An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 101

Clinton Howell Antiques - October 26, 2020 - Issue 101
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
Hopetoun House is a sizable country house not that far from Edinburgh on the south side of the Firth of Forth. It was here that I learned that many looking glasses were not hung by wires or even bolted into the wall, but instead had the glass plastered into the wall with the frames adhered to the wall over the glass. This answered a question I had regarding looking glasses that I saw at auction with separate frames on the back, clearly newer looking than the carving. The answer for this newish looking frame was pretty simple. As it happens, when country houses were being torn down (approximately 1200 have been razed) the furnishings and fixtures were often salvaged. Carving without a frame was useless, so a frame would be made that would act like a skeleton for the carving and which could also hold the glass. The mirror could now be hung. As a result, a great deal of carving was saved, although understanding where it came from has, unfortunately, been lost. Furniture history is not simple and when you factor in situations like this, it looks particularly complex. I might add that many looking glasses, both those that were hung and set into the wall, had independent carvings around the frame, that is, not attached to anything but which were part of the overall composition. These pieces were often lost or incorporated into other frames. In any case, it was at Hopetoun where I learned about the practice of placing the looking glass into the plaster wall. It makes sense until you want to re-decorate, but when you have a vast plethora of rooms, re-decorating probably isn't something you think about doing all that often. 

Hopetoun is, yet again, another Adam project, although it was begun by an architect named William Bruce and then later added onto by William Adam, the father of Robert and James. The brothers Adam, in their time, worked on the interiors of Hopetoun. I don't remember the house all that well, but I do remember a quantity of extremely good furniture and looking glasses. (I have a link below for furniture history buffs to James Cullen who supplied Hopetoun with furniture which came from top London makers of the 1750's and 60's. I find Cullen's contribution interesting because although he clearly worked with Adam, he was ordering furniture independently. As I have mentioned before, Adam seemed to like to work with one furnishing contractor per job, such as Chippendale, Mayhew and Ince or Linnell.) It is a grand house, perhaps among the grandest in Scotland at least as regards its furnishings, although that is saying a lot when you consider some of the great houses such as Floors and Dumfries. I do remember getting super excited by seeing the wall mounted looking glasses. It also made me realize how little we know about the razing of country houses, especially given how many looking glasses I have seen that have "new" backs.

There is a long back story to the razing of country houses. The houses were not just torn down, but picked apart by English decorating firms such as White and Allom, who were once members of the British Antique Dealers Association (BADA) who then supplied to architectural firms such as McKim, Mead and White and Carrere and Hastings, both in the United States. Floors, paneling, walls and furniture were all shipped to the US in quantity. Little is known about the extent of this trade, but the Frick mansions in both Pittsburgh and New York benefitted from Carrere and Hastings relationship to White and Allom. I visited the offices of White and Allom in London in the 1990's to try and find out a little about the relationship of these two firms, but a representative from White and Allom told me that all the old files had been destroyed a year or two earlier. Alas! Self explanatorysxsrf=ALeKk02BuFYULK7FpB461OH7kGp1midBPg:1603116213757&source=univ&tbm=isch&q=hopetoun+house+furniture&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwj69NCj6cDsAhXQMd8KHcIuA4MQjJkEegQIDRA These interior views cannot be blown up, unfortunately, but you are able to see the extensive mid-Georgian mahogany at Hopetoun as well as some good gilded rococo furniture. The round mirrors in the dining room are sensational  For those people who like to dive deeply into furniture history, this excerpt talks about one of the subcontractors for Hopetoun, James Cullen. A set of chairs that I own which are on the level of the furniture at Hopetoun.