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Great George Street, number 28, London, designs for mirror frames for the drawing rooms for Sir James Eyre, c1789, unexecuted (3)

Sir James Eyre was baptised at Wells, Somerset, 13 September, 1734, the son of the Rev. Thomas Eyre of Wells. He was a scholar of Winchester College, and later matriculated at St John’s College, Oxford in 1749. He was called to the Bar in 1755, later serving as counsel for the Corporation of London. Initially Eyre formed part of Wilkes’s legal team, advising on Wilkes v. Wood, but later made his loyalties to the crown and administration clear when he refused to present the King with the Corporation's remonstrance over Wilkes’s exclusion from parliament.

In 1769 Eyre issued a warrant for the hanging of John Doyle and John Vallie, in an attempt to quash the Spitalfields Weavers’ riots. He sentenced the two men to death without detailing a place of execution which was seen as unconstitutional, and gave rise to concerns regarding secret executions. The warrant, however, was upheld.

On 6th November 1772, Eyre was knighted and appointed simultaneously to the posts of serjeant-at-law and Baron of the Exchequer. Later, on 26th January 1787, he was promoted to the post of Lord Chief Baron. On 11th February 1793, he was appointed Chief Justice of Common Pleas.

Hay highlights that in a number of civil cases, Eyre was seen to oppose the measures introduced by William Murray, first Earl of Mansfield. He also notes that, whilst on assizes, Eyre gained a reputation for his severity in sentencing, with the number of capital sentences proportionately higher than that of other judges.

Sir James Eyre married twice. Following the death of his first wife 5th July 1787, his second marriage was announced in The Times, 7th April 1788.

He died 6th July 1799 and was buried in St James’ Church, Ruscombe, where, on the north wall of the nave, there is a funerary monument, executed by Richard Westmacott.

28 Great George Street was constructed on a 33 by 120ft plot, with 20sq ft reserved for the Boar’s Head yard. The property has since been demolished, but accounts record an entrance flanked by carved wooden columns, with foliate capitals and elegant wrought-iron balconies at first-storey level. The balconies provide evidence of later additions made, as they were probably introduced when the windows were altered to create lower sills.

The interior of the house is recorded as containing a carved wooden chimneypiece with an elaborate overmantel in the ground-storey front room. Unfortunately this and a number of the house's ornamental fittings were removed before they could be properly documented.

The rate books record Sir James Eyre as residing at the property from 1789-99. A lead cistern uncovered on the premises was found to bear his initials and the date 1794, perhaps suggesting alterations during this period. Upon his death 6th July 1799, the townhouse at 28 Great George Street, along with his country estate of Ruscombe, was left to his second wife Mary. However, from 1800, one C. Bragge is recorded as residing in the George Street property.

In 1789, Adam also produced designs for the remodelling of Eyre’s country house at Ruscombe. Although the designs produced for 28 Great George Street are undated, it is tempting to suggest that the two schemes are concurrent. The mirror frame designs are of Adam's later style and the scheme cannot predate 1789, as this is the year in which Eyre first appears on the rate books for the property.

See also: Ruscombe House, Berkshire

A.T. Bolton, The architecture of Robert and James Adam, 1922, volume II, Index pp. 37, 70; M. H. Cox and P. Norman (eds), Survey of London: St. Margaret, Westminster, Volume X, Part I, pp. 44-45, pl. 47; E. Harris, The Furniture of Robert Adam, 1963, p. 55; D. Hay, 2004 ‘Eyre, Sir James (bap. 1734, d. 1799)’ ww.oxforddnb.com; ‘Church of St James, Church Lane, Ruscombe’, historicengland.org.uk (accessed April 2019)

Anna McAlaney, 2019
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