An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 245

Clinton Howell Antiques - August 7, 2023 - Issue 245

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

I made my first visit to Barcelona this summer as the Annual General Meeting of CINOA (Confederation Internationale des Negociants en Oeuvres d'Art), the international federation of dealer groups of which I am (still) President. I chose to spend ten nights in Barcelona, arriving eight days before we actually sat down to meetings about the state of the dealer world and the complications that governments feel the need to create that inevitably make dealers businesses just that much more difficult. I could wish that the EU's laws trumped the laws of individual states as that would make life a lot less complicated for our European members, but god bless bureaucracy as it thrives in the dark corners of ambivalence that almost every government chooses to embrace--I would hope by accident, because if it is purposeful, then it is malign and I can't truly believe that any government would want to step on the toes of its own honest hard working citizens.

Barcelona is my point, however, and it was a long awaited trip. I can remember the first time I saw a photo of the Sagrada Familia and my reaction, which was that I thought it looked like a drip castle that you might make at the beach. I visited there first, because it is where Antoni Gaudi decided to spend the rest of his life after having done a number of projects around Barcelona. In other words, it was his magnus opus and I thought I should see it first. I did not know what to expect other than that I knew Gaudi had a very different aesthetic. What I did not know is that he used incredible craftsmen--almost everything he made was above reproach from the craft perspective. But it is the aesthetic which truly grabs you--quite literally as you can't skim over it with your eyes. I wanted to see how things began and ended such as, for example, the columns inside the cathedral. The bases, made of marble, start off with a smooth finish, go to a softer textured surface and then go to limestone where they take shape with a kind of fluting, some of the columns branching as they rise. It has an organic, very ordered, in an odd way, sensibility. Indeed, my thought inside the cathedral was that it felt like a rain forest.

I could probably talk about the cathedral all day, but there is so much more in Barcelona to see. Gaudi worked on a number of private homes and they were equally revealing of great craftsmanship and clever design. A church, a cathedral if you prefer, is a testament to the glory of the divine and has a singular goal. A home or an apartment building, however, has to be functional. It is similar to what I talk about with furniture as function trumps aesthetics. You don't want a beautiful roof that leaks or that has no air flow or where the windows stick--there are enough problems in life without building one to live in. Gaudi, however, as I noted above, used exceptional craftsmen who understood his aesthetic and knew how to minimize mistakes. Again, the interior aesthetics of Casa Batllo or Palau Guell are singular--intriguing and delightful. I say this while not really being a devotee of what most people refer to as an Art Nouveau aesthetic. What I am a devotee of is his thinking and his understanding for making it work. Indeed, in Casa Mila, an apartment building he created, the roof is just glorious, both from inside the attic and outside with the undulating roof and decorated chimneys and vents.

I was able to get to four of Gaudi's houses, his Parc Guell which he did with Josep Maria Jujol, another famous Catalan architect who worked with and participated in the aesthetic Gaudi popularized. (I went to see the exterior of one Jujol house, but he did a lot outside of Barcelona.) I also visited a bunch of museums, but what struck me most was how livable a city Barcelona seemed to be. And the aesthetic, despite my lukewarm appreciation, actually makes the city different and gives it an air of distinction. I am reminded of the multitudes of "first times" that I have had in my life which I can conjure up readily--the first time I saw the Statue of Liberty, St. Paul's Cathedral, the Eiffel Tower, Versailles, the Sydney Opera House, South Beach Deco Hotels--this is just the start. But Barcelona is different from all of those experiences because it is an entire city. There is a lightness to the city, an unexpected buoyancy to its streets and to the people I met there, including our Spanish representative, Ferran Lopez, and some of the people he introduced to me. It was almost a surprise to me, but it wasn't, at least not after getting introduced to the city by the Sagrada Familia. That first visit opened my eyes not just for the cathedral, but for seeing all of the extraordinary city that is Barcelona.