An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 130

Clinton Howell Antiques - May 31, 2021 - Issue 130
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts

The Elizabethan house, of which I suspect there are still quite a few in the United Kingdom, is, as far as I can tell, a uniquely British interpretation of Italian Renaissance architecture. Among the finest of such houses is Hardwick Hall which I visited with my then rather young children, wife and mother-in-law, I think around 1989. To my surprise, everyone liked it, probably because of the French lops that were in the rabbit hutches which have the significant feature of long floppy ears. Thank goodness for animal enclosures in country houses and/or other significant attractions which I will get to when talking about Newby Hall--they add a little spice for children who are getting bored and cranky. For furniture buffs that enjoy the mid-18th century more than the 16th, 17th and 18th century oak and walnut, steel yourself as there isn't much, but Hardwick isn''t a wasteland by any stretch. Hardwick's pets enlivened my kids perspective and the magnificent state bed that is in the main picture gallery, the sea-dog table and the Eglantine table enlivened mine. Alas, floppy ears have a significant charm that is lasting, but so, too, does Elizabethan furniture. 

It is odd how the mind remembers things. Once I looked up Hardwick and the sea-dog table was mentioned, I remembered it very well. It is a banqueting table made of walnut with wonderful carved "sea-dogs" positioned at the corners of the table. The remarkable thing about the table is that it is considered a banqueting table--the maximum length of the table couldn't have sat more than 20 people--and it is designed to come completely apart. As I remember, it was in the long gallery on the first floor, a very long room and the table looked incredibly insignificant. For my children, it was the turtles which act as the "feet" of the table that were even more memorable than the sea-dogs. The turtle is a fairly common conceit for lifting items off of a surface. (If you live in New York City, you can see lobsters at the base of the Egyptian obelisk behind the Metropolitan Museum in Central Park. That is, I think, quite a rare conceit.) The sea-dog table is quite remarkable and you can see a short video below that shows how it comes apart.

The Eglantine Table did not come to mind as readily as the sea-dog table although I remembered it once I remembered the inlay of sheet music and musical instruments. Made in London in 1568, the table is quite sensational given the date. One thing to remember at this time is that Queen Elizabeth was being pressured by Protestant sects, notably the Puritans but others as well, to abjure images as well as music--both sacred and profane. That a table was made with inlaid sheet music says something about the ambivalence that must have prevailed in the era. Elizabeth was known for her philosophy of via media, meaning taking the middle road in the fight between the iconoclasts and their opponents. Clearly, commercially speaking that is, there were Furniture firms willing to elaborate to one's hearts content, religious or other prejudices notwithstanding. It further says something about the owner of the table, Bess of Hardwick, yet another English woman of distinct strength and the ability to foster dynasties through her own magnetism and intelligence. She certainly didn't mind having a table inlaid with sheet music and instruments and she even went so far as to have her initials, ES, set into the top of the battlements on the projecting corners of the house. This was a feisty woman without a doubt. There is more--I haven't said a word about the tapestries or the state bed, which are stupendous. I am reminded of all this thirty odd years after the fact and realize that a re-visit would be more than delightful--it is an exceptional house with exceptional things to see. Eglantine Table