An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 113

Clinton Howell Antiques - February 1, 2021 - Issue 113

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts

Robert Walpole clearly saw a bright future for himself when he began building Houghton Hall in Norfolk in 1722. His handling of the South Sea Bubble crisis in 1720-22 cemented his value to the (unpopular) George I and further nudged England towards a constitutional monarchy. Hence, Walpole is regarded as Britain's first Prime Minister, an office he held for twenty plus years, something he would not have known upon the start of construction, but which clearly is manifested in the grandeur of the house whose interiors had to have been worked upon for many years. Houghton is not the most prepossessing of buildings, in my opinion--the exterior has a stiffness that somehow was escaped by the architecture at Wilton, the house I wrote about last week.

The first visit I made to Houghton was after a visit to Holkham Hall, a pile not far from Houghton owned by the Earl of Leicester, Thomas Coke. I will get to Holkham at some point, but for the moment, I will admit to thinking that Holkham had to be one of the all time great house visits. Little did I realize that half an hour's drive away, I would walk into a house that just blew all of my conceptions of country house grandeur out the window. That is what Houghton has--grandeur, and it is on a scale that, if you are aware of the British decorative arts in the first half of the 18th century, is mind blowing. It isn't deluxe nor is it plush, but it has a distinct aura of place--a place where things happened. No wonder Walpole used the house for informal government meetings for three weeks in the spring every year. I can see the ministers lining up to get an invitation. Persuasion takes many forms, after all.

The marble hall in Houghton was clearly designed to impress. If you look at the link below to photos of the interiors at Houghton, the marble hall just pops out of you. Perhaps it is the black and white marble floor, the limited amount of gold or the sheer monumentality of the place, but they all combine to provoke an aesthetic reaction. And frankly, you could criticize the execution of the space such as the doors being too close to the walls or the carved trophies too high on the wall, but that is quibbling. What you have to realize is that the style of Houghton, Palladian, is more or less brand new. The goal is to get you to gape.

Of course, it is furniture that I go to look at and the furniture is, once again, by William Kent. I said last week that the Kent furniture didn't seem comfortable in either of Jones's rooms at Wilton House, but at Houghton, Kent's furniture fits to a tee. Everything works--the limited amount of gold, the sensational mahogany benches, the extraordinary state bed with the massive, velvet covered shell to the English baroque, Italianate consoles--this is where English baroque furniture was developed. A museum curator friend with whom I visited the exhibition of Catherine the Great's paintings at Houghton--the same paintings sold by Walpole's grandson out of Houghton in the 1780's--dismissed the furniture out of hand. When I explained that we were, in essence, in the cradle of one of the progenitors of the English baroque style, he changed his tune and that is what happens when you visit a house like Houghton. You start to see things differently and that, I believe, is a good thing. An interesting character. Photos of the interior. Sensational.