An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 148

Clinton Howell Antiques - Sept. 27, 2021 - Issue 148

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

The creation of a sky scraper is a wondrous thing. I noticed one being built on Madison and 47th the other day, its steel work looking impossibly large, almost like the skeleton of some very large ocean liner. Furthermore, the core of the building was up in the air, supported by I-beams that looked gigantic. My first thought was, "Richard Serra, eat your heart out". (Serra is the American sculptor who loves working with steel and, in particular, I-beams as my son pointed out to me when he called to mind a sculpture by Serra that he saw at the museum, Inhotim, in Brazil.) Over-large I-beams have a fascination all their own which Serra has capitalized on a number of times. But to see these huge I-beams welded and bolted in place with a whole lot of other huge beams was like being invited to see the insides of the sanctum sanctorum. I hope the resultant building has the same tension these beams have and that we won't be facing yet another impossibly tall sheet of glass that seems to qualify as the go to sheathing of all modern day buildings.

Scale is always intriguing. The Great Wall of China is, apparently, beautifully made, but we would be far less likely to know about it if it was only thirteen miles in length instead of thirteen thousand, one hundred seventy-one miles long. The pyramids of Giza were the largest of their type and, as a consequence, the best known. (Although they are very close to Cairo.) Stonehenge is known best for the enormous rocks that were transported hundreds of miles and less because it was the site for a Druidic ceremony. Versailles is stupendous because of its scale and the engineering invented to supply water to the gardens. And if you go to the Rijksmuseum, you can see how important it appears for the Dutch to re-create the missing parts of Rembrandt's, "The Night Watchman", already a huge painting which was cut because it was too large for the room it was moved to at one point in its history. And for anyone who has been in the business of selling 18th century English furniture, larger scale seat furniture usually signifies a wealthier, and occasionally more robust, client.--it is almost always more desirable. 

Scale, however, is not always the primary determinant of value and certainly not of beauty. The Garden of Bomarzo, which I have not visited, but which I read about a long time ago, is all about its scale, not about its beauty. The garden is outlandish and over the top, but delightful for its quirky, mannerist sculptures--it is an oddity, not unlike the Garden of Cosmic Speculation I referenced several weeks ago. I can think of a lot of objects made because someone thought they would qualify as unique for their scale. For example, there is the largest carved rock crystal that is without a flaw (an urn) in the Vienna Kunsthorisches Museum. It is a monument to craft, but not, in my opinion, uniquely beautiful. There is a cannon called Mons Meg in Edinburgh Castle that was the largest of its kind when made in Belgium in 1449--it was made because it could be made and has a symbolic more than a functional quality. The fact is, as humans, we want to create something that we think will be considered unique--it is an urge that, at times, couples distinct artistry with craft and sometimes it doesn't. And even when it doesn't it can still captivate us. That's the advantage of going big, I suppose.  The gardens of Bomarzo--which I would love to visit. Mons Meg is small by today's guns, but still it was made in 1449!