An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 150

Clinton Howell Antiques - October 11, 2021 - Issue 150
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
Osterley Park, a house I mentioned last week that has the magnificent Etruscan Room, was a Robert Adam project for the Child banking family in West London. The house originally dates from 1570 but was updated by Adam starting in the early 1760's. It is a really interesting conversion as Adam did something quite simple and yet hugely effective by adding to the front of the building a series of columns with a pediment to connect the two brick wings of the house. Indeed, Wikipedia describes the house as Georgian, which it isn't, not that it matters as it does come across as Georgian because of that addition to the front. (As well as adding a pediment at the back of the building.) The simplicity of the addition belies the switch from the baroque Tudor style house to a Georgian style house. And for Adam, who I don't believe built any country houses from scratch, it was necessary to understand how to update what, for his clients in the 1760's, 70's and 80's, looked upon as old fashioned and to make them look more current. In other words, most of his clients were looking to improve what they already had. There are two houses, however, where he had substantial input, Kedleston in Derbyshire and Harewood in Yorkshire. They are both fantastic houses with super rich interiors, the furniture of Kedleston being made by John Linnell and the furniture for Harewood by Thomas Chippendale. But Osterley is another sumptuous project (with Chippendale, again) even though Adam had less say in the overall design of the house or on the room proportions and arrangements--there is no doubt that it was a very important commission as it would have been a showcase in London for his capabilities. 

The Metropolitan Museum in New York has three English, 18th century period rooms, the Kirtlington Park room which is a masterpiece of baroque plasterwork decoration, a tapestry room from Moor Park, designed by Robert Adam with original furniture from the room--Chippendale-made gilded armchairs with settee, the tapestry from the Gobelins factory in France--and the Lansdowne dining room, from Lansdowne House in London which was just off Berkeley Square. If you are unable to get to London or if you want a sneak peak at two of the rooms at Osterley, you might visit the tapestry room and the dining room as similar rooms are to be seen at Osterley. Of course, nothing beats seeing the real thing and the Moor Park tapestry room is not as sumptuous as the one at Osterley, but you will get the idea. The Lansdowne dining room came to the museum in the 1930's because a portion of the house was removed so that Curzon St. could access Berkeley Square. The Lansdowne dining room has both plasterwork and color scheme that aligns with the entrance to Osterley Park. This is what I referred to last week when I suggested that the neoclassical style had a slight cookie cutter feel--at times the trophies in the panels start to look the same as does the color scheme, but if you go back to a house like Ham in Richmond, you will also see similar trophies (carved instead of plasterwork) even though it was built seventy years earlier. Indeed, when you think of the decorative vocabulary, there is very little new out there.

Osterley is filled with great furniture, I might add, which is of course the primary impetus for getting me to any country house. And not unlike the furniture at both Kedleston and Harewood, the furniture is grand, most of it, thst is. Of the three houses, I would suggest that Kedleston has the most distinctive furniture, but the Osterley furniture probably varies more with unusual, almost Kent-style benches, which were out of character for Adam, to the grand commodes and sublime mahogany dining and Gainsborough style chairs and settee, to the decorated but somewhat flat Etruscan decorated furniture. The maker of the Etruscan furniture, Chippendale I presume, had to make a somewhat large back splat on which Etruscan designs could be painted--it doesn't work at all well on the chairs even though it works fine everywhere else--the walls, the torcheres, the Pembroke table. Those chairs are, in my opinion, one of the few Adam/Chippendale failures. It might explain why Adam, who designed everything in a room from door hardware to carpets to fireplace tools to furniture, only created one Etruscan room--he could not envision a good for Etruscan chairs. No matter, the room is still a wonder to see. Interior shots of Osterley--talk about sumptuous. A pretty good tour of the Osterley furniture.