An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 149

Clinton Howell Antiques - October 4, 2021 - Issue 149
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
The genius of Robert Adam (1728-92) the Scottish architect who worked on a substantial number of English country houses over the years, as well as developments in both London and Edinburgh, has fascinated me for a couple of reasons. First he had to come up with singular visions for his clients, which may seem simple given that he worked in the neoclassical style, a style that often reads as uniform to the point of being cookie cutter. It isn't, even though similar themes pervade the work such as anthemions, swags, urns, paterae, rams heads, honey suckle, etc.--they all have to have to blend in with the central focus of a room's decoration. Dining rooms, for example, might include Baachus in repose, satyrs and grape leaves whereas libraries might have Mnemosyne and one two or all nine of her daughters, and possibly an owl or two for wisdom. Music rooms might include Calliope and harps, etc. Symbols of all sorts could be inserted around the house that referenced the location of the house, the history of the family, particularly if they were in the army or navy and/or other quirks that an owner might wish to have expressed. How Robert Adam came to terms with this is a significant question, especially given the vast number of houses he worked on. ( Wikipedia page shows the incredible quantity of work Adam was involved in.) One wonders where he got all his inspiration.

One source of his information was his Grand Tour (1754-57) the finishing school for many English gentlemen who went to the Continent, and by the Continent, the vast number of Grand Tour visitors went to Italy--a few went beyond Italy to Athens and some even further to the Levant, but for Adam, Rome was a treasure chest of inspiration. There he met some of the great draughtsmen of the 18th century including Piranesi, Winckelman and Clerisseau, who followed him to Spaleto, where he helped Adam measure and draw Diocletian's Palace. But having this arsenal of experience doesn't automatically lend itself to ready interpretation in a country house. William Chambers and James "Athenian" Stuart were also neoclassical architects who had similar experiences (and in Chambers case a great deal more experience having visited China) and their output is not as voluminous as Adam's. (Chambers may be argued as more influential for having written a treatise on neoclassicism which was in use by architects through the middle of the 19th century, but Chambers is best remembered for Somerset House and his staircases as well as the Kew Gardens pagoda.) What Adam did was develop a style that was his, one that eventually became ridiculed by his initial supporters such as Horace Walpole, but that is not the point--Adam's work is very identifiable because it was so desirable and therefore ubiquitous.

Adam also recognized genius in others. Possibly the greatest genius in English design/decoration in the 18th century was William Kent (1685-1748). Kent's role in architecture, for which he is often touted, seems to have been as an advisor, primarily to the "architect earls", the most famous of them being Richard Boyle, Lord Burlington, who was Kent's patron. Kent started life as a coach painter but somehow ended up on the Grand Tour where he meet Burlington while in Italy. Burlington sponsored Kent to be court painter on return to England, but Kent was far more than a painter as he turned his hand at almost anything to do with both interiors and exteriors. He is credited with helping to launch the landscape gardener, Capability Brown, who finished, after Kent's death, the garden at Stowe (now a boy's school). Kent also designed (some extraordinary) furniture, but one of his often overlooked successes was the painted Etruscan decoration he did on the ceiling of a room at Kensington Palace. Robert Adam must have seen this ceiling and clearly recognized the decorative potential of the Etruscan style and, forty years after Kent, decided to go just a bit farther and do an Etruscan room in Osterley Park in West London complete with furniture decorated in an Etruscan style. Sometimes genius is recognizing  just how good an idea is and taking it even further. Adam had that genius. Kent's Etruscan ceiling in Kensington Palace.