An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 159

Clinton Howell Antiques - December 13, 2021 - Issue 159
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
I learned about Blickling Hall from an article about the house in "The Magazine Antiques" some time in the early 1980"s. I think it was photographs of the hedging coupled with the geometric topiary that intrigued me--all extremely formal as you would find in the garden of an English country house dating from the late 16th century. That is what I remember of the photographs, but in fact, the garden has a wide melange of styles from parterres to deep herbaceous borders, a ha-ha (link) a Doric temple and more. In addition, it is a walled garden--a large walled garden which is quite impressive. Furthermore, it includes work by Humphrey Repton, the third in a series (after Kent and Capability Brown) of famous 18th century English landscape gardeners.  (If you are interested in British gardens, a great read is, "The Brother Gardeners: Botany Empire", which is the story of John Bartram of Pennsylvania and his plant collecting that helped transform British gardens.) In any case, Blickling went onto my list of houses to see and I eventually got there, two times as it turns out although I have driven by it dozens of times. It is a really lovely house--I don't say that about a lot of the country houses I go to, but Blickling, and another Norfolk estate I will talk about, Felbrigg-- really feel livable, not at all museum like. Late 16th and early 17th century houses of brick or limestone can be quite grand and although Blickling has a sense of grandeur, it doesn't overwhelm you.

Blickling is not really much of a furniture house, at least for me. Of course, there are pieces of furniture around that I wouldn't say no to, but that is not the primary reason for visiting a country house. If I'm lucky, I can find that one gem that stands out and teaches me something about furniture. All three of the other houses I have visited in Norfolk, which includes Houghton, of course, but also Holkham and Felbrigg, have items that catch my eye. What interests me in the Blickling interior are the fitments, things like the fireplaces and the newel posts on the staircase. There are also some superb 18th century picture frames as well. I went to Blickling last in 2013 with my friend, Pete Bowron, who was the curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston for pre-18th century European paintings at the time. I don't remember his comments about any of the paintings, unfortunately as he is a fount of knowledge and I probably either forgot what he said or he didn't comment. I remember a fair number of historical portraits, but I think we spent more time walking through the garden than doing anything else. Interior fitments are, however, well worth the visit as you can see in the photo of the stair well (link).

Blickling is known, however, for its library. The library is in the long gallery and when I think of other long galleries, none have libraries in them. There are portrait galleries, Montacute House in Somerset has one and so does Longleat in Wiltshire, and then there are emptier galleries like the one at Hardwick Hall. That gallery has a few pieces of furniture, one that I wrote about (an inlaid dining table from the 1570"s) and little else. In Hardwick Hall the long gallery is full of light as the house has many windows, a sign of wealth in the 16th century since glass was so expensive. But the Blickling long gallery is a library with close to 14,000 volumes, some of them, apparently quite rare. I will say that I remembered this library (the other one I recall is Sir Walter Scott's at Abbotsford) although there are plenty of other houses with great libraries that I have forgotten. As always, you can find something fascinating in, or around, an English country house even if it isn't a piece of furniture--my preferences notwithstanding.