An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 128

Clinton Howell Antiques - May 17, 2021 - Issue 128

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

Another commercial break--the Spring Show put on by the AADLA is still on--in its eleventh day. You can reach it through this link on Incollect.

The Attingham Summer School is run by the Attingham Trust and is for people wishing to learn about English country houses and their collections. (That is quite a broad mandate considering what you will find in English country houses.) The course is currently on hiatus due to Covid with the next class set to resume in the summer of 2022. It used to be a month long but has been shortened to three weeks and there was also a second course that lasted one week for those people not willing or capable of spending a month studying the interiors of English country houses--that course seems to have been retired. The classes are, I have heard, intensive with students allowed to go where tourists do not, and to thoroughly examine individual pieces. (I can't tell you how often I have gotten dirty looks by trying to see under tables and chairs or behind mirrors.) The summer school was originally started for curators in American museums by the Attingham Trust which is based in, as it happens, Attingham Hall in Shropshire. Yes, it is a country house and, although a lot of original furnishings were sold at one point, some have been re-purchased and, like every country house I visit, has some value for visiting. 

The primary room that stands out in my memory is the portrait gallery. This room was added by the architect, John Nash (1752-1835) and like a great many projects Nash worked on, is architecturally problematic while at the same time, kind of interesting--he was, after all, responsible for Brighton Pavilion. The problematic side has to do with leaks, something I imagine every country house owner confronts on an annual basis. I would not be surprised if all the country house owners didn't have a line item for roof leaks in their annual budgets. But Nash's leaks were almost preordained at Attingham where he has used molded glass to create an ambient light source for the painting gallery. This is a tricky proposition, one that is relatively easy to resolve with a computer and not so much without one. Trial and error, the learning method of many builders, loses its efficacy after a certain number of attempts. Vis-a-vis windows, the problem gets resolved with tar which will work for a while, but has its limitations. I get the feeling about Nash that he was a vision person, not a nuts and bolts kind of guy as almost every project I have read about that he has worked on leaked. The ambient light concept was the architect's dream method for illuminating paintings, but it was never terribly successful. John Soane, the architect of the Bank of England, attempted a similar concept at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in South London. Nothing beats the right kind of electric light.

The family name behind Attingham is Hill, but for a variety of reasons, the name became Noel-Hill with the title, Baron of Berwick. The English and their titles occasionally feels like a game of hide and seek as names get added, hyphenated, un-hyphenated, etc. None of that concerns me save for the third Baron who was the youngest brother of the original Baron. The third brother was a diplomat who was, at one point, in Italy  and that is where a lot of the decorative art, read furniture, was purchased. Italian furniture from the late 18th and early 19th centuries is often highly original and is, I suspect, often the inspiration for some English Regency furniture. In any case, there is a fine white and gold suite of furniture that clearly came back with the third Baron. There are also some wonderful table tops, mosaic and pietra dure. Pietra dure was, pardon the pun, an enduring passion in the UK--it has to be one of the more popular exports from Italy at any time. It seems kind of odd that Italian decorative art is what you will get when you go to Shropshire, but that is the point. You never know what you will find on walking into an English country house.