An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 158

Clinton Howell Antiques - December 6, 2021 - Issue 158

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

The County of Norfolk boasts some extraordinary country houses and the most significant, at least from my point of view, is Houghton Hall. Houghton was built by Robert Walpole, England's first Prime Minister, in the 1720's. It is not known who, precisely, was the architect (link) as it is a hodgepodge of famous names, the most famous being William Kent, that man of all trades who I have talked about before. The British would call him an all rounder for his design capabilities both in and around the home. There is, for example, a mural by Kent in Kensington Palace, there is landscape gardening (taken over by Capability Brown) at Stowe, now a boy's school, and there were a number of collaborations with Richard Boyle, Lord Burlington, who built one of my favorite country homes, a caprice really, even though it is in West London, Chiswick House.

It was at Houghton, however, where Kent helped to wrest the English cabinetmaking trade out of the thrall of Continental influence--more specifically, Dutch and French influence. I am exaggerating a tad here as Kent certainly wasn't alone--he needed the cabinetmaking trade to feel comfortable about what they were making--but there is  a semblance of truth to the notion. Houghton was started in 1722 and Kent was not involved, but when it came time to work on the interior and the interior furnishings, he was very much involved. How that happened, I have no idea, but Kent, with Lord Burlington as the cheer leader, worked to create a unique interior. Furthermore, it is clear that the primary influences on Kent were Italian and that he drew on them to design for Houghton. The state bed, for example, (link) is Italian in scale, simplicity and pomposity, a great synthesis of English and Italian artistic vision. Other furniture in the house (link) echoes this aesthetic. I think the furniture at Houghton is extraordinary and the seed pearl for what became the English baroque style. It must be understood, however, that the English baroque style essentially cribbed from what was already there--isn't this what all great designers do?

I last went to Houghton to view the paintings that were returned from Russia that had been sold by a Walpole heir (not Horace, the owner of Strawberry Hill) to Catherine the Great in 1779. The exhibition was in 2013 and I was there with a friend who, at the time was the head curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, for pre-18th century European paintings, Pete Bowron. Pete can be a little caustic at times, he has a Jack Benny streak that I find very amusing, and of course did not give a second glance to the furniture at Houghton as we wandered the house looking at the artwork. Indeed, he was rather dismissive of the furniture, passing comments to his sister-in-law at how ungainly the furniture was. I let him ramble for a bit and finally had to tell him that the furniture was actually significant for it being the first English furniture that you can stylistically, without any equivocation, call English. He curtailed all observations, at least within my hearing and enjoyed, I think, both the exhibition and the furnishings. The point is not that Pete was obtuse, he most certainly isn't, but that he needed some background on what he was looking at. The words beautiful and ugly do not apply in this case, although one is certainly entitled to an opinion, because what is being looked at is a slice of the continuum of English furniture design. For me, it's utterly fascinating. For Pete, not so much, but at least he knows what he is looking at now.

I want to recommend that you visit the AADLA's "12 Days of Christmas Show" that is on InCollect. The show runs for twelve days and is in a scroll format where each dealer posts a new object from their inventory every day of the show. It began yesterday on the 5th (you will see the scroll for the 5th) and you can look at today's scroll. It is fun, quick to look at and there are some marvelous things to see. It is our third show in this format and I hope you find it interesting. The link is below.