An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 123

Clinton Howell Antiques - April 12, 2021 - Issue 123
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
The British have a love affair for their landscape which is more than heartwarming. Maybe it is a function of being a small island country with ancient traditions, but there are several things that are universally held in high esteem and represent the UK as much as anything that I have talked about to date. One of these are, trees and forests in general, and oak in specific. The oak tree is possibly the most potent symbol of Britain extant, lions and unicorns with standing, but not quite as much standing as the oak. The second powerful symbol stretches back to prehistoric Britain and that is stone. Stone as in Stonehenge, stone as in the stone of Scone (pronounced scoon) stone as in the variety of stones around the country which have had restorative powers ascribed to them known as "12 o'clock stones". There are henges throughout Britain, as well as on the continent, but it is Britain that reveres and remembers them as national emblems, enigmatic emblems that bespeak of a bygone magical era that included astronomical accuracy and extraordinary feats, still unexplained, of labor.

Recent discoveries have put the age of Stonehenge even further back than previously thought. Moreover, they have found where the stones for Stonehenge came from in Wales, a site known as Waun Mawn. While the information about where the stones came from is important, the unknowns such as the actual date of the first site for the henge in Wales is unknown, as is why they were moved to the Salisbury Plain? These questions are part of the long list of whodunit type questions that any archaeologist faces, but in England, the question is particularly apt as so little is known of pre-Roman Britain and it is all likely to be a very fascinating story. And that story plays into the middle ages as some of the "houses" (Powys and Chirk Castles) I have written about along the Welsh borders were fortifications designed to repel attackers from Welsh tribes in the 1200's and even later. In the scope of human history, the Welsh were wild and tribal not that long ago and so it is hard to imagine why a Welsh henge was removed in 1600 B.C.E.--could there have been a schism between the group that understood science well enough to make accurate astronomical calculations and the more feral tribes? It makes for great speculation.

As it happens, Stonehenge was the very first major tourist site that I visited outside of London in the UK. I was staying in Midhurst in Sussex at the time and two college friends came to visit--Dana and Wally, by name. The two of them were touring Europe and they really wanted to go see Stonehenge. This was in November of 1971 and Stonehenge was very different in those days. The ride from Midhurst was due west, but the roads were largely indirect so it took us a good two hours plus to get there. But I have to say that it was more than worth the drive. We were allowed to wander around all over the site, there were no restrictions--today you are not allowed near the stone. It was a bitter cold day with a strong wind coming from the west and I remember finding a pub with a fireplace after spending 20-40 minutes at the site. It was, however, incredibly impressive--those are large stones indeed! In any case, I intend to make a pilgrimage, or perhaps more accurately, a stroll, along Hadrian's Wall this summer, yet another stone monument created to protect the Romans from the Scottish tribes under the Emperor Hadrian in 122 A.D. Unlike Goliath, I never underestimate the power of stone and I look forward to seeing this World Monument site this coming July. 

What is even more interesting is that there are plenty of other stories about stones in Britain, both native and imported. The stone of Scone, from Scone Abbey in Scotland, is known in England as the Coronation Stone (and in Scotland as the Stone of Destiny) as it was, until quite recently, in Westminster Abbey in London where it was part of the coronation ceremony, most recently of Elizabeth II in 1953. The stone had allegedly been brought from Ireland (although it is the same stone as found in Scone in Perthshire) but removed by Edward I as spoils of war in 1296. You would think the Scots and English would forgive and forget once James VI of Scotland also became James I of England in 1603, essentially uniting the two countries, but it wasn't! Aside from being stolen by a group of students in 1950, who broke the stone in the process, it took until 1996 for the Scots to get the stone back with proper pomp and circumstance. Given how close the recent referendum was on Scottish independence, the return of the stone likely, paradoxically, won a few sympathy votes for remaining in tandem with England. Scone Palace, which I visited some time ago before the Coronation Stone was returned, made a big deal in their literature about that stone. I don't remember the furniture, which I see in the interior shots on one of their websites as being rather good, but I certainly remembered the stone.  Famous stones in Britain.   The stone of Scone.  Interior shots of Scone Palace. Note the dining chairs with rails and ball and claw feet--speaks of a Scottish maker.