An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 286

Clinton Howell Antiques - May 13, 2024 - Issue 286

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

One of my great pleasures is reading about the history and the characters of the 18th century. "Meet the Georgians", by Robert Peal, teases us with an introduction that has us eager to learn about these 18th century characters, twelve chapters devoted to one or two people per chapter, who he refers to, in a quote written about Lord Byron by Lady Caroline Lamb, as "mad, bad and dangerous to know". Exciting! Peal's premise is that the 18th century was filled with unbuttoned characters whose bold lives were indicative of Britain's bold spirit and that the 19th century paled by comparison becoming more buttoned up and proper, constrained by social mores. (I think Oscar Wilde might have something to say about this, but then, he was ultimately constrained by social mores because he was unrepentant, not because he couldn't have elided the difficulties he faced.) The image of the prim Victorian survives to this day and Peal's book is a paean to the British spirit that was, he alleges, subdued at the end of the Georgian era.

Most of the characters he profiles are ones that I already knew. There is one of my favorites, Emma Hamilton, the wife of the Ambassador of the Two Sicilies and famed vulcanologist and art collector, William Hamilton, and lover to Lord Nelson in a (it is believed) compatible menage a trois. Lady Hester Stanhope, another woman with numerous tragic romances and indomitable spirit, is also profiled. Lord Byron who needs no introduction or explanation, Mary Anning the famous fossil hunter whose work called into question the Bible's veracity, James Watt, the man who effectively harnessed steam power and ushered in the modern industrial era, Tipu Sultan, the brilliant Indian royal who was finally beaten due to Arthur Wellesley's capabilities (eventually the Duke of Wellington) Mary Wollstonecraft considered the first feminist by many and the ill fated Bonnie Prince Charlie all show up in this volume. It is an interesting cast and the reading is light and amusing.

The people that I didn't know were, of course, the most fun to read about. Anne Bonny and Mary Read, two pirates who escaped the gallows by claiming (truthfully) that they were pregnant, but whose antics were as rapacious and blood thirsty as any of their male counterparts. Indeed, the two women spurred on their captains to ever more violent acts and likely would have escaped capture had the male crew of their ships been less interested in getting wasted on alcohol. Definitely mad and bad and someone you didn't want to meet, let alone know. On the other side of the feminine spectrum were the ladies of Llangollen, two women who just wanted to be able to live together in their own way. Their profile is every bit as courageous as the lady pirates, as they battled duplicitous families wanting to shortchange them of what was rightfully theirs. And the profile of John Wilkes made me realize that I only knew the political rabble rousing aspect of his life, a turnaround from his early days of being a womanizer and heavy drinker. Yet the character that I found most fascinating was Olaudah Equiano, captured for the slave trade in West Africa as a boy, he ended up buying his own freedom. His story is quite amazing, a rags to freedom story against tremendous odds. And I might add, a short time after reading the book, I found him referenced in an article about slavery in the US. He wasn't mad, bad or dangerous, just plain exceptional.