An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 109

Clinton Howell Antiques - December 21, 2020 - Issue 109
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
Chatsworth is one of the best known English country houses for a host of reasons that span the centuries. The Cavendish family has had some remarkable ups and downs. The book by Amanda Foreman, "Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire". chronicles the late 18th century Duchess, wife of the 5th Duke, in a tale that is tragic and all too similar to her lateral descendant, Diana Spenser. The family is also connected to many of the most notable names in the British peerage. Indeed, the heir to Richard Boyle's estate, the builder of Chiswick House, was a niece who married the 3rd Duke of Devonshire. My first visit to Chatsworth was solely to see the furniture, but frankly, I was altogether blown away by the extensive interior carving--miles of egg and dart molding in oak, a wood that requires a sharp chisels at all times. The furniture proved to be mildly disappointing even though I did see some of the better known pieces such as the small pier table, oval mirror and a desk by the celebrated maker, John Boson, who is believed to have made furniture to William Kent's designs. (See the links below.) That desk has owls on the pilasters which is just such a fantastical idea and likely relates to its function in a library where there was (one hopes) a commitment to wisdom. That visit was also the first time I saw a painting by Lucian Freud who was commissioned by the family to do a series of portraits. If I remember correctly, they were in the back stairwell, but were gone, at least from the back stairs, by the 1990's.

On that first visit, I focused on trying to look under many of the Kent style consoles. At that time, security was less vigilant and I was able to see under a bunch of them. only one or two tables had old looking rails as far as i could tell. I may well be wrong, my glances were rather furtive given the situation. (How to feel like a stalker!) However, I remember when Houghton Hall (we are getting to that house, eventually) had what is known as an "attic sale" of redundant items and seeing similar unmarked, rather new looking rails on several chairs. One of the chairs was purchased by the New York English furniture dealer, Tom Devenish, who brought the chair to the prestigious Grosvenor House Hotel for his stand where it was vetted off. Tom was irate and promptly called Christie's--the auction house that had held the Houghton sale. I think Christie's furniture department convinced the vetting committee to keep the chair in the show and, in the end, I believe, Devenish sold the chair. Christie's later had a conference about the Houghton Hall furniture to specifically point out how the aging of places that dealers normally look to see age--seat rails, backs of mirrors--were atypical because Houghton Hall was located in Norfolk and there were no industrial smokestacks to pollute the atmosphere in agrarian East Anglia.

I am not saying that the logic behind this rationale isn't applicable, but what I will say is that the reproduction of goods in country houses is not something that anyone would know about--why not, particularly if something is needed elsewhere? Do I know if the tables at Chatsworth were old--there is no way that I could know that. Equally, there is no way to establish, without proper receipts from cabinetmakers in the Chatsworth archives, what the actual age of the tables may be. One of the Lord Rothschilds in the 19th century, who was a great fan of 18th century French furniture, bought French items from English country houses by offering to replace the piece with a reproduction, so that no one would know the original was sold. I am not suggesting anything other than the uncertainty that dealers and curators face when trying to establish the age of a piece of furniture that is in a country house. Some pieces lend themselves to a quick, easy examination--others do not. On every subsequent visit I made to Chatsworth, I have tried to look under the tables. It just hasn't been possible.

There is one other story about Chatsworth that I learned upon reading, "The Lunar Society", a book by Jenny Uglow that I have mentioned more than once. At one point, Matthew Boulton and Josiah Wedgwood were interested in purchasing or leasing the mountain in Derbyshire (in the 1780's) belonging to the Duke of Devonshire where the quarry for Derbyshire spar marble was mined, as they felt they it could be used for table ware (urns, candelabras, bowls, etc.) that they were making. Wedgwood bowed out as he went on to discover a variety of finishes for his wares and furthermore, his market was larger and his price points were lower than the items Matthew Boulton was making. Derbyshire spar, also known as bluejohn, is a fluorite and has both blue and yellow and can be extraordinarily decorative, particularly mounted with ormolu candelabra--Boulton's candelabra are extraordinarily rich looking. In any case, the Duke was not interested in selling and every once in a while, a new vein is found on his mountain. Having said that, similar fluorite has been found in China. It's amazing how the world turns. 

I am taking two weeks off for the holidays--see you in (thank God) the New Year! The famous owl table made for Lady Burlington by John Boson. The mirror in this article for the Bard exhibit on William Kent was above the small console that I first saw at Houghton. All about bluejohn The small console table that I first saw at Houghton--the pair (this one) is in the V&A. A site with bluejohn parfumiers and candelabrum.