, Charles and John. He apprenticed his eldest son, Edward Crace (b. 1725), who had demonstrated a great talent in drawing and design, to the artist William Atkinson, a member of the Painter Stainers Company. The other two sons seem to have been apprenticed to coach-makers, as both later followed that trade in their father’s firm. In 1752, Edward Crace initially became a coach decorator, working with his brothers at their father’s premises, which had moved to Long Acre, in the Covent Garden area, where the most fashionable London coach makers were located.
In the later eighteenth century, it was not uncommon for some coach decorators to branch out into other work, such as house painting and even interior decoration. By 1768, Edward Crace converted his trade from that of a coach decorator to a house decorator. His new firm became what at the time was typically known as an upholder, what today would be considered an interior decorator. Two years later, Edward Crace was commissioned to provide the elegant furniture and other interior furnishings for the Pantheon, in Oxford Street, the first major public Neo-Classical building in Britain. This proved to be Edward Crace’s most important commission and it brought him to the attention of King George III. In fact, the king ordered his librarian, Mr. Dalton, to engage Edward Crace to care for and catalog the royal painting collections. Edward Crace initially took on the responsibility for the royal collection as part-time work. But in 1778, King George III officially appointed Edward Crace as Keeper of Paintings for all royal residences, a full-time position Crace held until he retired, about 1790.
Edward’s only son, John Crace (b. 1754), had begun assisting his father, with both coach decorating and then interior decoration, from the age of sixteen. However, he was a very independent young man and he established his own upholdery firm in London, in 1776, with £100 he had borrowed from a friend. John’s determination to set up his own business may have stemmed from a disagreement with his father over his choice of wife. Ignoring his father’s wishes, in 1776, John, a handsome, gregarious and personable young man, eloped with the lovely young Ann Eastham, which led to an estrangement between father and son. John Crace had made a number of important contacts while working for his father, so his new upholdery business did fairly well for the next couple of years. Sadly, Ann Crace died in childbirth barely two years after their marriage. It seems to have been shortly after her death that the breach between John and his father came to an end. Soon thereafter, John Crace merged his firm into his father’s, once the older man had accepted the king’s appointment as full-time Keeper of Paintings.
John Crace continued the family business as "painters and gilders," though he hired a few additional employees to cope with the increasing amount of work which came his way. From about 1780, through about 1811, the firm was known as John Crace & Company, with premises at No. 55, Great Queen Street, London. Just as the Prince of Wales became Regent, John’s three sons, Frederick (b. 1779), Alfred and Henry, had come of age, completed their training in the upholders trade and came into the business with him. From 1812 to 1826, the firm became known as John Crace & Sons, and retained their premises at No. 55, Great Queen Street during those years. Eventually, Frederick Crace’s son, and then his grandson, went on to run and manage the family firm under various names, through the Victorian period, until it was finally closed, in 1899.
A significant amount of the work done by John Crace & Company, and later, by John Crace & Sons, was to supply and install paper-hangings, as well as furnishing textiles, such as curtains, upholstery and carpets, for modish interiors. When required by their patron, they also designed and painted the walls of a room with illusionary motifs or scenes to suit the furnishings they supplied. A specialty of the Crace firm was gilding, and they regularly gilded wall ornaments, picture frames and/or furniture, as needed, to embellish a room. In addition, though only a few such firms took on the extra work, they also had the responsibility for arranging furniture and decorative objects, in addition to producing or contracting for them. In some cases, the firm was also responsible for re-hanging their patron’s collection of paintings and/or arranging their sculpture collection to suit their newly decorated rooms. There were even instances when one of the Crace brothers designed and installed a room specifically to set off a valuable collection of paintings, sculpture and/or objets d’art.
However, in the last decades of the eighteenth century, John Crace was often working with prominent architects such as Henry Holland and John Soane. Crace executed country house commissions for the architect, Henry Holland, at Althorp, and at Woburn Abbey. In addition to providing interior decor for Woburn Abbey itself, Crace also decorated the interior of the Chinese Dairy on the estate grounds, which had been designed by Holland. For the architect, John Soane, Crace designed the interiors for several rooms in his London home, at 12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and his country home, Pitzhanger Manor, in Middlesex County. Two of Crace’s best known designs for Soane helped to resolve the issue of very small rooms by his ceiling painting designs. The breakfast room in Soane’s London townhouse and the back parlor at Pitzhanger were both fairly narrow rooms with only one window. John Crace designed and painted the ceilings of those rooms with lattice-work trellises on which were intertwined realistic flowering vines, with the open sky visible beyond. This trompe l’oeil effect gave the impression in each room of a light airiness, suggesting it was open to the wider world beyond the narrow walls which enclosed it. [Author’s Note: John Crace’s painted trellised ceiling at 12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields was uncovered a few years ago, having been obscured for many years by at least sixteen layers of paint. His ceiling at Pitzhanger Manor has been repainted after his design.] In addition to Soane’s residences, John Crace’s firm also worked with John Soane on the interior decor of the Bank of England.
