An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 103

Clinton Howell Antiques - November 9, 2020 - Issue 103
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
The Furniture History Society has been having zoom lectures on Sundays for several months now. They are great fun for furniture enthusiasts as they are a deep dive into the known history of an object or a collection. On Sunday, November 1, a Senior Curator at the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, Dr. Francesca Vanke gave a wonderful presentation on, of all things considering that I talked about the Louis XIV pietra dura cabinets at Alnwick last week, a pietra dura table top that the museum recently acquired. Dr. Vanke gave a terrific presentation on this table top that was acquired by William Paston of Oxnead Hall, one of the earliest pietra dura tables to arrive in the United Kingdom. sometime in the 1630's. The Paston Treasure, which is the name of the exhibition, is a reference to artworks shown in a painting circa 1670 of items normally found in a cabinet of curiosities including items such as enamelled shell cups, engraved rock crystal, elaborate silver chalices and so forth. The table top is not shown in the painting, but it does bear out the Paston acquisitive taste for rare and expensive items, what Dr. Vanke spoke of as "European taste".

I commented at the end of last week how the French, specifically Louis XIV, was into major bling, furniture-wise. (And in other ways.) Well, the Hapsburgs were into major object bling. On a visit to Vienna a number of years ago, another city I would happily ensconce myself in for a month or three, the Kunsthistorisches Museum had just re-opened their Kunstkammer after ten years, a section of the museum that is about objects. The items in Dr. Vanke's painting precisely reflect the Hapsburg taste that are so beautifully displayed in the Kunstkammer. My point about all this is not about the objects per se, but about the taste that was prevalent in the 15th and 16th centuries. To begin with, it was about the genius of the craftsman. This was obvious when we were shown the silver ship model that could power itself down the center of a dining table and shoot little arrows at people seated on either side of the table. (See the link below.)  Similar to the Paston Treasure, the Metropolitan Museum of Art had an exhibition last year called, "Making Marvels: Science and Splendor at the Courts of Europe", with a few of the objects from the Kunstkammer. Again, the desire of European royalty to have the latest in artistic craft and science was emphasized in this exhibition. (The Met loaned two silver chalices to the Paston Treasure exhibit in Norwich.) The second point I want to make was how this devotion to bling of any sort was a Catholic pleasure. Catholicism has always been the showiest of religions and it has celebrated artists and craftsmen ever since Queen Ailene defeated the iconoclasts in the eighth century at the Second Council of Nicaea. And thank goodness they were defeated given all the art and objects that have  been created under the protection of the church.

I have strayed from the initial subject which is the Paston pietra dura table top. For those of you that think that the items I talk about, whether it is Louis XIV's cabinets or the work of great cabinetmakers in houses around Britain are unavailable, there is plenty of amazing furniture and objects that are still on the market. (See the Link below to my Paxton House secretaire that is documented by Thomas Chippendale for Paxton.) The Paston table top was in auction at Christie's in the 1990's and then again at Sotheby's in the early 21st century and is extraordinarily rare, and yet it was available twice in the last thirty years. And to note just how rare it is, the Paston top dates to the 1630's, and as I mentioned, has to be one of the earliest table tops of Italian pietra dura to show up in England. As an aside, I think it is interesting to note that, at least prior to Charles I's execution, the people bringing this kind of taste into the UK were mostly Catholics. Leaping forward by sixty or so years, the taste for inlaid stone blossomed among the patrons of the Grand Tour. Hence the origin for the Badminton Cabinet commissioned in 1726 that I referenced last week and a host of other pieces. (I include a table of my own in the links below of a porphyry top banded in specimen marbles probably dating to the late 18th century with a table made for it in the 19th century.) The UK has some extraordinary pietra dura at country houses and it is all worth noting--super bling as far as furniture is concerned. I will, eventually, see the Paston table top and I am delighted to have learned of its existence from the Furniture History Society. What else might be lurking out there waiting to be "discovered"? That's the fun of my business. The catalog of the exhibition of "The Paston Treasure" showing some of the extraordinary things in the exhibition including the pietra dura table top with the Paston coat of arms. The top dates circa 1630-40.!1s0x476d079088e7983b%3A0x2fa4e1bfaf78b94c!3m1!7e115! Objects in the Kunstkammer collection in Vienna. A table of mine, the top of porphyry with a specimen marble banding. My Chippendale secretaire from Paxton House.