An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 170

Clinton Howell Antiques - February 28, 2022 - Issue 170

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

Knole House in Kent is a storied property, the first known house on the site built in the mid 15th century. The number of historical characters that visited or were involved in the property over the years makes for an interesting read given its almost six hundred year history. I first visited Knole with my class from the London College of Furniture in the fall of 1972. One of the students in the class was married to a Sackville descendant, the owners of Knole for the last four hundred plus years, and we received special attention on arriving at the house meaning that we could jump the ropes and look under things. The house is capacious as it is an amalgamation of earlier incarnations of the house, meaning that it was added to and enlarged over time. The early date of the house is physically visible, however, when you see the enormous wide oak floor boards in some of the rooms. Resources such as timber, you have to remember, belonged to the crown so the cutting of what must have been a fair number of mature oak trees for flooring either connotes a special relationship with the monarch or the ability to finagle in some manner a valuable resource that many would not have access to--either locally or from abroad. At one point, three successive Archbishops of Canterbury lived at Knole so that might be one explanation.

The relationship that the Crown had with the peerage has always been transactional. A well run property, one that capitalized on the land through land and animal husbandry was always cultivated as an ally. The King or Queen would visit the properties, often for extended stays where the entourage would be provided for in every manner possible--Henry VIII loved to ride to the hunt, for example and the estate at Knole was large enough for such pastimes. The landowner who was visited was caught between two extremes as on the one hand, he had to provide for the visitors and curry the favor of the monarch and on the other he couldn't overplay the success of the estate as the monarch could choose to take whatever he felt entitled to. But there were limitations and things also worked in the opposite manner. And in the case of Knole, it has resulted in an almost unprecedented collection.

As it happens, one ancestor, Lionel Cranfield, not a Sackville but the father of a Sackville bride, was Lord Treasurer and Master of the Wardrobe to James I, and he amassed a large collection of furniture and tapestries which eventually made it to Knole. Further, Cranfield's grandson, Charles Sackville was Lord Chamberlain to William and Mary and was entitled to take any of the royal furniture deemed out of date or out of fashion. Knole, therefore is a testament to 17th century English furniture making and has a collection that is rare, given how tumultuous 17th century England was. To wit, the eponymous Knole sofa, known for the sides that can fold down, that dates circa 1635 and which has been reproduced thousands of times and continues to be extraordinarily popular, is still in the same house it was made for. So, too, is the very rare silver furniture made by Gerrit Jensen, an Anglo-Dutch cabinetmaker known best for his inlaid furniture. And there is lots more--the Sackvilles deserve credit for keeping it all--a lot of families didn't. Which reminds me that I should go back again as my last visit was in 1975 and Wikipedia is good but not the real thing.