Despite all his other important commissions, John Crace’s most significant work was for the Prince of Wales, before he became Regent. For about ten years, beginning in 1785, Crace was responsible for much of the interior design and the furnishings at Carlton House, the Prince’s London residence. It was while working at Carlton House that John Crace became exposed to several of the European artists and craftsmen which the Prince had employed there, exposing the eager and talented English decorator to a host of other styles and techniques of which he was not previously aware. Between 1801 and 1804, John Crace, with the able assistance of his eldest son, Frederick Crace, directed the work of the Crace firm, which produced the first series of chinoiserie interiors for what became the Royal Pavilion at Brighton. The firm of John Crace & Company was also responsible for providing most of the furnishings and Chinese art works which adorned those rooms.
Frederick Crace, John’s eldest son, was apprenticed to the builder, Richard Holland, a cousin of the architect, Henry Holland. When he completed his apprenticeship, in 1793, Frederick went to work for his father’s firm. Frederick had great skill in marbling, graining, gilding and decorative painting. Within a year of joining his father’s firm, while working at Carlton House, his precocious skill and charm caught the eye of the Prince of Wales, who, one day, in the company of Mrs. Fitzherbert, happened upon Frederick while he was gilding the iron railing of one of the staircases. After that, Frederick worked almost exclusively on commissions from the Prince, at both Carlton House and then the Royal Pavilion, well into the Regency. Though a number of employees of the Crace firm worked on both projects, and John Crace was still the head of the firm, Frederick had become the lead designer and the firm’s primary representative to the Prince of Wales by the turn of the nineteenth century. Like the Prince, both John and Frederick Crace had an extensive interest in all things Chinese. That may be why Frederick, with his father’s assitance, became the prinicpal designer for most of the interior design in the chinoiserie style which was done at the Royal Pavilion between 1801 and 1804. In fact, the firm was doing so much work in Brighton at that time that they set up a branch office there. Though the Royal Pavilion was a prestigious commission, the Prince of Wales was notorioulsy slow to pay his bills. Therefore, it was important for the Crace firm to take on as many other interior design commissions as they could. Fortunately, the cachet of working for the Prince brought them many other, more financially responsible clients.
When the Prince Regent wished to expand and further embellish his seaside residence, in 1815, Frederick Crace, of John Crace & Sons, was recalled and given the commission for the new interior design work, which was to be in the chinoiserie style. Once again the Crace firm, now known as John Crace & Sons, opened a small branch office in Brighton from which to manage this new commission. The dramatic Chinese decor in the downstairs Corridor was completed in 1815, while the magnificent Music Room underwent its rich and exotic decoration between 1817 and 1820. Frederick Crace designed the curtains, upholstery and the carpet for the Music Room, along with a large suite of furniture, which was then constructed to his plans by Bailey & Saunders, the very fashionable cabinet-makers and upholders, with premises in Mount Street, off Grosvenor Square, Mayfair. In some instances, Frederick Crace personally painted the final designs on some of these pieces, as well as executing the final gilding. It is believed that he not only designed the decorative carved and gilded dragons which overlook the Music Room, he also designed more than two dozen stained glass lanterns intended to illuminate it. During this time, John Crace & Sons acted as agents for the Prince Regent, acquiring a number of pieces of Chinese porcelain and other objects of Oriental art which would be displayed in the rooms they were creating for the Royal Pavilion, just as they had done during their first commission there in 1801/1804. However, by this time, John Crace had retired and Frederick Crace was the head of the firm. Sadly, John Crace died in 1819, so he did not live to see the completion of his son’s work at Brighton. When it was completed, the Music Room at the Royal Pavilion was one of the most famous and widely discussed interiors in all of Europe during its day. Therefore, it can come as no surprise that Frederick’s work on the second phase of chinoiserie interior decor at the Regent’s pleasure palace is considered the outstanding masterpiece of his remarkable career.
