An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 133

Clinton Howell Antiques - June 21, 2021 - Issue 133
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
Mellerstain House in Berwickshire on the Scottish Borders is yet another Robert Adam house. Interestingly, it was Robert's father, William, who was first commissioned to build the wings of the house with Robert building the main section of the house nearly fifty years later. It seems an odd way to build a house--starting with the wings and then creating the center, but mine not to reason why. I have been to Mellerstain twice and it is not really a house where there is a great cache of top quality London cabinetmakers goods. However, it is one of the few Adam commissions where he was able to start from the ground up rather than re-purposing work by other architects as he did, for example, at Newby, which I wrote about several weeks ago. But Adam did not, as far as I know, use his usual stable of furniture makers--Chippendale, Linnell, Mayhew and Ince--either. (For that, I suggest a trip to Dumfries House, a place I haven't visited, but which I am dying to see as it is filled with furniture made by Chippendale.) 

The website for Mellerstain House talks about it as one of the finest Adam houses--this observation has more to do with the fact that Robert Adam did many more conversions of houses than the building of houses from the ground up. His major development, the Adelphi in London, was torn down in the beginning of the 20th century. The Adam brothers, John and James, did get commissions to build houses, however. The aforementioned Dumfries House was commissioned by the 5th Earl of Dumfries in 1754 and if Robert had anything to do with it, it was prior to his departure on the Grand Tour and lacks the decorative vocabulary he gained in Rome and  Split, where he did drawings of Diocletian's Palace. That Mellerstain has the full on Robert Adam interior with all the plasterwork trophies on the walls, which are incredibly dramatic (the paucity of furniture in a number of the main rooms only emphasizes the incredible decorative work of Robert Adam and his crew(s) of craftsmen). Dumfries may have the furniture, Mellerstain has truly got Adam at an early stage on his return from Rome.

I have intermingled Mellerstain with Dumfries not just because they are both by the Adam family, but because of the emphasis of what each house visit turns out to be. Mellerstain, as I have stated, reveals a newly minted Robert Adam, fresh from Rome. Dumfries is about Thomas Chippendale at a point where he has published two editions of his "Director" and shows an extraordinary confidence in his style. The style of the furniture at Dumfries, at the risk of sounding too much like an expert, has a sophistication and grace that soothes the more bumptious aspects of the English baroque style. Cabriole legs have lost volume and have a more sinuous, lengthened quality and the chinoiserie sits very lightly with delicate figures of Chinamen under a pagoda. The rococo of the house is equally subdued--the flamboyance of Luke Lightfoot or the intensity of Locke or Johnson is eschewed. With luck, I will get to Dumfries this summer.

(See the link below to see the Chippendale furniture at Dumfries. I have also put three links to furniture in my inventory below--one of a breakfast table which has all the hallmarks of Thomas Chippendale and is very much in the Dumfries manner, a second piece attributed to Chippendale made for Paxton House, yet another Adam, Scottish borders house and finally a tripod table that reflects the Chippendale of the mid-1750's before the attenuated elegance one sees at Dumfries. The quality of the mahogany in all these pieces reflects the very best of bespoke furniture, I might add.),Patrick%20Hume%2C%20Earl%20of%20Marchmont.