An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 102

Clinton Howell Antiques - November 2, 2020 - Issue 102
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
There is a great deal of pleasure in writing about the houses I have visited, but I do have some regrets. In most cases, I took notes which are all safely in storage in Long Island City, but in some cases I did not. One of the houses where I know I did not take notes on was Alnwick Castle (pronounced Ann-ick which is the home of the Duke of Northumberland) best known for being the home for  two Harry Potter movies. I visited before that legacy was established whilst on my Scottish borders bicycle tour. It was a day trip taken by van after the majority of the bicycling was over and our last night in the countryside before returning to Edinburgh. And Alnwick is the one house I wish I had notes on as it is sensational, a must visit for any furniture enthusiast and a must visit for seeing a pair of cabinets once owned by Louis XIV and made by an Italian in France, Domenico Cucci, at the Gobelins Factory in 1683. (That is when it was finished--it took five years to make.) To my mind, they are among the greatest pieces of furniture ever made and even though they are definitely not something I would want to live with, I still believe that they are just extraordinary and not solely because we know that they were designed by Charles Le Brun and made for Louis XIV. I can see them as clearly today as I did thirty or so years ago. I know that many of you that click on the link below will think that I have lost my mind as they are garish, not as reserved as, for example, the Badminton Cabinet, another pietra dura masterpiece, that now resides in Lichtenstein and is nominally the most expensive piece of furniture ever sold. (Thirty-three million dollars.) Somehow the Alnwick cabinets grabbed my imagination and, in the process, diminished the rest of what I saw on that visit which was just not professional on my part. (One should never get distracted by just one piece or, as in this case, a pair.) Pietra dura may be an acquired taste, but once you start to appreciate it, you find it amazing to look at. I would love to return to Alnwick to see them again. 

The theme that I constantly refer back to is the history that is intrinsic to objects. This pair of cabinets are obviously the ultimate example of just how extraordinary that history can be, but it helps to know a little bit about Louis XIV to understand why they were made. France, in the mid-17th century was a country of provinces that occasionally worked together. Louis XIV was born in 1635 and his reign began at the age of eight and ran for seventy-two years, until his death in 1715. Through a combination of luck in surviving two Frondes (revolts), good advisors (his mother, Anne of Austria and Cardinal Mazarin) and intellect, he centralized power and turned France into a war machine unrivaled in Europe. (It might be noted that in 1649, England hung their King, Charles I.) Of huge importance to Louis was to create a glamorous court that was unrivaled in Europe. Hence, not only were building projects begun, but the furnishing of those projects led to the creation of the Gobelins Factory. It was there that the dreams of super deluxe interiors were made into reality as there were glass makers, weavers, carvers, gilders, stone masons, metal smiths, etc., all working to supercharge with glitz the interiors of Louis XIV's palaces. I have referenced many times the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles as being a definition of Louis's ability to turn night into to day with endless candle-lit reflection--this and the rich furnishings made for the royal interiors were a small part of Louis's goal, to be known as the greatest ruler in Europe. Projects such as the pair of cabinets at Alnwick fit right into this plan--they were demonstrably, and I use this term with tongue firmly in cheek--nouveau riche. 

The history of 17th century France is endlessly interesting for decisions that were made which, on the one hand seemed to unite the country and, on the other hand, seemed directly contradictory to the King's agenda, proving, I suppose, that all political decisions are two edged swords. For example, Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes set by his grandfather, Henry IV in 1598 which allowed the tolerance of non-Catholics in France, essentially creating a secular state. Its reversal put France at the center of Catholicism and as the defender of the faith, placing it in subtle competition with the Hapsburg Empire. The revocation in 1686 led to the expulsion of Protestants, many of whom were the artisans and merchants enabling the King in his building projects, but also united the hostility of the neighboring Protestant countries. The echoes of this decision helped England's extraordinary recovery from the Plague of 1666 as well as the Fire of London, events that encouraged immigration and sealed England's future as a bastion of Protestantism ultimately forcing out the too Catholic brother of Charles II, James II, in the Bloodless Revolution of 1688-89. Many of these Protestants were involved in the furniture trade (something like 90% of the population of London at the end of the 17th century was in the furniture business) which became a powerhouse for export revenue as the only country in Europe that did not import furniture from England was, both weirdly and more than legitimately as seen in this pair of cabinets, France. That they ended up in the wilds of Northumberland is a distinctly ironic twist given Louis' penchant for centralization, but then time, taste and revolution change all things. An article by the restorer of the Alnwick cabinets with good photos. An article about the conservation of the cabinets that was undertaken a decade ago.