An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 111

Clinton Howell Antiques - January 18, 2021- Issue 111
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
Twenty-nine years ago this July, I took my ten year old son to London for a week to attend the summer furniture sales at Christie's and Sotheby's which were usually their best sales of the year. We had a lot of spare time between the sales so on the weekend we took a tour boat from Westminster Bridge to Greenwich to spend the day. That trip in 1992 was reminiscent of a trip I'd made on the Father Thames in 1975, working with my brother and a designer in setting up the boat as a floating pleasure palace for a birthday celebration. The Captain of the Father Thames obligingly took us up and down to Greenwich during the day while we were working--London from the river is wonderful and furthermore, we could see our workshop located on the banks of the Thames in the Limehouse section of East London amid endless brick warehouses. That was the spot where my brother and I, while working out doors on the open quay in our underwear, saw the Queen on her boat heading for Greenwich for "walkabout".  She spotted us and waved--our lack of clothes or formality notwithstanding. 

This is going to sound a little like a tourist's guide to Greenwich, but it is hard to avoid as there is a lot to see. I am not certain what might be the most famous site, possibly the Royal Observatory or maybe the Royal Maritime Museum. Both are really interesting. I was interested in the Maritime Museum because I knew that it contained a river barge designed by William Kent for Frederick, son of George II and father of George III. I wanted to see the execution of the carving on the barge as it has a dolphin on the prow and lions, both rampant and masks, around the barge. Furthermore, it is all gilded and it is worth the visit to just see this boat. Kent's affinity for using the lion as well as the eagle and, occasionally, the dolphin, is the marker for the onset of what I consider the greatest baroque furniture made--it was stylistically so outside the norm and still is--it is also quite rare. (The river boats were true pleasure barges--you can see them in the link below on the album cover of a version of "Water Music" by Handel.) I will always make an effort to see Kent's work whenever I can and the barge had been on my list for years.

The Royal Observatory is a wonderful brick building that, and I am not trying to be too clever when I say this, is a place where time is stopped. There is one other place in London that I have been to (so far, at least) like it and that is at the other end of London at Hampton Court. I am not certain why it has this sense of the late 17th century, it just does. For people obsessed by Thomas Tompion, there are two clocks that were donated to the Obervatory shortly after it was built, so for clock people, much like Kent people, the Observatory is a must visit. Central south London is for the most part quite flat, but the Observatory is on top of a small knoll and has a good view of London although once industrialized the view of the sky in London had to be rather limited. One history that I read about the Observatory many years ago told the story of the first astronomer, John Flamsteed, who became a little paranoid and did not want anyone to see his calculations and so refused to retire, holding the position of astronomer for 45 years. He was the first and there haven't been that many since.

The gem in Greenwich, architecturally, is Queen Anne's House, better known as Queen's House, and is named after Anne of Denmark, the wife of James I. It is the first consciously classical building erected in Britain and it really stands out, particularly as a classical building in the midst of baroque style buildings by Christopher Wren (originally the Royal Naval Hospital--one wing now containing the Maritime Museum). The house was started in 1619, but Anne died and it was not finished until 1632 for Charles I's consort, Henrietta-Maria. What is fascinating for me is how politics, notably Charles's lousy relationship with Parliament which ended with his hanging in 1649, changed the arc of building in Britain as Parliament and later Cromwell, had no interest in building anything. The architect of the Queen's House, Inigo Jones (1573-1652) was ready and able to classicize London, almost a hundred years earlier than Burlington, but was only able to get two wholly classical buildings finished in London (that lasted) the Queen's House and Banqueting House although many buildings around the country are ascribed to him. Jones is considered England's first great architect and I suspect William Kent and Lord Burlington understood this extremely well. That the monarchy's hiatus changed the face of London can be seen most readily by the work of the baroque architects, Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor, who were responsible for one of London's greatest buildings, St. Paul's. It might not have been built if Charles I held onto his throne. 

I should mention the Cutty Sark, the "tea clipper" moored on the Thames in Greenwich. Tea clippers were designed for speed and shortened travel time to and from the Far East considerably, although they were soon to be made redundant by steam powered engines. As someone who is not enamored of sailing, most transoms are too short for my height, I was appalled by the scoliosis inducing ceiling height of the first lower deck. Having said that, almost all wooden boats are, in my opinion, works of art so I enjoyed seeing it. I think my ten year old son enjoyed it more than anything else we saw that day.,_Greenwich