An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 153

Clinton Howell Antiques - November 1, 2021 - Issue 153

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

It is fairly easy to grasp Robert Adam's decorative style by visiting the three stand alone houses he worked on--Osterley, Syon and Kenwood,  (also known as the Iveagh Bequest as it was donated by Lord Iveagh, the last owner, to the nation on his death) situated on Hampstead Heath in North London. It is not far from where I lived fifty years ago and I remember finding some wonderful spots on the Heath. One was an enormous yew tree that was hollow in the center, something that often happens with yew trees, even though there is still growth around the perimeter. The yew tree berry, soft red and squishy, surrounds the (poisonous) seed, and often gets caught in its own bark and will germinate in the cambium layer, meshing into the wood as it grows. Those familiar with yew wood will realize that the "eyes" in yew wood are these growths that happen in the bark. What often look like branches can, in fact, be a whole new tree, albeit indistinguishable from the parent tree. In any case, the view of London from the high points of Hampstead Heath are just grand--there is no other word for it. London does not have that many high points, so Hampstead Heath, other than tall buildings, is a great spot for a panorama of London.

Kenwood House was built in 1616, re-made again circa 1700 and passed through many hands before being purchased by William Murray, Lord Chief Justice, in 1756, Murray, who became the first Lord Mansfield, hired Adam and his brothers in 1764 where they worked through 1779, obviously at a pace that allowed Adam's neoclassical style to reach full flower. The library at Kenwood is considered among his finest libraries with an arched, vaulted ceiling with a screen of columns at one end. Like many of the Adam houses that have been worked on in the last thirty years, there was an analysis of the paint colors and surfaces in the library which determined that the extant gilding, in place for as long as anyone could remember, was not original. I find this quite interesting. Gold leaf is certainly a picker-upper visually, but it can also, rather curiously, have a deadening affect, particularly when used on rather finely carved decoration. The eye can skip over gilding, possibly because it is too rich, or possibly because once you have seen one gilded molding or scroll, you have seen them all. What Adam seems to have been aiming for in using just paint, an off-white and a pale color, was a look of antiquity--rather like bones whitened in the desert sun or perhaps the way a marble column looks from a distance, whitened by age. (He was not alone in this aesthetic preference as Josiah Wedgwood used it for his china.) In any case, the library is a tour de force.

The original furniture from Kenwood was sold in the 1920's which means that it has scattered far and wide with a lot of it ending up in the United States. The antiques firm, H. Blairman and Sons, a three generation firm now led by Martin Levy, has long been involved with tracking down pieces from Kenwood. I remember seeing an ad with a small photograph of a bench for an auction at Skinners in the Art and Antiques Weekly, the trade paper that advertises auctions which virtually every dealer in the U.S. has to subscribe to (it was even more important in pre-internet days). I decided to attend the sale to see how good this bench was, but I screwed up thinking that the sale was in the afternoon and arrived the very moment the auctioneer had the bench on the block. I could not examine it and so did not bid and it was purchased by a NY dealer who subsequently sold it to Kenwood through the efforts of Martin and his father, George. This has happened often in this country as Americans bought vast amounts of British decorative arts (e.g. Robert Adam's work at Lansdowne House off Berkeley Square had the dining room end up at the MMA and the drawing room at the Philadelphia Museum of Art) and it has resulted in the fact that many dealers in English decorative arts such as myself buy most of their inventory in the U.S. Indeed, if you want to see an example of furniture at Kenwood, a visit to the Metropolitan Museum in New York can partially suffice as there is a painted console table quite similar to one at Kenwood on display. But Kenwood furniture also turns up in the UK--you could have had the opportunity to buy a pair of Kenwood benches from Godson and Coles at the Masterpiece Fair in London three or four years ago. The furniture at Kenwood is superb and the stories behind the many re-acquisitions, not generally known, are even better. The treasure hunt for the Kenwood furniture continues.  A short history of Kenwood. Some of the furniture at Kenwood.  More furniture pictures.