An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 120

Clinton Howell Antiques - March 22, 2021 - Issue 120
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
Hampton Court Palace is not really a country house. Like the larger houses I have talked about, it is large, made larger by Henry VIII to allow for all of his courtiers to be in attendance. The initial building of the complex was by Thomas Wolsey, the Archbishop of York, and a favorite of Henry who, like almost everyone that served Henry, fell out of favor. Wolsey gave the house to Henry to appease him and before you knew it, Wolsey was dead and Henry was the owner. Henry added to the Palace and it remains in the hands of the Crown to this day.

I went to Hampton Court a number of times when I lived in London after learning about the carver, Grinling Gibbons. I wanted to search out his work and some of it is at Hampton Court. I have to say that I don't remember those early visits all that well--Gibbons work is sensational, but Hampton Court was always dark--I enjoyed seeing his work, but it was never easy, never an aha! moment where I felt that I truly knew all that Gibbons could do. In 1986, there was a fire at Hampton Court in one of the "grace and favour" apartments the Crown leases (for very little money) to retired military and diplomatic personnel and some of that carving was lost in the blaze. Of course, as was done at Windsor after the fire and in every country house that has seen a blaze in the last forty years (Uppark in Sussex and Clandon in Surrey, for example) there was a call to restore what was lost. The call went out to wood carvers to replace what was gone, a tricky and difficult panel that had to be re-imagined as the photographs of the panel that was lost were not as clear as they could be.

One thing I know about English craftsmen, particularly woodcarvers, is that they don't like to be bullied. They all believe that they do what they do for love, not money, and that they are artists who should be recognized by the people that employ them. However, whenever there is a project for the Crown, the National Trust or English Heritage or clients of that ilk, there is an architectural office committee that determines the value of the job and how long a project should take. If it isn't finished on time, money is deducted from the total. When the word went out that bids were being accepted for the missing panel, few of the regular woodcarvers in the UK (a dwindling number) wanted to submit a bid, knowing how difficult the job was. The winner of the bid, ultimately, was David Esterly, an American. His book, "The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making", details his arduous journey in re-creating the Gibbons panel. It is an interesting read  as Esterly tries to make it clear just how and why he forsook a life of the mind for a life of hand labor--craft, of course, but still manual labor. Furthermore, he succeeded in doing an excellent job, one that the English carvers did not criticize which they most certainly would have had his work been below par. I met David Esterly by chance at an exhibition of his work held atthe art dealer, Mark Brady's gallery, in 2013. Mark was doing an exhibition of Esterly' s work and I accidentally went to the exhibition a day early while it was still being hung. My reception was cordial, but not warm. I know that Mr. Esterly and I knew a lot of people in common, but there was work still to do and so I looked at his work, which is beautiful, and then left. I was very sorry to see that he died in June of 2019.

In any case, I had the luck to be at the annual meeting of the Confederation Internationale des Negociants en Oeuvres d'Arts (CINOA) in 2016 when it was in London. I was on the Board of CINOA by then (I was elected President in 2017 and still hold that position) and the British members of CINOA had gone all out to produce a superb program for the visiting delegates which included a glamorous dinner at the Fishmongers Hall in the City of London and, the next evening, a tour, then drinks and dinner at Hampton Court. Hampton Court remains dark and it is not easy to see things there, but I had read Esterly's book by that time so I looked at his work which fit right in with the original panels. (There are some amazing tapestries, as well.) It was an extraordinary June evening as the end of June in England can be and I was able to regale my hosts with a story of Hampton Court I'd heard on a radio program that I somehow remembered. It was the story about a visiting Rajah who was being feted by the Crown with a dinner at Hampton Court. The groundskeeper in charge of the lawns had one great bugaboo in his life which were the little white daisies, sort of like our dandelions, but different in that they could lie flat even when the lawns were cut to a 1/4". The groundskeeper went to enormous lengths to remove all these daisies and was reasonably satisfied by what he had done and thought the Rajah would be impressed by the vast sward of flat, green lawn. Upon being shown the grounds with the beaming groundskeeper trailing the procession, the Rajah was heard to comment how extraordinary the lawn was! The groundskeeper nearly burst with pride at hearing this only to hear the Rajah add, "how do they get those marvelous little flowers to grow in among the grass?"

And one last quick note. Masterpiece Fair, held in late June and located behind the Royal Hospital just off the Embankment in Chelsea, has seminars on the materials of the artistic world. The seminar on March 18 was entitled, "The Narrative Beauty of Wood", with four panelists, one being Ada de Wit who is having a book published on Grinling Gibbons later this year. She referenced David Esterly and his book, as well as the major troves of Gibbons work including Petworth House in Susses (which I will get to eventually) and, of course, Hampton Court, St. James' Church in Piccadilly, etc. Also, my friend, Richard Coles of Godson and Coles was on the panel and showed an extraordinary sideboard made of the South African timber, stinkwood. They will be talking about pigments on April 22 and if you are interested, you should google Masterpiece Fair. But if you can, see if you can find "The Narrative Beauty of Wood"--it is very interesting.  An incredible video on a Tudor bed. The presenter was formerly a curator at Hampton Court.