Whenever I read a novel that is very foreign, non-Western in nature, I grant a surreal quality to it. “The Wind Up Bird Chronicle” by Haruki Murakami is set in Tokyo and is about the struggle against evil. The protagonist, Toru Okada, is seemingly a character of benign passivity. Is this a Zen like quality that all Japanese have or am I missing an essential element of the novel?

But when you think about history as I often do, it also has a surreal quality to it. The last quarter of the 17th century in England has so much happening–great building, technological and scientific advancement, plague, pestilence and fire and a continuing war between Catholicism and Protestantism. It all seems more than can sensibly fit in the moment.

Ultimately, real life is always an interpretation, just as novels are a form of history and history is a form of novel. It is the interpretation that we give to what we are reading that makes something real and that is all that matters. If we can convince others about our interpretation, we can actually change history. That is a scary thought.

I have been trying to understand what a deeply held belief is. I know that there are things that evoke the phrase, often to do with politics and religion. Democracy is a deeply held American belief and borders on being sacrosanct. The Tea Party-ers are obviously in that camp, but so are the Senators and Congressmen and President (and most of the bureaucrats, I suspect) as well and they are the object of scorn and derision by the Tea Party-ers.

Deeply held beliefs are, however, subject to change. In the mid 17th century, the English beheaded Charles I who was the head of the English Church and Lord of all British subjects. You might say that it was heresy to commit regicide, but they did it anyway. The French followed suit near a century and a half later, so this was not just some quirky English tic that was manifesting itself. Deeply held beliefs were, in these cases, suspended for the alleged benefit of the majority. You might say that their rebellion was a deeply held belief and superseded the deeply held belief of the loyal subjects.

There is a contradiction here and it leads me to believe that there is no such thing as a deeply held belief. Certainly there are great martyrs throughout history and their obstinancies are admirable, but were they being stubborn, or did they actually believe that their choice was absolute, more valuable than their ability to stay alive and help others in some other way than martyrdom? Ultimately the reason that I enjoy antiques (and art) is because you are not looking at an abstraction that may or may not be true. That antique in front of you is real and revealing. That is more than you can say for a deeply held belief.

The shifting silt at the bottom of Lake Seneca in upstate New York, the second longest Finger Lake, makes it very difficult to know the absolute depth of the lake. The bottom is perhaps shifting waterlogged logs or perhaps sunken boats. It is, for certain, quite deep and was, for this reason, used by the US Navy for submarine training during the Second World War. My oceanography classes at Hobart used to involve field trips on the lake and we never got good readings for the bottom. Probably because we tended to go out on the lake during blizzards, but that is another story.

The visual impact that a piece of old well figured wood has requires that you really look at it. If you don’t have the time or the inclination, it will not be there for you. There is a depth and a shifting bottom to it, but if you don’t see it, it is just a surface. This may sound a little touchy feely, but that which you look for is the thing that will take you somewhere interesting. It most certainly is that way with wood and it is the first step in helping you discern different types of wood. Most antique dealers get caught up in this very quickly as I did when I lived in London and spent my life going to veneer shops and timber merchants.

This is also true in literature or the fine arts and, indeed, in life although I don’t want to get too carried away here. Searching for things is the diametric opposite of waiting for things to happen and it is the search that engenders interest and it is the interest that propels the search. The bottom is, after all, incidental and finding it is, in the end, not that important. That is life.

I well remember my desire thirty-five years ago to see every country house in England that had great furniture. (I might also say in every museum in England and America as well.) I asked my friend, Heather Gilbey who worked at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London if she would ask someone–it turned out to be Peter Thornton, the great expert on English upholstery–which houses I should visit? His response, I believe, was all of them. And so I set out to do just that. And I have visited most of them, not all, but most and at lest two, three, four or even more times. The value of those visits cannot be underestimated.

Country houses were built to express the power of the local Lord. The grander the house, the more it reeked of untold wealth. I remember the first time I visited Holkham House in Norfolk, the country seat of the Coke family who happened to be relations to Robert Walpole. The house is made of an ochre brick which is not the most beautiful, but on walking into the marble hall, you immediately forget about the brick as you are in a marble hall with grand columns and steps taking you up to the first floor. The grandeur is unmistakable and it gets better, at least from a furniture dealer’s point of view, every room along the way. I was in awe. Three or four hours later, I found myself at Houghton House, the home of the first Prime Minister of England, Robert Walpole, and it made Holkham seem, if not provincial, like they might have skimped on a number of details here and there. Talk about spectacular, it is one of the great houses in England.

