One of the most intriguing country houses that I have visited is Claydon, located in Buckinghamshire, about forty miles from London. It is astounding because of the chinoiserie wood carving created by Luke Lightfoot who was the subject of a short biography in the annual Furniture History Society publication some years ago. Not that much is known about Lightfoot although one of the things he was thought to have done was taken Sir Edmund Verney, the owner of Claydon, for a substantial financial ride. Indeed, the family went bankrupt

Wood carving is a singular skill in the creation of furniture. Apart from mouldings, the carver must have a sculptural aesthetic that works well with furniture. Thus, when a carver is putting a ho-ho bird on the shoulders of a mirror, that bird needs to work with the overall composition of the mirror. It sounds simple, but when you see bad interpretations, the overall effect is a dud. The reason I am writing this blog is to showcase the pair of girandoles I have, one old and one new, that are frankly sensational. The ho-ho bird is reminiscent of Lightfoot’s carving. I only wish I could fully attribute it to him.

If Lightfoot did take Verney for a ride, at least his work was not a total scam. The carving work in the house is superb and the sophistication of the chinoiserie design quite advanced. The English were never quite as fluent with chinoiserie and rococo design as the French were, but there is no doubt that Lightfoot most certainly was and that Claydon represents among his greatest achievements. It is, in my opinion, one of the great country houses despite the fact that it is not on the scale of a Houghton House of Holkham Hall. Genius is always alluring, even on a modest scale.

Last winter, I was walking across Central Park on a wet day that had started out with snow, but which had graduated to a foggy mist. I passed the central allee of the park that has the American elms flanking it going south from the band shell. I was so impressed by the site of the wild branches against the white snow, that I snapped a photo on my phone. I wasn’t alone in my appreciation as virtually the same photo appeared in the Sunday NY Times that weekend.

Allees of trees have been cultivated for many years, probably thousands, as trees serve as both hedges and windbreaks. There is a majestic quality to a mature set of trees lining either a road or path. The older roads in England, indeed all through Europe, were often lined with trees. The Dutch elm disease laid waste to one of my favorite roads in Sussex as hundreds, if not thousands of elm trees died from the disease. It actually created a glut of elm veneer on the market as well.

Allees are not always the same tree. One house owner in England decided to create an allee with trees that ran the alphabet. It is an eccentric idea as the aesthetic value of the allee is compromised by all the different shapes of the various trees, but it is, without doubt, a tree lovers rebus. I can’t say that I would have recognized it right away, but if I was told that there was something special to the allee, I might have figured it out.

Another famous allee is one of laburnum trees that has been trained across a frame at Bodnant Garden in North Wales. I have seen this when the laburnum trees were in full flower and it is extraordinarily striking. But I have to say that the elms in Central Park are among the most breath taking allees I have seen. The rarity of mature elms, the way their branches swoop up and out, and the substantial number of them lined up in opposing rows is just fabulous.

I have written about this before, but in light of the shootings in Paris, I thought it worthwhile to go over the history of the Christian church’s acceptance of holy images of Christ, Mary, the Apostles, etc. It was the second council of Nicaea, held in 787, that reversed the ban on graven images set in 754 by Constantine V. It took some doing as the first attempt to rescind the ban in 784 was interrupted by the arrival of troops. The second attempt, engineered by the capable Empress Irene of Byzantium, was successful.

The icon business obviously flourished with the ruling and its long term impact is irrefutable as the interiors of many Catholic and Orthodox churches attest to. It is a tad spurious to relate these images to those of a satirical cartoonist except that the ban on reproducing the Prophet’s image applies to all images, not just those taken in vain. Islam, however, according to the scholar, Christiane Gruber, states in the online magazine,“Newsweek”, that there has never been, until recently, a prohibition on creating an image of the Prophet.

It is interesting to me that, without the Empress Irene’s fervor, Christianity might have been just as obdurate against portrayals of the Holy Family as Islam is today. The reason(s) behind her fervor remain a mystery, at least to me. I can’t imagine that Christianity would have evolved the way it has without artistic license. Indeed, western culture might have been quite drastically different without the Nicaean Council’s ruling. We certainly owe her gratitude for what eventually became the western artistic canon. Whether Christianity is better for her persistence is, I believe, debatable.

The Metropolitan Museum recently closed the exhibition of Pieter Coecke van Aelst, a Dutch painter and tapestry designer,  an exhibition I would call a tour de force. Not only were his paintings extraordinary, but his tapestries were amazingly beautiful and, for the most part, still in superb condition. I wish I had written about it sooner. Frankly, the Met excels at this kind of exhibition having ample space to hang as well as ample space to stand and look at the tapestries.

On my second visit to the Coecke exhibition, I stopped to look at the exhibition of Bartholomeus Spranger (1546-1611), another Dutch painter who also trained in Italy. He became the court painter for Rudolf II in Prague and died shortly before him in 1611. Spranger’s work is very free and loose. At times, he chooses to leave parts of his canvas to the viewer’s interpretation. Coecke, possibly because he designed tapestries, never left a square inch to guesswork.

The comparison of the two favors Coecke as the more complete artist, but I would suggest that Spranger’s style represents a movement away from the tight Italianate canvases that Coecke produced. Spranger’s self portrait is wonderful, so it is clear that he could paint, it is just that he seems to have favored a more spontaneous approach to his canvas. My amateurish speculation notwithstanding, I found the serendipity of the simultaneous exhibitions a good reason for my membership to the MMA.

I should also mention that it is Old Masters Week as well as Master Drawings week in New York at the end of the month. Old master paintings have paralleled the English furniture market in that great things sell very well and so this is the week where you will see a number of great paintings on exhibition. I might add that James MacKinnon of London uses my gallery to exhibit master drawings and I have never failed to covet at least four if not more of the items he shows. Come and see.

This phrase is easily one of the most discussed of the US Declaration of Independence. It is imprecise simply because the definition of happiness can be so widely interpreted. (Bhutan measures itself on “Gross National Happiness”, though how they measure it is beyond me.) I don’t think that essential happiness differs today from the 18th century, but I do believe that there are layers of complexity to happiness. I was reminded of this as I walked to work and saw a sign saying that “Happiness is expensive.” The men who wrote the constitution were writing a document based on their own experience. Their vision was of an enlightened society that essentially did right by its inhabitants. The details of how that could be attained were ambivalent. Contrast that with 18th century England, a fixed hierarchical society, and you can understand how happiness in either place might be different. Happiness in England might have varied according to what social strata a person was on. The more complex and stratified a society gets, the more complex simple pleasures can become. Hearth and home can evolve from a cottage to an estate. Dinner can evolve from having enough to eat to table cloths, silver and cut crystal. Essentially, the complex society develops fashions for doing things. English manners, a form of fashion and often Byzantine in scope, developed thusly. It enabled the hierarchy to distinguish one class from the next. Of course, the complex society also gives rise to style which evolves according to what “tastemakers” decree is fashionable. This is where the sign I saw coming to work fits in. Fashion is expensive and to be fashionable is, for some, happiness. I don’t believe that to be true for most people, but it is true for some. But, whether it is true or not, it is a huge engine to the economy. Perfectly good items will be discarded because they are no longer fashionable. This interests me because it was, quite clearly, the reason for the various styles that swept through England in the 18th century. Baroque, rococo, Gothick, chinoiserie and neo-classicism all evolved as a way to get people to spend more money to be fashionable and, I suppose, to be happy. Contrast this with the Colonies where happiness was not having to pay taxes to the Crown. Quite clearly, happiness has more than a few interpretations. It just depends on how much money you have.