An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 108

Clinton Howell Antiques - December 14, 2020 - Issue 108
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
For anyone who hasn't looked yet, I strongly recommend that you take a look at "The 12 Days of Christmas Show" hosted by InCollect and made up of dealers from the AADLA, NAADAA and PADA--all dealers who sell real things. The link to the show is here:  You can view any item shown through today by going to the date of the show and, of course, there are two more days to go. It is fun and it is quick.

I thought I might visit another London property and if I say it is one of my favorites, you might get the idea that they are all my favorites. I defy anyone to say that one house is the best house in London--it can't be said as there are too many great places to see. But Chiswick House, which anyone driving to or from Heathrow on the M4 will see (the signs for it, not the house) is just wonderful. It was meant less as a house and more as a retreat for Lord Burlington (Richard Boyle, by name), the man who wanted to architecturally change the face of London with his dream of a Palladian-style inspired, capitol city. He certainly put his money behind the scheme at Chiswick because as a country retreat, which is now a part of West London, it is inspirational.

Burlington left his furniture, we presume, to be designed by William Kent (1685-1748). Kent is a seminal figure in English furniture design, but his contribution is difficult to gauge as he was not a furniture maker. What might best be said is that he did not so much create a style as both play with scale and broaden the vocabulary that was used by English craftsmen in standard forms--console tables, pedestals, stools, looking glasses, settees, chairs and so forth. Dr. Susan Weber goes into Kent's furniture designs in great detail in her book, "William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain". The illustrations in the book show a novelty of scale--bigger and more dramatic and a tendency to grandeur. This is not an insignificant contribution by any stretch since "new" in design, at least up until the mid to late 19th century, was often the distillation, refinement or enhancement of detail. Kent's oeuvre is broad and imaginative with wonderful, even fantastical, concepts--double scroll legs (see link below) masks of all sorts placed everywhere--chairs, tables, looking glasses--his work was novel and exciting. The latitude in his creativity is such that, in a few instances, it is just a little far fetched, and yet completely in keeping with his extraordinary imagination. For example, Kent is usually given credit for the eagle table console, essentially an eagle, its head and wings holding up a frame that holds a marble top. The logic given for this is that Kent designed the tailpiece of Alexander Pope's translation of, "The Odyssey" (1725-26) which shows two eagles on top of a table designed by Kent. Maybe yes, maybe no, and so in the English furniture world, almost all eagle console tables are referred to as "Kentian". The tailpiece is almost always cited as the inspiration of the eagle table--possibly dubious logic, but totally in keeping with Kent's overall design oeuvre. 

Kent's design vocabulary was large, sourced during his ten years in Italy (1709-1719), and re-imagined for the English country house. The furniture made in this period must have been made with and without cabinetmakers under direct supervision. Some of his designs are sensational and Chiswick House has some exemplary pieces that are just sublimely perfect for the architecture. Other furniture attributed to his influence can seem disproportionate. No matter, however, as this was the vocabulary that became the British baroque, the very first English based design style. That's an extraordinary thought. I try to imagine the effect of this villa on those people first to see it--what was their reaction? My reaction, each time I visit, is of awe. The entirety of Chiswick House clearly defines a unique moment in design in Britain and fulfills Dr. Weber's title to her book to a tee.  Images of the interior. Take a look at those chairs, the pedestals, the tables. Incredible. And note the color scheme. Chair and pedestal together. This website is well worth perusing.