An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 126

Clinton Howell Antiques - May 3, 2021 - Issue 126
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
Burghley House, near Stamford, Lincolnshire, is a house for the furniture enthusiast. I might add that in addition, the porcelain collection is first rate and is a must for the fired clay crowd. I went to Burghley some time in the 1980's and was very kindly adopted by a porcelain tour that was being led through the house by a chap who worked at Sotheby's. (I doubt we ever knew each other's name, but when we saw each other at Sotheby's, we would stop and chat, say how are you, etc., until the next time when we would repeat the meet and greet.) Otherwise, I would have had to wait an hour to go in. In any case, I saw pretty quickly that there was some sensational furniture on view--not a huge amount, but certainly distinctive examples of items such as a lovely pair of mahogany commodes with gilt bronze mounts. There is a website (below) for some of the furniture, and a second website that shows interior shots which is where you can see the mahogany commodes. There is, however, a Mayhew and Ince commode that is quite sensational shown in the furniture website. (Confusing, my apologies, but I search and search and this is the best I can find.) Mayhew and Ince were competitors of both Linnell and Chippendale and were, in my opinion, more daring in both form and surface (veneer choices) than either--occasionally to resounding success or, at times, to abject failure. In any case, you might notice if you scroll through the photos that there is a repeating pattern in the furniture of interlocked circles. I would be curious to know if that was a simple preference or whether the family identified in some manner with the design. The semiotics of furniture are not always straightforward, but then again, they often aren't there at all.

Burghley is a Grade I Elizabethan house (which means of national importance) built in the third quarter of the 16th century, at least from the front--the interior was re-modeled in the 1800's. The front was designed to represent the letter "E" for Elizabeth I, which is the height of sycophancy, but clearly was successful as William Cecil looked after the books (treasury) for Elizabeth I. Inevitably, those people who patrol the purse are asked to do so because they already are well off and less likely to peculate, but they also seem to end up better off for the honor--often significantly. The Cecil family has held onto their money through the centuries and still own the house through a charitable foundation which is why you can still find furniture original to the house in situ. I have only visited Burghley once and I regret to say that I have not walked around (yet  another) landscape by the omnipresent, Capability Brown. Speaking of omnipresence, there is also some Grinling Gibbons carvings in the house. There is never too much of a good thing when it comes to Mr. Gibbons's work.

The route to Lincolnshire, for me at least, tends to run through Norfolk and sometimes Cambridgeshire. There is a rather modest National Trust property called Peckover that has quite a thrilling rococo mirror (in the link to Pinterest below) above the mantelpiece. (Usually a mirror over the mantel is an overmantel, but not in this case as overmantels are wider on the horizontal, as a rule, but not always as exceptions are the rule in English furniture--again, very confusing.) The house is not in Lincolnshire or Norfolk, but in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire and somehow, one day, I found myself at loose ends and stumbled on it. The modesty of the house, the design is Georgian brick with no conceits, might be attributed to the fact that the Peckover family were Quakers --the mirror is in odd juxtaposition to the overall simplicity. The rococo mirror, however, which is white painted (usually not white, but painted to look like stone) likely dates to the 1750's before the Peckover family purchased the house. What is particularly interesting about the mirror are the swag carvings. The swags are, essentially, imitative of material and connect to the frame only at the top and do not intertwine with the frame but hang straight down. Frankly, if this mirror had been purchased by a dealer, in all likelihood, the swags would have been removed and sold separately because the whole is just too awkward to carry and to display. The rarity of seeing the composition of this mirror with its intended swags in entirety makes the Peckover mirror memorable and hence I am writing about it. More importantly, it is one of the primary reasons for visiting country houses--to see something you wouldn't likely see anywhere else. Finally, a really great view of some of the great furniture in Burghley.  Rococo mirror at Peckover House. Not a great photo, but you can get the idea of how powerful the rococo of this frame is. Take a look at the Peckover overmantel.