An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 7

Clinton Howell Antiques - September 18, 2017 - Issue 7
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts


The summer of 1973 was English, that is to say that there were very few warm days. However, it was notable because I met Richard Holley, an American designer living in London, whose primary work at that time was in creating the deisgns for special events. Richard's style was deliberate, demonstrative and declarative. If you have never heard anyone say opulence pronouncing every letter, then you haven't met Richard. My brother and I ended up being the manufacturers for many of the items used in Richard's events, most of them parties for the then newish firm, Party Planners. The best thing for my brother and I was that Richard convinced Zandra Rhodes to allow us to use her new house for a workshop, albeit for a short time as both my brother and I were still attending classes. In any case, we helped Richard with a great number of parties in all sorts of venues such as the Hyde Park Hotel (now the Mandarin Oriental), the Dorchester, Asprey's, the Grand Hotel in Brighton, the Orangery in Holland Park, the Father Thames river cruiser and a great many more. One of the most celebrated party was Mick Jagger's thirtieth held at David Mlinaric's house in Chelsea. David, a superb interior designer, came into my shop about fifteen years ago and I related the fact that I had been part of the crew setting up that party. He didn't attend that party as he had just flown in from South Africa, but he told me that the art professor that lived above him had so liked what the garden in the back looked like that he made a painting of it. Apparently, Mr. Jagger liked the painting and wanted to buy it, but the professor also liked it and wouldn't sell it. Alas, you can't always get what you want.

What did this have to do with antiques? In a way, it had very little to do with antiques and yet in another way, it had quite a bit to do with my education. Richard's taste for opulence was based on an essential understanding of the classical and baroque repertoires. It was our job, with his assistance, to translate many of his ideas into a scale that worked visually. My brother, David, was a natural at this and I learned through trial and error. After a while, it becomes second nature, so much so that you want to break the bounds of convention and try to expand the scale to see if you can get away with non-conventional scaling. If you apply this thinking to the interior of cathedrals, you will understand just how dramatic the elongation of objects can be. Obviously, the height of a cathedral almost demands such elongation, but take the object out of it and it changes dramatically. I think about this whenever I see a Frank Lloyd Wright room--so cozy and snug on the one hand, but because the ceiling is usually so low, the objects, when outside a Wright room, look stunted. No, the time we spent with Richard (now an exlclusve and somewhat reclusive designer living in Houston) was extremely informative.

Looking at Furniture
Rather than focus on a piece of furniture, I thought I would focus on this pair of Gothic pricket sticks which epitomize what I referred to in the above article in re to scale. A little background is helpful to understand why these were made. 

Gothic, known as "Gothick" in its first revival in the 1750's was considered quaint and decorative. Furniture and romantic outdoor follies for the garden were fairly common and a few home owners went further to create Gothick libraries and even Gothick style houses. However, in the early 19th century, the overtones of Gothic (the "k" was lost by then) were more conservative with the belief that Gothic was representative of the true English character. Augustus Welby Pugin, who designed the houses of Parliament was one of the prime movers of this canard. Pugin, a Catholic, felt that Gothic style churches and architecture would lead England back to the true faith (imported from Rome, paradoxically, the first home of the major neo-classical movement) and so he did his best to spread the style as far and wide as he could. 

Gothic style items for the home, many in the lighting field, but also in furniture, became fairly common. This pair of sticks are extremely fine quality with superbly chased mercury gilding (chasing is, essentially,  the detailing of metalwork). As you can see, the sticks, which are about 30" high, literally elevate the eye upwards with a series of elongated decorative (Gothic) details. Indeed, it is the quality of the craftsmanship that leads me to believe that these were made for a home, where they could be seen closely and fully appreciated rather than for an altar which would be just too far away to be clearly seen.

The photograph below is from an exhibition at the Met Breuer of Ettore Sottsass (1917-2007) who was called a "design radical" for his offbeat compositions such as this cabinet. Having referenced Gothic in the sticks above and the elongation affect, I thought this cabinet a wonderful counterpoint to what design in the 20th (and, let's hope, the 21st) century was about--FUN. This cabinet is what I would call an inside joke on a number of different levels, the most obvious being the ornate gilded doors opening at the base of the cathedral, which lies on its side. The variety of references about God and money are obvious, but Sottsass is foremost a designer and in this case, he is tweaking the design community. He is basically saying that nothing has to be as it is, everything is up for rearrangement. I strongly recommend a visit to the exhibition. Eighteenth century furniture is without compare, but a good joke is always a good joke.