Even after the Regency came to a close, Frederick Crace and his firm continued to execute commissions for George IV. The majority of that work was at Windsor Castle, where the State Rooms and several private apartments were re-furbished, painted and gilded in the lavish style the new king preferred. Though many of the designed he prepared for the apartments at Windsor Castle were in the Gothic style, Frederick also completed one more design in the chinoiserie style at Windsor, the Fishing Temple, which was situated near Virginia Water, in the grounds. Some years later, during the reign of King William IV, John Crace & Sons was commissioned to handle the gilding of the interiors of the rooms in the west wing of Buckingham Palace. However, by that time Frederick was in his mid-fifties and was considering retirement. Though he did consult on some of the designs, he left the actual work to the management of his eldest son, John Gregory Crace, who had become a partner in the firm, in 1830, and was then handling day-to-day operations. In 1846, trading as Frederick Crace & Sons, John Gregory Crace won the government contract for the interior decoration and furnishing of the New Palace of Westminster, which had replaced the old Houses of Parliament. That work would go one for more than twenty years.
Though it is not clear how much formal education either of them had, both John and Frederick Crace were very well-read men and each amassed a substantial private library during his lifetime. In particular, both men shared a deep interest in the history of art, design, topography and the details of other cultures. John Crace was especially interested in Oriental countries, possessing more than a dozen important books on China alone, plus books on Japan, Oceania and Asia in general. He also collected books on antiquities, both British and foreign, as well as several books on heraldry, in addition to a wide selection of biographies and a number of published plays. In his home in Knightsbridge, his vast personal collection of Oriental porcelain was on display. Frederick Crace had very similar tastes to his father, though he does not seem to have been as interested in published plays. His library was comprised of many books on art and design, like his father, with a strong focus on Oriental cultures. Frederick also collected a wide selection of books on a variety of European art and design styles, covering the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries. When John Crace died in 1819, his son, Frederick, kept the gems of his library. However, it appears that father and son often overlapped in their choice of books. Therefore, those books which Frederick did not need or want were sold at auction by Sotheby’s.
Frederick Crace was the leading light of the Crace family firm of interior decorators throughout the Regency period. However, on a much less elegant or glamourous note, in 1818, Frederick Crace accepted the appointment of Commissioner of Sewers for the city of London. Frederick Crace, like many of his fellow Londoners, was very concerned with the growing problems of sewage disposal and he wished to do what he could to find a solution. During the course of his efforts, he developed a keen interest in the physical and topographical aspects of the metropolis in which he lived. Not long after his appointment, he began collecting maps and views of the city with great enthusiasm. Initially, he simply collected existing copies of maps, prints and paintings of London buildings and street scenes. Nevertheless, it was not long before he also employed the watercolor artist, Thomas Shepherd, to make drawings and paintings of London buildings and street scapes which were scheduled for demolition. In many cases, the images which Shepherd made for Crace are the only visual record of a number of those places. Frederick Crace continued to collect maps and images of the streets of his beloved city, until his death, at the age of eighty, in 1859. By then, his collection was so vast, numbering more than 5000 items, that it rated a mention in his obituary. In The Leader, the article stated that "no city was ever before so fully illustrated." Fortunately, Frederick Crace’s collection of London maps and images was acquired by the British Museum and is now an important part of the collections of the British Library.
Dear Regency Authors, should you have any wealthy, pretentious and/or social-climbing characters inhabiting one of your upcoming tales of romance, and one or more of those characters wishes to have a room, or many rooms, in their home done up in the latest style, will you allow them to commission the work from John Crace & Sons? The Crace firm was certainly the best known and most prestigious upholders, or interior decorators, in Britain throughout the nineteenth century, including the Regency. Though any interior decoration done by John Crace & Sons would be fairly costly, the client could also be certain that it would be the very height of taste and fashion. Since Frederick Crace had done so much work for the Prince Regent, and other members of the royal family, one assumes that he was considered a true blue, loyal Englishman. Might he allow one or more agents of the Crown to become ostensible members of his firm so that they could gain access to the home of a wealthy socialite, whom they suspect of spying for Napoleon? On the other hand, mayhap the heroine, wishing to refurbish a room or two of the family home, while on a budget, pays a visit to the ware room of John Crace & Sons, at 55 Great Queen Street, to look at their design books and/or samples of paper-hangings and textiles, just to get some idea of what is in style. Might that be where she first encounters the hero? Are there other ways in which the firm of John Crace & Sons might decorate a Regency romance?