An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 257

Clinton Howell Antiques - October 23, 2023 - Issue 257

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

I've been reading about the Countess of Jersey (1753-1821) in a biography by Tim Clarke, titled, "The Countess, The Scandalous Life of Frances Villiers, Countess of Jersey". It is superbly researched but it makes the book a tough read for a number of reasons, the foremost being that the author quotes extensively from newspapers of her era and her correspondence (and others writing about her) to make points about the countess that he has already made quite well. The redundancy isn't necessary as we learn, fairly quickly, that Frances Jersey was beautiful, but neither a nice or good woman and that when she gained an advantage, she took her advantage as far as she could. As she eventually became the Prince of Wales's (1762-1830) mistress--he was nine years her junior--she had the opportunity to become the most loathed woman in the kingdom for the manner in which she treated the Prince's wife, Caroline of Brunswick (1768-1821).

The Countess essentially positioned herself between the Prince (by being in his bed among other things) and his wife and made certain that Caroline was isolated in almost every way imaginable. And the Prince of Wales, who comes off as possibly the wettest noodle to attain manhood, allowed and even fostered it--he came to detest his wife. This was the same Prince who, on re-modeling Carlton House (on the Mall down the street from Buckingham Palace) chose to replace one month old installed fabric on the walls because he didn't like the hue--same fabric, different color and at tremendous cost--no wonder he was constantly begging for money from his father. Unlike him, his wife, Caroline had backbone and she became a popular figure with the hoi polloi to the extent that she was cheered when showing up at the theater or any event she might attend that included the general public. At the same time and, at times the same event, the Countess would be booed and also suffered continued humiliation at the hands of editorialists and cartoonists for her ongoing debasing of the Princess. She escaped unruly crowds by a hair's breadth a number of times.

As much as the biography is about the Countess, the Prince of Wales is profiled (to his detriment) as is London during the Countess's life. London was a city that was bristling with newfound wealth in the last forty years of the eighteenth century. Huge wealth emerged in Europe at the end of the Renaissance and continued to grow through the Enlightenment and well into the nineteenth century. Portugal, Spain, France and Holland, seafaring nations, all gained monetarily through either plunder, slavery or market access to rarities which included spices, sugar, cocoa, coffee, tea, plants in general such as the pineapple and pomegranate, and desirable objects such as lacquer work and silk. The new world and the eastern world were ripe for the plucking and Britain, by 1780 was taking advantage of the moment. At the same time, the provincial concerns of, for example, the fear of the Catholic religion within the UK created unrest and London in June of 1780 for three days experienced out of control rioting--the Gordon Riots. In other words, London was a place in transition although to define precisely what it was before and what it became afterwards is not such a simple task as there is neither a beginning nor an end to a city such as London. It may be more apt to say that the growing pains of London are more tumultuous in the last several decades of the eighteenth century than they had been before this era.

I have talked about the changes in the furniture world in this era at length. The bespoke trade was declining though it did not die straightaway and the "dishonorable" cabinet trade, those tradesmen who hadn't completed a proper apprenticeship, was rising. But what was also changing was the attitude towards money. The Countess and her husband spent with reckless abandon because of who they were--peers of the realm--close to the point where the Earl had to disappear to avoid Debtors Prison. Patronage, which the Earl had counted on from the Prince of Wales for whom he spent out of his own pocket, was often not forthcoming. The sense of noblesse oblige was felt by the Count to his Prince, but not by the Prince to the Count nor by either the Count or the Prince's debtors who were hard headed businessmen. The bespoke furniture trade was ignorant of this change, often being among the last people to be paid according to many accounts from top firms (a year of credit was not uncommon) and they could not compete with the dishonorable trade who were paid upfront on delivery! London, by the time Victoria became Queen in 1837, had mutated into a society that was used to wealth and expected its populace to respect it--some trades such as tailoring still suffered from very slow payment--but it was the exception. The upper classes may have talked disdainfully of people "in trade", but collecting for services rendered was expected. The Prince Regent's lavish life style from 1780-1800 amplified the power of bill collecting for those services and the power that money, not birthrights, were to have in the ensuing years. Cue the American heiresses and power of cold hard cash, inimical to British tradition but necessary to sustain the facade.