An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 122

Clinton Howell Antiques - April 5, 2021- Issue 122
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
The Royal Oak is the American entity that represents the National Trust of England. The National Trust is one of two entities, the other being English Heritage, that is in the business of preserving what is considered important heritage of Britain--it can be a house, a monument, a view or an expanse of land that is considered too valuable to the cultural heritage of the country to be lost. Both entities have proven invaluable in the conservation of England's cultural past although I know that both entities have become something far larger than ever imagined in turns of the scope of their interests. My friend, Brad Garnett, did everything in his power to get Hinton Ampner in Hampshire  to be taken over by the National Trust which dithered for years, saying "no" once, to eventually taking on the house and grounds. Brad had been friendly with the owner, Ralph Dutton, who had no direct heirs and who had devoted his life to the garden of Hinton Ampner. Eventually, they took on the house and grounds to Brad's great relief. In any case, I have been a life member of the Royal Oak since my late 20's and I receive their mailings with a parking pass every year that allows me to visit and park for free. I rarely use my pass, but I am delighted to receive news about what the Royal Oak is doing.

The latest magazine from the Royal Oak has a plea for funds for Dyrham Park, a house I wrote about some time ago. Dyrham is quite a wonderful house--close to Bath and filled with good bits of furniture and unusual things such as the cedar staircase, the cedar coming from the Carolinas of the new world.  The number of projects undertaken by the Royal Oak is substantive and their latest gift was four million dollars to the decorative arts conservation studio at Knole, a house I haven't yet written on despite two memorable visits, both in 1972, the second one with my parents in tow. It seems that one of the first projects being undertaken because of this grant is a pair of sgabello chairs from Petworth House. (The sgabello has a wooden plank back, wooden seat and two cartouche shaped wooden supports that obviate the need for legs and all are carved and decorated in relief. They are similar to the English hall chair, but the Italians used sgabelli throughout a residence.)

Petworth House, where the sgabelli reside, is located in West Sussex, about an hour and twenty minutes drive from London. The nearest train is Pulborough which I remember well because the first substantial profit I made from a sale was from an auction close by the Pulborough train station. Also, my parents-in-law lived nearby in the town of Steyning directly under one of the more famous of the South Downs known as Chanctonbury Ring. Petworth is owned and run by the National Trust but the Earl of Egremont still has a residence there. It is a house of some distinction, less for the architecture and more for what it contains. I have been to it three times, the most interesting being for a Hunt Ball held in the late fall of 1974. What I remember is that I was entranced by actually being able to see the Grinling Gibbons carvings, unlike those at Hampton Court Palace. Furthermore, the very first artist that I truly fell in love with as a teenager was J.M.W. Turner and Petworth has a number of Turners not to mention a portrait of Henry VIII by the studio of Hans Holbein the Younger. I did not dance all that much as I found myself staring at these works of art and totally captivated.

It is the breadth of painting styles that are at Petworth which makes the collection unusual. From Hans Holbein the Younger to William Blake to J.M. W, Turner and lots in between. The setting of the picture gallery, with Gbbons carvings draped everywhere is a site to behold. You won't find yourself looking at furniture all that much as the walls have the real zing in the house. Like every house I have visited, I feel it is time for another visit and I regret that I did not spend more time there back in the early 1970's when I spent some time in Midhurst, about a fifteen mile drive to the south and west. Midhurst is one of the homes of English polo as it was the home of the Earl of Cowdray who hosted the first Coronation Cup in 1953. a prominent polo player despite having one arm. The reason I was invited to the Hunt Ball was because of a friend I made while in Midhurst. He was local gentry and a very sweet guy who loved it when I beat the owner of the local pub in backgammon, which I did often as the publican was just terrible and thought he was good. What I learned, in a sociological sense, was that everything was connected in one form or another, that Britain had layers on layers of people who played a role of some sort or another in the social hierarchy. My friend, an hereditary knight, was quite serious about his role--hence the Hunt Ball--despite the fact he had no family home and at that time, no heirs. But, he was expected to show at events and he did. I can't imagine how much harder it gets the more elevated the title. As much as I like Petworth House, I think that, if I were the heir to the title, I would prefer to be in London. Even with what I know about the English titled classes, the wikipedia entry on Petworth is one that takes a few readings to get straight.  Great paintings at Petworth  A tour of the interior.