An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 112

Clinton Howell Antiques - January 25, 2021 - Issue 112
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
Three names that I learned in my early days at the London College of Furniture in the panoply of English design were Inigo Jones (1573-1652) William Kent (1685-1748) and Thomas Chippendale (1718-79). Jones, of course, was an architect as well as a set designer for masques and plays, but because he introduced Britain, more specifically England, to the world of classical architecture, he is considered the godfather to all that transcended, design-wise when Kent and Burlington chose to re-invigorate the classical movement in London in the early 18th century. It is thought that Jones designed furniture, but and I say this with some trepidation, I honestly don't know of any pieces attributed to him. As for Kent and Chippendale, they are two of the best known names in English furniture, although Chippendale, it is worthwhile noting, is best known because of his three versions of the "Director", a compilation of furniture designs which has led to the term, "Chippendale", to describe furniture that both does and doesn't look like anything he designed. Kent, as I have talked about numerous times was, like Jones, a designer who did all sorts of things. The furniture he designed is grand, bold and replete with Italian baroque tropes--scales, swags, c-scrolls, eagles, lions, dolphins, serpents, carved shells and more--and it all became part of the English furniture making scene in various guises for years to come.

There is a house where these three great names are juxtaposed with each other--Wilton House in Wiltshire. Jones's contribution to Wilton are two state rooms, the single cube and the double cube rooms. He is thought to have done more, but it was found in the 1960's that Jones delegated to a Frenchman in his employ, Isaac de Caus. This is more of a concern to architectural historians who want to pin down Jones's actual legacy, which is still somewhat obscure save for his London work at the Queen's House, Soho Square, and Banqueting House. As Wilton sustained a fire in the double cube room, it isn't clear precisely what is Jones's save for the concept of the double cube, but the single cube room is known to have a mantelpiece designed by Jones. All I can say is that when I first learned about Wilton, Jones's single and double cube rooms were talked about in awe. And furthermore, anyone that wanted to know anything about furniture and the philosophy of design that overhung England from as early as Jones to as late as Chippendale, had to make a visit to Wilton. 

The second awe inspiring, perhaps more jaw dropping in fact, aspect that my tutors, particularly the carving and gilding teachers, talked about is the Kent furniture that is in the double and single cube rooms at Wilton. Back in the early 1970's, it was thought that Kent designed for the Earl of Pembroke, Wilton's owner, but apparently the Kent suite was purchased from a sale at Wanstead House in 1822. The suite is sensational and grand with settees having opposing sphinxes under the apron and a mask of Diana in the center of the crest rail on one and coronets on the other two. This is Kent at his most baroque and among the best of his extant furniture in my opinion. Oddly, I would say that the Kent furniture at Wilton doesn't seem to fit the design scheme all that well which may have something to do with work done by William Chambers in the house, the great neo-classical architect, in the 1760's. The room just doesn't feel Kentian. I would ask any of you that visit some of Kent's better known commissions such as Houghton or Chiswick to compare the way the interior feels at Wilton. There is, in my mind, a difference.

For some reason, at least to my eye, the Chippendale furniture at Wilton seems to fit quite well--this, of course, could be directly attributable to Chambers input. One of the best known of all Thomas Chippendale's pieces is at Wilton, a breakfront bookcase known as the "violin" bookcase because of the carved violin trophy on the central door of the bookcase. It is a robust and imposing piece of furniture, without a doubt, and one that few will forget once they have seen it. There is more Chippendale, not all of it documented, but enough to make the house a visit for any Chippendale enthusiast. However, it isn't just Chippendale that you will find at Wilton. There are magnificent hall chairs, fabulous carvings on the walls of several rooms, great consoles and a center table not unlike one I sold years ago that has a Kentian flair. Wilton is just one of those houses, still in private hands, that has no end of things to look at. And if you are interested in Kent and Chippendale and want to be in what many in my class at the London College of Furniture referred to as hallowed ground, then Wilton House is the place.

If William Kent intrigues you, I strongly recommend that you purchase, "William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain",  by Susan Weber and published in 2014. The photos alone are wonderful. Photos of furniture at Wilton. What I might label over the top, but fascinating for its imagery. Some close up views--the carving at Wilton is sensational. Another look at Wilton.