An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 125

Clinton Howell Antiques - April 26, 2021 - Issue 125

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

The Victoria and Albert Museum, which is located not far from the South Kensington tube station, has a surfeit of furniture. Indeed, gifts of just about any kind, if they are accepted, are not allowed to be deaccessioned, or so I am told. Through the ages, apparently, a lot has been given and some of it, while quite wonderful, is also duplicative or perhaps not the best example or maybe just not in the current curator's vision for what should be on display. (This, too, is the dealer dilemma--what should be on display and what should be in store?) As a result, the V&A is generous in loaning out items to various houses (I mean to English Heritage and Royal Oak) which, for one reason or another, need furniture to give the interior of some of their houses a little liveliness, like they have actually been lived in. There are also special cases such as the loan of the John Vardy gilded console that has griffins at the corners holding the top, that was on the left hand side as you walked into the furniture galleries on the second floor. This table was purchased by the V&A from the dealers, Glaisher and Nash who were located off Lowndes Square on Pont St. in Belgravia. I remember this table, because I remember seeing it being restored, but I'll get to that later. In any case, it is now in Spencer House in St. James's Place, the house for which it was made. Spencer House is owned by the Spencer family (Lady Diana's brother) but is on a 99 year lease to a company controlled by Baron Rothschild who has restored Spencer House to its original grandeur. Hence, the table was sent out on loan.

I can't imagine the repository of furniture that the V&A must have. Keeping track of stuff that I have bought is hard enough, I can't imagine how difficult it must be to have endless items donated and then figure out their best purpose. I suspect that one of the houses on the receiving end of furniture loans from the V&A is Marble Hill House located in Twickenham in Richmond, which is West London. I visited the house during my days at the London College of Furniture, but even though I have the guide book, my memory of the house is a blank. However, I looked up the interior photos of the house on the internet and saw a pair of Kentian gilded torcheres, which got me quite excited as I had a pair that were similar a number of years ago. What interests me is their size, as the ones I owned were about 54" and the only ones that I have found that are similar are in Chiswick House, and they are at least 72" high. This calls for a return visit even though the torcheres are not original to the house. I suspect that they are period and I would just like to see another pair as they are very rarely on the market. I am going to the UK this summer so they will be first on my list of things to see.

Marble Hill House was built by Henrietta Howard in the 1720's when she had finished with her duty as mistress to George II. Her list of acquaintances is fascinating, including Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift. You have to imagine that London in the 1720's was both large, in that the population was sizable, and small in that the literati and artistic class in general, all knew each other. What their relationships were is less well known. For example, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was friendly with Pope for a while until she spurned his advances. Pope knew Hogarth who, it is believed, mocked him in a print. When you spread the net wider, you run into William Kent and Lord Burlington--Burlington considered the pre-eminent "architect earl" while Marble Hill House was designed by Roger Morris and another "architect earl", the Earl of Pembroke. Who was involved in the interior decoration of the house (the part that I care about) and could there have been a pair of William Kent torcheres in the house when it was first built? It is all potentially fascinating. Furthermore, the house is, apparently, the inspiration for a great many antebellum houses in the southern American states, including Drayton Hall in Charleston which I visited in 1985. Lastly, I want to know more about Henrietta Howard who later became the Countess of Suffolk--she is yet another in a long line of interesting British ladies I have come across. 

Back to the story of the Vardy console table which dates back to my days at the London College of Furniture. Our carving and gilding teachers were not full time staff as they came on certain days every week, or they were supposed to, at least. Our gilding teacher was Mike Baker, and he was an exceptional gilder, one of the very best around. Mike had an instinct for color and period knowing just the right clay colors (also known as bole) to accent the color of newly gilded surfaces. Clay colors have a broad range as does gold and matching the correct bole and gold to make the surface look warmer or cooler is tricky. Clay colors also varied from decade to decade. Mike really knew all of this well and could create wonderful, albeit new, gilded surfaces. Suffice it to say that Mike was always in demand. Unfortunately, Mike was also a first class drinker and a visit to his workshop, where he was always free with his knowledge, always included at least two and a half hours in the pub. I went there for lunch one day and he was just about to throw a table into the strip tank (lye) as the gilding of the table was not in any condition to be saved. As we left to go to the pub, he told his assistant, a 14 year old boy named Andrew, to take the table out after an hour. Andrew, who was one card short of a full deck, forgot and by the time we returned from the pub, the table was in a great many pieces. The very next time I saw the table, probably three years later, it was attributed to John Vardy and in a very prominent spot in the V&A.  The Vardy table now at Spencer House which I saw in pieces.