An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 167

Clinton Howell Antiques - Feb. 7, 2022 - Issue 167

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

Every piece that I buy and sell has connections to another time or place and with people who may or may not be renowned for something or other--this is pretty obvious, but sometimes there is a thread that can be followed. This is a story about making some connections--the story is not completely known although it is  as far as I am concerned. It starts with my decision to try and visit all of the museums in the United States that had a collection of or even one or two very good pieces of English furniture. One of the museums I visited was the Helen Clay Frick Museum in Pittsburgh. Helen Frick was one of two daughters of Henry Frick, but she never married and as a spinster, she took over running of the Pittsburgh family home. When she died, it became a museum. One of the items in the house was a japanned bureau bookcase. This was a pretty sensational item having a baroque carved and pierced silver gilt cresting, mirrored doors and fitted interior with wonderful chinoiserie all over the place--really a great looking piece of furniture. I went to the museum with an introduction from a Frick descendant and I was allowed to get inside the ropes where the piece was on display. There is always a sense of reverence on approaching what is considered a significant piece in the English furniture canon and so you look for evidence that reinforces the belief in the piece. One of the things one loves to see is that the japanning has aged darkly on the outside due to exposure to time and whatever else, lighter on the inside which would be, de facto, cleaner and, if there is yet another secret compartment, that is where you hope to find the original color of the piece. Indeed, the Frick piece follows that rule of thumb and it is one of the reasons why a generation of academics called the piece one of the finest japanned pieces in America.

Henry Frick's architects were Carrere and Hastings, probably most famous for building the New York Public Library but not limited to that building, as they did Frick's house in both New York and Pittsburgh. Carrere and Hastings, like any architectural firm, had to create interiors for their clients--the role of the interior decorator/designer in the U.S. was only just being established at the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries. Hence they, like their competitors McKim, Mead and White, looked for sources to fit out the interiors of the buildings they designed and one of the best sources was the UK, which was in the process of tearing down country houses at the rate, it is estimated, of about one per week right up to and immediately after WWII starting in the 1880's Maintenance costs were killing homeowners in the UK and the "pile", the country house, was deemed unnecessary. The interiors of those houses were up for grabs and one English company, White and Allom (there were likely a bunch of companies salvaging country house fitments) went around purchasing those interiors and selling them to architectural firms in New York. (And probably elsewhere.) Americans were at this point in time buying up all sorts of things in the UK. A house I know in Bedford, NY, was built from the bricks of the stables of a house called Cassiobury, the staircase from that house being in the Met Museum. Think of the Cloisters (part of the Metropolitan Museum, as well) or William Randolph Hearst's house, San Simeon. We were importing European culture room by room and even brick by brick, it seems.

The japanned bureau bookcase, however, is the story here. Before I knew it, it had migrated on permanent loan from Pittsburgh to the Met--imagine my surprise. Its arrival in New York coincided with a call I received to visit a house that had a good swath of English furniture needing restoration. The house was a villa built in the suburbs of New York by Carrere and Hastings. I had no idea that what I would find was the sister to the bureau bookcase at the Met, the difference being that the one in the villa was a secretaire cabinet meaning that it had a drawer with a fold down front that could become a writing surface with a cabinet above. Talk about surprises! Furthermore, the pieces were repaired, I would eventually find out, in identical fashions--without doubt in the same workshop. The silver gilt cresting (replaced and completely re-carved) was identical as were the mirrored doors (also replaced) and the silver gilt bun feet (also replaced) as well as both pieces having new backboards. I had either stumbled across the second best piece of English japanned furniture or something else altogether. The story continues next week.