The things that you learn in country houses cannot be understated. The earliest use of composition that I have ever seen was on a suite of furniture dating circa 1775 in Shugborough in Leicestershire. Composition is a material made from whiting, a plaster like substance without lime, hide glue and linseed oil. It is a wonderful material because when it is warm, you can mould it which means you can make a batch of composition, mould whatever you wish and then save it for when you need it. If you need it to bend, you warm it up. At Hopetoun House in Scotland, not too far from Edinburgh, there are mirrors whose plates are stuck in the wall with carved frames that fit over the glasses. This type of work is known as a fitment in England. Occasionally, you see mirrors that lack the depth of a full frame and the reason for that is that it was probably a fitment saved from being dumped in the trash. I have one in my stock right now that has an Edwards and Roberts label on it meaning that they probably made the fitment into a free hanging looking glass.

Running around the English countryside to look at houses is always pleasurable for me unless I am on a  major motorway like the M1 or in a congested city of which England has a vast number. I remember touring down the Welsh border en route to Powis Castle when I saw the National Trust insignia denoting one of their houses so, on an off chance, I dropped in. It was Chirk Castle with a wonderful pair of wrought iron gates at the entrance and to my surprise one of the finest inlaid tables I have ever seen. It was made by Mayhew and Ince, whose work I knew, but I had never seen anything quite at the level of this table that was by them, a table worthy of any of the great London firms such as Cobb, Linnell or Chippendale. It was a fortuitous surprise.

The concept of power is different from the retention of power as could clearly be seen at Erdigg in North Wales. It is said that as the family’s fortunes declined, so too did the inhabitants of the house meaning that they started out living on what the English call the first floor, moved down to the ground floor as the leaks in the roof got bad and when they got worse, they moved to the rez-de-chausee. No matter, however, as the house retains some stunning furniture including a pair of John Belchier mirrors, some great lacquer, a suite of silver gilded furniture and more. This is the type of house that furniture historians love as it is sort of a time capsule with all the original bills in tact from the cabinet makers in the early 18th century.

Some houses are a complete surprise. Dyrham Park, where part of the film, “Remains of the Day” were filmed, (outside shots if I remember correctly) was interesting for, among a lot of other things, a cedar staircase. I think it is Bermudian cedar, which is not a true cedar (Cedrus) but a juniper. (Bermuda has its own interesting history of furniture–I well remember the altar table at the Church of St. Peter’s in the Parish of St. George’s that I went to see when last I was there.) In any case, Dyrham had this highly unusual staircase along with some wonderful, and like Erdigg, well documented, furniture. I can’t imagine keeping original invoices for over 200 years!

Christie’s auction house held a very successful sale at Godmersham Park in Kent in 1983. It was an event with helicopters, high prices and lots of champagne as the sound of corks popping in the dining tent was as regular as a heart beat and that dining tent was right next to marquee with the auction. I used my second trip to Godmersham, one trip for viewing the sale and one to attend it, as an excuse for going to Leeds Castle, also in Kent, which has been the site of some form of castle since the 10th century. Set with a moat, it hardly looks the place for great furniture, but like Godmersham, it was decorated in the 1930’s and you could see a similarity in decorating taste from one to the other. For example, both had black lacquer tea tables. I happen to have one in my inventory at this moment should anyone be interested in re-establishing this tradition. Unlike the ones at Godmersham and Leeds, however, mine does not have a lobed top.

I wanted to go see Kedleston in Derbyshire very badly as I knew it to contain some of the most unique Linnell furniture ever made as well as being a Robert Adam magnus opus of decoration. However, before the house had an arrangement with the National Trust, you could only see it once a month between midnight and 2AM. Seriously, it was difficult for me to arrange my trip with the opening time, but eventually I made it and was not disappointed. The languishing mermaids on the sofas are incredible as is the palm bed. The place is grand, not unlike Holkham in that way, but not quite up to the standard of Houghton House. It is a silly comparison as each house has plenty to see and marvel at. Of the four times I have visited the house, I have, curiously enough, come across Lady Scarsdale walking her two black labradors twice. I feel like an interloper when that happens.

Not all houses with great furniture are set in huge estates with grand vistas. Corsham Court in Wiltshire does not feel grand to me, but the furniture is as grand as any. With work by Thomas Johnson, Chippendale and Henry Hill of Marlborough, the house is far and away one of the most important you can visit for mid-18th century furniture. Furthermore, the catalogue is very good, better for the furniture lover like me than the typical National Trust catalogues. Not unlike Kedleston before its affiliation with the National Trust, however, Corsham can only be visited for three hours in the afternoon and not on Monday or Friday. The house is still in the possession of the Methuen family, I believe, and they deserve great credit for keeping all that wonderful furniture together.

