An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 235

Clinton Howell Antiques - May 29, 2023 - Issue 235

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

I believe it was William Randolph Hearst who was the first to bring entire rooms from Europe to fit into San Simeon, his estate in California, but even if it wasn't, there was a trend at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries to using all sorts of architectural features and fitments from Europe that would end up in some American manse or museum. The desire to infuse something old world, often but certainly not exclusively British, led to all sorts of different imports. For example, a house I know in Bedford, NY was built from the bricks of an outbuilding torn down at Cassiobury House in Watford when it was demolished in 1927. (The staircase from the main house is on display at the Met Museum.) Of course, the Met's northern (Manhattan) branch, the Cloisters, are largely taken from France. It is rooms, however, that I want to focus on as rooms were brought to this country, sometimes as parts to be used in the construction of places like the New York Public Library or the Frick house on 5th Ave., and sometimes to be displayed in museums such as the Met or the J.B. Speed Museum in Louisville, Kentucky. I can't imagine how many there are, but I suspect there are quite a few--the Met has three English rooms plus some really lovely panelling from the 16th/17th century when you walk into the English part of the museum. The three rooms, the Kirtlington Park room (baroque) the Croome Court tapestry room (neoclassical with rococo tapestries) and the Lansdowne dining room (neoclassical) are all designed to impart the stylistic essence of the interior decor of a grand British 18th century house. 

What you don't get from period rooms in museums, at least those 18th century and earlier rooms brought across from Europe, is a sense of how the space was set up and whether it was comfortable--insofar as it was meant to be comfortable. By this I mean, the Kirtlington Park and Lansdowne rooms were both for dining and comfort isn't the primary point of the room--they are designed to reveal the owner's fashionability and perhaps to inspire a touch of awe. They were also, when still in situ, filled with other furniture, silver, porcelain, etc., which completed the room. The Croome Court tapestry room includes original furnishings and comes across as being a formal, yet intimate room and of the three rooms, reveals the most of itself because of the furnishings and how the Met has decorated it. (It certainly was an expensive room in the 18th century, given that the walls and furniture were hung and upholstered with tapestries from the Royal Gobelins Manufactory). Perhaps my 21st century sensibility doesn't allow me to fully grasp the kind of comfort that I would enjoy in a tapestry room--although I love the gray tapestry room in Newby Hall in N. Yorkshire. Interestingly, another period room at the Met, the Frank Lloyd Wright room which is located in the American wing of the museum appears to be comfortable and beautifully laid out. Wright's furniture designs are generally uncomfortable, but this room has a great sense of spatial awareness and uses furniture within the geometry of the room so that it looks comfortable. The concept of comfort is important and the completeness of the furnishings enables us to enjoy what we are seeing.

I rarely get to look at the spaces that my pieces go into, because I largely sell to decorators. Good decorators train themselves to understand spatial concepts on a plan, a learned skill that I presume gets easier over time. I need to see if something works well in place. I believe most people have spatial awareness inherently, although some people just seem to have a knack for combining things. There are also, surprisingly, a few people who have no clue how to combine things. About thirty-five years ago, I delivered, on approval, a fifty four inch diameter round table to a house in Greenwich, CT. The owners, who were not using a decorator, said they would not be home and to put the table in the foyer of the house, which I did. It looked absolutely perfect in the space, a perfect round table in a large foyer underneath a little too low chandelier--I was certain I had a sale. Much to my surprise, the clients called to say that the table didn't work for them so I went to collect it and, lo and behold, they had it behind a sofa in the living room in front of some French windows with barely enough room to get to the door handles. It was never going to look comfortable in that spot. This example is a bit extreme, the clients divorced a short time later and were, I suspect, trying to reach a consensus on something when no consensus was possible. Notwithstanding this, I have seen many misalignments of scale over the years most of which are easily fixed if you know the vocabulary of the period you are working with. Which brings me back to why I would suggest going to country houses to learn both that vocabulary and the spatial awareness that architects and furniture makers of the 18th century had--they really knew how to furnish a room and you get to see the flesh on the bones in many of the great English houses. The period rooms brought to this country make a great deal more sense once you've seen the complete animal.