An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 169

Clinton Howell Antiques - February 21, 2022 - Issue 169

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

The "Rocky Horror Picture Show" came to the stage (in fact it was in a movie theater on the King's Rd.) when I was living in London. I went at least four times as it somehow captured the zeitgeist of London in the early to mid 1970's, for me at least. My oldest brother the banker, on a trip to London, went to it with me, and his office, he told me, was rather shocked that he went to see such a scandalous show. In fact, the only thing that was particularly outre was Tim Curry in fishnet stockings and high heels. The production was just what London needed at the time, something vaguely irreverent, a campy spoof of horror, a semi-respected genre, with lots of catchy music, the words of which I remember to this day. That English literature fostered the birth of the horror genre somehow gives "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" additional, if not gravitas, perhaps raison d'etre for the spoof. (I might add that the Mel Brook''s film, "Young Frankenstein", was released in 1974 so the field was open to satire.) But the English were the progenitors of the horror genre as "The Castle of Otranto", written and published by Horace Walpole in 1765 is considered the first purely Gothic horror novels. Walpole was the owner and designer of Strawberry Hill located in Twickenham in West London. (I have written about it before and it is high on my list for a re-visit. I have not read his book, however.) Of course, Mary Wollenstonecraft Shelley took things to the next level with "Frankenstein", Rocky Horror's direct ancestor, literally speaking. 

The creativity that engenders a new style or fashion, or spoof for that matter, inevitably creates both a connection and a rejection with and of the old. (What would Mary Shelley have thought of Rocky Horror?) Visually, from the architectural standpoint, London is steeped in old with Roman walls (these can be seen at the London Museum) Saxon walls, and a variety in architecture that is almost unparalleled in any other city in the world. Some of these buildings are a visual manifestation of stylistic direction--Pugin's House of Lords, Burlington House and Chiswick House, Strawberry Hill, Inigo Jones's Banqueting House are all statements directed at London's future architectural potential. (There are many more, I'm sure.) They all failed and they were all successful in a limited fashion. The failure was in their being individually orchestrated and created, their success in being strong enough statements to withstand the pressures of popularity--or its opposite--and remain standing.

I am talking about the fits and starts of growth and I am interested in how and why it came about. When "The Rocky Horror Show" debuted it was a smash hit early on among a certain set, not those people going to the West End or even the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square. But popular culture is, well, popular--of the people--and there is power in that. Along with its cinematic brother, "Young Frankenstein", "The Rocky Horror Show", which became a cult film and helped propel Susan Sarandon's career, stands alone in what I would call a minor island of horror spoof. There are lots of those in architectural London nowadays though "spoof" is not how I would address them--more temporary insanity or perhaps brilliance. The Royal National Theatre complex, for example, is brutalist, built after the Second World War, and still arouses controversy. (Sir Laurence Olivier, however, loved it.) The Kensington barracks, also brutalist continues to aggravate some people as does the BT Tower. The BT tower is now an icon of London. In the early 1970's the great cause celebre for those against London skyscrapers was Centre Point on Tottenham Court Rd. which was subjected to endless demonstrations until one day they stopped. And London has gone well past that era with newer buildings such as The Shard, The Walkie-Talkie and The Gherkin. I can only echo what the Tralfamadorians in "Slaughterhouse Five" said regarding death--"and so it goes".