An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 118

Clinton Howell Antiques - March 8, 2021 - Issue 118
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
Corsham Court is located on the northern and western side of Wiltshire near Chippenham, a good two and a half to three hour drive from London, but if you are a furniture buff, believe me, it's worth it. As it is privately owned, the schedule for when it is open is a little quirky--I have been there twice and each time I have to remind myself that it is an afternoon opening and that I should visit another house in the morning. (Dyrham Park, Wilton House and Longleat Manor are all nearby. The house has been in the Methuen family since 1745 and seems to have undergone numerous transformations to both house and garden until the arrival of the 20th century. But prior to the Methuen family's purchase of the house, the history is also quite interesting having allegedly been the home during Saxon times of Ethelred the Unready and later the home of two of Henry VIII's wives, his first, Katherine of Aragon, and his last, Catherine Parr. (They could both be considered the lucky ones.)  The house passed out of the hands of the Crown during the reign of Elizabeth I.

The Methuens were clearly of means having been in the political arena (and on the right side) beginning in the late 17th century and running through the 18th. The descendants are not direct as the Paul Methuen who bought Corsham did so for his cousin, another Paul Methuen, whose son later became Baron Methuen. It is a little complicated but the Paul Methuen who received the house from his cousin was the one who hired what is considered England's most famous landscape gardener, Lancelot (Capability) Brown (1716-83) to re-work the gardens. All I remember about the gardens were the peacocks strutting around the place. I love birds, but wandering peacocks have never been high on my list and furthermore they poop everywhere. I wasn't really there to see the gardens no matter how famous Capability is for his work (he got his start with William Kent, 1685-1748, by the way and was followed by the also quite famous, Humphry Repton, 1752-1818) and I wasn't there to see the architecture, either, no matter how famous the last architect on the house was--John Nash (1752-1835) who was famous for the houses on Regent's Park and the work he did at the Brighton Pavilion, among other things. As I think you can tell, the Methuen's went in for name brands which is probably what makes the furniture so intriguing as they went for name brands there as well.

When you walk into some houses, you don't really get a feel for what is inside. For example, Wilton House was a monastery and you enter into a long hallway that runs east west. That doesn't tell you much about what is inside as you have to take a right or a left if you want to go into the house. Similarly, Blenheim is a massive cavernous entryway that leads you into a big long hallway--your focus is on the space of the hallway, not anything else. But in Corsham, you know you are in a house where they bought good furniture as you walk into a galleried hall, a bit like Houghton and the Queen's House in Greenwich, which is set out with furniture. I remember feeling I had won the lottery with all that I was seeing, including a writing table by Chippendale and a Pembroke table by Henry Hill, a high end maker in Marlborough whose work is equal to his contemporaries in London. But it is the wood carving of Thomas Johnson that always grabs my attention--if you are ever in Philadelphia, visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art and see the Thomas Johnson torchere because you will never forget it.

Thomas Johnson was an interesting man who was one of the few craftsmen ever to write his autobiography. Unfortunately it isn't all that focused on his work. He did work for some of the top woodcarvers of his day including (the aptly named) James Whittle and Samuel Norman. Johnson was influenced by Matthias Lock whose designs of rococo furniture clearly influenced Johnson. All of these aforementioned names are the cream of the crop in the London/British carving trade and yet Johnson also worked in two other cities, Liverpool and Dublin, where he met other talented craftsmen. Furthermore, Johnson has tentative ties to the carvers of America's best known rococo chairs made by Benjamin Randolph for the Cadwalader family of Philadelphia. The mirror at Corsham has a dragon at the crest, a Johnson trademark, and is attributed to him on the basis of a drawing, not a bill. The mirror at Corsham is, I believe, one of the few pieces attributed to Johnson that are in a country house and that was and remains the basis for my excitement. The Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington has some girandoles and a mirror attributed to, not documented, by Johnson and they also have the pair to the Philadelphia torchere I referred to above, so you don't need to go to Corsham to see Johnson's work. But, as I wasn't expecting it, it has become the focus of my memory of Corsham. Funny how that happens.  Interior shots of Corsham About the house and family.