An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 105

Clinton Howell Antiques - November 23, 2020- Issue 105
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
I came across a museum guide I had from Athens the other day which made me think of the line from John Keats, "Ode on a Grecian Urn", that "Beauty is truth, truth beauty." I studied the poem in high school and this line caught my imagination then and does to this day. The poet has a fascination with the history that the scene on the Grecian urn represents. (By the way, I have also to note that there is a pun in the title, ode on is the word odeon which in Greek is a place for a song performance.) He believes it encapsulates history better than the written word. In a way, it echoes my continued fascination and understanding of the pieces that I look at and occasionally buy. There is an implicit, albeit tacit, history that is much larger than the object we see in front of us. For me, enamored by the Age of Reason as I am, I can't help but get excited by finding beauty, or truth as the syllogism alleges, behind the creation of 18th century objects. Having said that, I think we misunderstand what beauty means, not willfully, but in a negligent way, a way that ignores the importance of the meaning. That kind of meaning is expected in fine art and not so much in decorative art. Interestingly, the Grecian urn, and all the other vessels that were drawn on, straddles the divide with a pictograph and, of course its shape and coloring.

The aforementioned quote reminded me of a piece of penwork decorated furniture that I own which is one of the most unusual pieces of furniture I have ever owned. Penwork is the art of drawing on furniture, ink on a white ground, so as a rule, it is very chic. It was a minor fad in the world of English furniture, most often found on boxes. The boxes were able to be purchased as blanks and the owner could then do a penwork scene of their choice on the box. (They were often sold in tourist towns such as Bath so that people could do a pen and ink drawing  on the box of, for example, the Royal Crescent as a souvenir of their visit.) But there was also serious furniture made that was decorated in penwork, my etagere being one of them. On furniture, the decoration was, as a rule, much more stylized, the etagere having a scene taken, without a doubt, from some Greek vase of a group of women standing around a seated woman. I wanted to know where this scene came from so I spent two days looking for the scene on vases in the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington in London. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack because there are too many to see in one day. You start reading the labels and before you know it, the day is over. In any case, I never found the precise image which was likely an amalgamation, but it did spark an interest in how all these vases found their way to London. 

At this point, we return to the 18th century. I have talked about the Grand Tour--that was the source of the Paston pietra dura table top that I talked about and it was the source for the Badminton Cabinet. It was also the source of an endless amount of art and antiquities in the 18th century, a lot of which ended up in Britain. The Italians of the 18th and 19th centuries were astounded by the English who bought everything they came across that was what they considered antique. And to do this, these tourists visited the English living in Italy both for their advice and as a source. One of the best known sources for antiquities was William Hamilton who was the British Ambassador to the Court of the Two Sicilies. Hamilton is famous for a lot of things including the purchase of the Portland Vase, a cameo glass produced in Rome between AD 1 and AD 25. The Portland vase has been endlessly copied, most notably by Josiah Wedgwood and is consequently among the most famous items Hamilton handled. But he also handled Greek vases and is clearly responsible for a large quantity of the ones I saw at the V and A. (Hamilton, by the way, thought the vases were Italian.) Among the other things Hamilton was famous for was the menage a trois with his wife, Emma and her lover, Horatio Nelson. This thought gyre of mine that started with running across a pamphlet from Athens, to the Byron quote, to the vases in the V & A  and then to the Grand Tour and William Hamilton started to get interesting when I remembered that Keats had written a love poem, "To Emma". Aha, perhaps that was our Emma and I could wrap this small bit of personal and historical reminiscence into a neat package, but alas, this was not our Emma. Even though Emma was a famous model of Romney's whose face (and body) was well known in London and beyond, Keats wrote his poem in 1815 and by then, Emma Hamilton had been forgotten.