An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 243

Clinton Howell Antiques - July 24, 2023 - Issue 243

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

The sunrise one day last spring was streaked with red reminding me of two of my favorite epithets from "The Odyssey",  "the rosy fingered dawn", and "the wine dark sea", the only two lines of "The Odyssey" that I can remember. Ulysses' desire to return home from the Trojan War becomes a ten year quest filled with unknown dangers and surprisingly, once home, he sets out again. The process of seeking, or the quest, becomes his raison d'etre--it also becomes a literary trope. How does a quest relate to antique furniture? The business is a quest, of course--I often think of characters from literature--Ahab for example--when I think of some of my weirder trips which included many thousands of travel miles, not to mention many colleagues who have done the same. There were no Scylla and Charybdis nor Circe and her sirens, but there was the concept of  temporary insanity at being strapped in yet another airplane on the quest to find that one great piece of furniture. 

Part of the quest however, at least for me, has been in learning about English history. History may be about learning battles and dates and rulers names, but it is also how the world worked, what science, religion, industry were doing and how people lived. Some of this shows up in traditional text books but there are many other sources. I mentioned that I'd read, "The Aristocrats" by Stella Tillyard (1994) based on correspondence among the Lennox sisters, granddaughters of an illegitimate grandson of Charles II with interesting vignettes about how they passed their lives in the third and fourth quarters of the 18th century. (They did a great deal of shopping.) I have just finished another book called, "Fields of Fire" by David Constantine (2001) which is about Sir William Hamilton, known for being Ambassador to the Court of Two Sicilies from 1764 to 1800. Hamilton is known in a number of arenas--as a vulcanologist who wrote extensively about the eruptions of Vesuvius which he ascended hundreds of times at all hours of the day and night, as a collector of art and antiquities (another great shopper) who published several books on his collection of vases, the first collection of vases selling to the British Museum and lastly as the cuckold in the menage a trois with his wife, Emma, and Admiral Horatio Nelson. 

Hamilton, however, was an aesthete. This is not to say that aesthetes can't be laughed at for the peccadilloes in their personal lives, but what I would not have known without reading Constantine's book is how the aristocracy were appalled by the "vulgar" Emma. Hamilton supported her and seemed to pay no mind to what was being said even though he must have known. His closest playmate as a child was George III and yet he was forbidden by the King to present his wife to the court. In fact, one lesson from the book is about the hypocrisy leveled towards Hamilton by the upper classes. The third Lady Holland, for example, married to the grandson of Caroline Lennox, wrote scathingly of Hamilton's arrangement and yet she must have known that there was sufficient scandal in both the Holland and Lennox backgrounds to fill a book (which indeed it does). It wasn't just Hamilton but also Emma with her past as a prostitute (more of a concubine) that filled everyone with scorn, but it was also her manner of speech and crude accent that appalled the upper classes. It was open season on her, and by inference her husband. They were easy targets.

Hypocrisy, when viewed through the lens of history, seems extraordinarily petty, fueled by the desire to debase others and exalt yourself--a vice of people with time on their hands. But it reveals something about British society at the turn of the 18th to 19th century, that class was of great importance--there was money, there were all kinds of advancements being made to do with almost every phase of life, but Britain was ardently stratifying, class-wise, more and more (Jane Austen's milieu) and there was no room for the perceived imperfections of others, whether or not the mote was in their own eyes. (The nobility, of course, had always seen themselves as above the fray.) But manners, the adherence to social norms, allowed those who might have felt inferior to Hamilton, who was from an "old and distinguished line", to feel superior to him. Hamilton was, as I have said, distinguished for his lineage, a lineage that the society wannabes did not have. That he made scientific advancements at great risk to himself and also extraordinary purchases that boosted the British Museum as well as  contributing enormously to British industry--Josiah Wedgwood and Matthew Boulton both used his books for designs of their own, was of no account. Fortunately, he was a man on a series of quests--not for glory, not for social advancement and not to be loved--but to understand as best he could, the rosy fingered dawn. The hypocrisy pales by comparison.