An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 155

Clinton Howell Antiques - November 15, 2021 - Issue 155
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
I have visited a number of houses two, three, four or even more times, often, like the London houses, because they are easy for me to get to. Chatsworth in Derbyshire is a regular visit and the Norfolk County houses as well, as there are dealers in Norfolk that I like to visit. But one house that I have not been to more than once is Alnwick Castle and I would really like to go back. It contains a pair of cabinets that I believe are among the greatest pieces of furniture ever made. They are the Cucci cabinets, named after their maker, Domenico Cucci, who worked at the Gobelins Manufactory and who completed them in 1683. They are recorded in Louis XIV's inventory and are known to have been sold in 1751. They show up in the Duke of Northumberland's inventory in 1822, where it is likely they had been for some time as this mention was to do with a bill for restoration. They are sensational and when I saw them, I was stunned at how extraordinary they looked. (This link will take you to a photo site that shows many of the treasures of the house.) This is not your grandmother's furniture, nor does it have anything to do with the English tradition of furniture--these are cabinets designed to be rich for the most powerful man on earth, the self-styled Sun King, Louis XIV..

Whether they are beautiful is not really the point. They overwhelm in their richness. Louis XIV's color was gold, the color of the sun and the gold on these cabinets is plentiful--it is everywhere, both water gilding (of wood) and mercury gilding (of metal). Water gilding is the more expensive method for gilding furniture as it requires more steps and greater expertise, but most of all, it can be burnished to look like solid gold. Similarly, mercury gilding can be chased to look like solid gold. In other words, these cabinets are epitomes of Louis' great wealth and power and I have to say that I felt just that when I walked into the room where they were on display. (And I saw them pre-restoration, so I would suggest that they are even more stunning now.) The subtler aspects of the cabinets, the pietra dure inlay on the drawer panels and side panels is just stunning--I suspect that Gobelins had Florentine craftsmen working as my immediate thought was of the Badminton Cabinet (made in Florence) that holds the world record for the highest value made in auction by a piece of furniture. These cabinets outshine the Badminton Cabinet for being richer and far more regal. And there are two of them.

The Cucci Cabinets are not the only reason I would like to return to Alnwick despite being the the first thing that I think about when I recall the residence. Alnwick is yet another Robert Adam project though not quite as extensive as the other Northumberland home, Syon House, a former monastery that I wrote about a week or two ago. There is a similar color scheme to a stone inlaid floor which is not surprising--Adam used and re-used details that were successful for him, but in this case, he also added a Gothic touch to his decoration. There is none of the pastel shade paint nor the effusive classical husks, swags, paterae, roundels, etc., in any of the public rooms.  It is likely the Northumberlands wanted the castle to remain a castle in feel, at least, on both the inside and out. Such decisions fascinate me from the point of view of how do you treat history, particularly your own as evinced by your handling of your own property? There is a dilemma living in a stately home, significantly one that your family has owned for 700 years. You are wedded to the property and any changes you make at any time are subject to criticism. Virtually everything is laden with tradition. The privilege of living in your ancestral home could, in that case, feel like a golden cage. Even the greatest pieces of furniture in the world might not be enough to make up for it. But then again...,