There is real distance, on the road that is, in getting to a great many of the country houses that are dotted around Britain. Ugbrooke House near Exeter was remodeled by Robert Adam and has some superb reverse glass Chinese mirror paintings in their original gilded mirror frames. Oddly, those frames seem more like frames carved, not by the people who did mirrors, but by framers. In any case, try traveling to Exeter on a Friday in the summer and you will feel that most of England is going to the exact same destination. While you are down there, it is worth visiting Castle Drogo, the last castle built in England (the early 20th century). Designed by Edwin Lutyens, the house has some furniture that was made for it which is interesting and a hodge podge of other furniture from other eras. Country houses are layered with things so it is harder to find a house that is purely one style or another.

Culzean Castle on the south west coast of Scotland was, I believe, the house where they discovered the true value of the paint colors that Robert Adam used. (There are also a pair of Elliot commodes there if I remember correctly.) Since most of Adam’s paint colors had faded, almost everyone assumed that his palate was more pastel shaded than it was. In fact, his colors were far more vivid. The same is true for inlaid furniture (no doubt for the aforementioned inlaid commodes) of all eras. The woods were often stained vivid greens and pinks and blues, but the stain or the chemical agent that was used could not withstand the onslaught of sunlight and eventually turned a shade of brown. Culzean is a haul in a car, by the way. If you ever get out of the Friday traffic to Ugbrooke, don’t count on nipping up to Scotland in the same weekend to see Culzean.

The Duke of Northumberland’s castle in Alnwick in Northumberland is another distant treat. The pair of pietra dure cabinets with the cipher of Louis XIV are worth the price of admission even though they are not English furniture. The trek is not so remote as the two aforementioned castles and there are some pretty interesting houses not too far from Alnwick including Floors Castle and Sir Walter Scott’s home, Abbotsford. Scott was friendly with the furniture maker and designer George Bullock and you can see that Bullock was capable of making fine and fancy furniture and you can see that he was good at making useful furniture such as the rather plain dining chairs that are at Abbotsford. Indeed, the best furniture firms realized that they had to start offering different levels of quality as early as the 1780’s just because not everyone wanted the last word in the most expensive furniture throughout their residence.

Distance should never be an impediment in seeing a house, but if you are not so inclined to sit in a car for six hours, London and environs are replete with great houses. Knole, Brighton Pavilion, Uppark, Clandon, Claydon and West Wycombe, and these are only the houses to the south and west of London, are all about an hour from London. One of my favorite rooms, however, is in the very heart of London and it is by William Kent in Kensington Palace. It is the Pompeiian Room and it predates Robert Adam’s Herculaneum Room at Osterley by thirty odd years. I like Robert Adam, but his originality was less his inspiration and more his gifted understanding of what makes design work. He must have seen Kent’s room and I give him credit for doing one like it of his own. But it isn’t as good as Kent’s. They are both worth seeing. Just understand whose was first.

The quantity of social history in an English country house is hard to imagine. I was reading one of The Furniture History Society newsletter’s the other day (#176) when I came across an article about a console table that had been at Harewood House in Yorkshire. The author of the article, Jack Metcalfe, has an elegant theory about the inlay on the table as representing the men of the Lunar Society, a society that was written about by Jenny Uglow (and which I reviewed in my blog) that included men such as James Watt, Joseph Priestley and Matthew Boulton.

Harewood House is one of a number (3) Adam/Chippendale collaborations undertaken in Yorkshire, the other two being Newby Hall and Nostell Priory. The inlaid furniture at Harewood is quite spectacular even without the aforementioned console table and the famous inlaid desk which now resides at Temple Newsam Museum which is a mere hour from Harewood, just south of Leeds. There are, of course, other great houses in Yorkshire that are open to the public such as Castle Howard, Burton Constable and Sledmere. There is in each house, like all great English houses, many layers of meaning to just about any object you choose to focus on.

There are, of course, some people who are not interested in history of any sort. I find it difficult to ignore the past as its relevance never really fades. Histories echoes aren’t always loud and seldom listened to, but they are important just the same. But even if one wishes to ignore history, country houses (and they don’t have to be in England) yield delights that can be extraordinary. The most obvious one is the garden and when you find a house like Stourhead in Wiltshire, you will never forget it. But the best possible reason to visit all these houses, the furniture notwithstanding, is that they are survivors. We can all relate to that.