An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
On Thursday, December 10 I will be part of a webinar on Zoom on the decorative arts--my subject will be English furniture--quelle surprise! There will be two other panelists, Mark Westgarth from the Bowes Museum in Leeds and Wolf Burchard from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The link will be sent with next week's blog. I hope you will join me.
Some of the houses I visited while at the London College of Furniture have pretty much faded from memory even though I know I went to them. Clandon in Guilford, Surrey was one visit and my memory is of a lot of gilded furniture and that's about it. Since then it has had a fire and I don't know if furniture was lost or not. Knole in Kent is another house and is filled with oak, which I like a lot, but oak's stylistic evolution is not as compelling to me as the 18th century's style smorgasbord. That said, I remember the extraordinary oak floor boards better than just about anything. One house that I went to in the the 70's was Ham House which is in Richmond Park in South London. I went there on my own again in the 1980's and was struck by the unusual compilation of furniture--something that struck me very differently on my most recent visit in 2019. The houses in London are generally convenient to the bus, train or tube, so I have few excuses for not re-visiting. The walk to Ham House is particularly beautiful through groomed grounds with playing fields--all very English and hard to imagine that it is a short eight to ten miles, as the crow flies, to the point considered the center of London, Lord Nelson's monument in Trafalgar Square.
Ham is unique among the houses of London. Owned by the Lauderdale family, it is clear that they were well off during the last thirty years of the 17th century, when a lot of people weren't. That time is just after the restoration of the monarchy. The Lauderdales were Royalists and this likely benefitted their finances. You will get into a real tangle trying to figure out why someone was a Royalist or for what reason they took one side or the other during the Cromwellian years. Religion was a part of the mix--it was a recurrent theme of English royal succession up to the time Victoria took the throne in 1837. But nothing about English politics is straightforward, particularly when the crown's power rests on the authority of the oligarchs, the landowners who allowed the monarchs to be monarch, as long as the ruler didn't get above his or her station. The Lauderdale family seems to have been associated with the Church of Scotland, but they also seemed sympathetic to the Catholic cause, which might have been a case of playing both sides of a complicated multidimensional fence. Many think of Scotland as the land of Presbyterians, but there was a strong Catholic influence there as well. What this has to do with the furniture at Ham House is simply that the Royalist sympathies, wherever they came from, abetted the Lauderdale fortunes in West London and it showed in their furniture. As their fortunes rose, the Ham House owners filled it with a la mode furniture, to wit Dutch baroque marquetry as well as japanned, chinoiserie furniture. The English furniture trade was, at this time, strongly influenced by both Dutch craft and design and Ham House makes this very clear.
I referred above to the unusual compilation of furniture from my second visit to the house in the 1980's. On my last visit, I realized just what caught my eye. There is clearly a furniture style hiatus at Ham House between, I would roughly estimate, 1690-1725. This points to the amount of interest, and possibly funds, that the Lauderdale family had at hand. (There also appears to be some litigation involved and an inheritance issue.) This is evident in a jump from chinoiserie of the late 17th century to William Kent inspired furniture of the late 1720's. I have discussed William Kent before, his influence on English furniture design was immense as his designs show a marked break from the Dutch baroque influenced furniture, of which Ham House has an ample amount, to a grander Palladian inspired style that you can find in one drawing room in particular with powerful gilded mirrors and a suite of rather grand gilded furniture. (Strictly speaking, Kent furniture has more than a touch of Italian baroque style as well, but for a moment, think about the difference between the Italians and the Dutch, and you will understand how different the manifestations of one baroque is to the next.) That there was an hiatus in decorating at Ham House is not unusual in country houses, but what was interesting is that I noticed the difference back in the early 1980's when I was still pretty new to understanding antique furniture. I would also claim that this is one of many values of retaining country houses with original furniture. There are still a great many stories that these houses can, potentially, tell. I wonder how much I have missed?
A baroque chinoiserie japanned center table in my inventory. There is one japanned table in Ham House that is quite similar and there are several (Dutch) baroque style tables at Ham with floral marquetry inlays.
Information on Lauderdale family and Ham House. Unfortunately, there are no photos of the furniture that I can find of the furniture at Ham House save for the "Online Collections" which are, essentially, the inventory of Ham House. There is a photo of the table I refer to, but it is not a great one and I cannot access the precise photo and link it electronically. My own lack of ability with computers.
An interesting blog on the Ham interiors.