An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 166

Clinton Howell Antiques - January 31, 2022 - Issue 166

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

The building of a country house was a large part of a landowner's raison d'etre. The house was less a domicile than a focus of power, a statement about wealth and prestige that could be quantified in a number of ways--acreage, square footage, interior decoration including collections of art and sculpture, outbuildings, gardens and landscaping and the more practical aspects such as both arable and grazing land. But there were, quite clearly and importantly, other aspects to the creation of a house most notably, style. Apart from conversions, most houses on the exterior were created with an eye towards being fashionable, au courant or perhaps even ahead of the crowd. England has many examples of landowners and country house builders who had a vision of some sort that they used to convey an aspect of themselves, whether they knew it or not. Odd and unusual houses were certainly built--one of the most famous was Fonthill Abbey, a Gothic structure  built by William Beckford which fell down because the builder  didn't engineer it properly. But Ickworth in Suffolk, built by the Bishop of Derry, a place he never visited is also rather odd. However, apart from a number of exceptions, most country houses in Britain reflect the influence of Andrea Palladio whose work was first bruited about in England by Inigo Jones.

Inigo Jones (1573-1652) took two trips to Italy and they were to have a singular impact on the future, design-wise, of the British country house. Jones's inspiration was Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) who, in turn, had been inspired by Vitruvius (circa 80 B.C.E to circa 15 B.C.E.) and his book, "De Architectura", where he learned that buildings should have strength, utility and beauty. Palladio focused on the importance of proportion and creating a harmony for the eye. Prior to Palladio, other Renaissance architects had used ideas from antiquity, but Palladio's work, particularly in Vicenza and also in Venice was and remains a lesson in classical architecture, one that Inigo Jones worked diligently to absorb. Palladio's four books on architecture (I Quattro Libri del'architettura) were purchased by Jones and filled with notes by Jones as he traveled across Italy. Those ideas and inspirations reveal themselves in his work back in England.

Jones's work, what little remains of it, is the first Renaissance architecture in England. His commissions, those still extant, include the Banqueting Hall in London, Queen Anne's  House (of Denmark, wife of James I) the single and double cube rooms at Wilton House near Salisbury and the Queen's Chapel in St. James's Palace. It is a slim portfolio--other commissions such as the work he did on Somerset House in London, have not survived. Jones's life was not  just about architecture--he worked for the Crown in a number of capacities and so the designing of buildings was not a top priority. Coupled with the Crown's financial stress and the budding misgivings by puritanical religious sentiments, Jones was lucky to have built anything. But the impact was lasting and seventy odd years after Jones's death, Richard Boyle, Lord Burlington, took up the Palladian mantle suggesting that London's buildings be Palladian inspired. Boyle acknowledged Jones, but did not fete him as he did Palladio, and yet he somehow came to own Jones's copy of Palladio's books. Today, however, Jones's fame is not only undeniable, he is seen as the first of many that followed in his footsteps. Being first, at least in this case, is quite something as the visual impact lives on through the present--not many people can make such a claim.