An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 63

Clinton Howell Antiques - January 20, 2020 - Issue 63

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

When I lived in London and was working with my brother, we worked with the not yet famous designer, Richard Holley (now a legend in Houston, Tx.), who introduced me to what is possibly the most recognizable symbol of the ancient world, the obelisk, a form that we all know but which we don't really think about. Richard liked, no loved, the decorative power of the obelisk and he made it clear how useful a tool it was in his repertoire of decoration. The power of strong vertical structures is undeniable. Indeed, the strong vertical of sky scrapers defines the modern city. But obelisks are not buildings and their purpose in planning is primarily what I might call, memorable decorative. Virtually every American knows the Washington Monument and whether they know it is an obelisk or not, it is an indelible symbol of Washington, D.C. But the obelisk has been used extensively in the post Renaissance era. The Place de la Concorde in Paris is a major intersection highlighted by an ancient Egyptian obelisk (Egyptian obelisks are usually referred to as Cleopatra's needles.) What is so great about the obelisk, as opposed to the column (think Nelson in Trafalgar Square, Napoleon on the column in Place Vendome or Trajan's column in Rome--the list is almost endless) is that it comes to a conclusion, a pyramidal point. How tall should a column be--should Nelson in London be higher than Napoleon in Paris? Stupid questions which short fingered politicians like to obsess over. The reason that the obelisk comes to a point relates to their original use--Egyptian designers were trying to capture an image of the sun's rays in homage to the sun god, Ra--and were used to guard the entrance to a temple. Clearly, the obelisk referenced the power of the sun ray and had enough stature to reference raw power as they were carved from one block of stone. And the point of this article, and something that dealing in English antique furniture taught me very quickly, is precisely the way in which various forms and  symbols from the ancient world take on a life of their own, independent of their creation.

The obelisk is regarded by many as a phallic symbol. It is the most obvious reference one can make, but what else does it symbolize? For me, it is a lot less about what it symbolizes than what it does, which is to attract attention. Hence, if you are a city planner and want to create a landmark, an obelisk is a terrific focal point. It doesn't have to be enormously tall, it doesn't require a great deal of upkeep and yet it registers instantaneously. The Washington Monument is highly successful in this regard, although I would suggest that it did not need to be so tall. (This was/is an American obsession to make the largest of something. Need I say that it isn't always necessary?) The Place de la Concorde obelisk is carefully tended by the city of Paris with the top pyramid being regilded (the sun's ray lest we forget) when required. (The other two famous Egyptian obelisks in major metropolises are in London and New York City. They are not nearly as well employed or looked after as the one in Paris--the one in London is on the Embankment, which is not a terrible place for it, the one in New York is in Central Park and clearly once was the focal point for people inside the Metropolitan Museum, but is no longer--it looks orphaned where it is now.)

How Richard enlightened me about the obelisk relates to a specific party that he was decorating. Richard would create a rough design and then give the drawing to us to determine dimensions. We would then determine the measurements that would be visually acceptable. For example, Richard wanted twenty obelisks to sit as centerpieces for the dinner tables. The one measurement he specified was the height of 30". The rest was a function of scale. Easy to say, hard to get just right. Furthermore, Richard was going to cover the obelisks in patterns of nuts and mirror plate. Similarly, he wanted a centerpiece of the party. This, too, was an obelisk, but the obelisk was to sit on a plinth, which sat on a cube, another plinth and then a large platform. The structure was about 24 feet in height. It was similarly decorated to the table obelisks but included a garland of oranges.  Believe me, it drew the eye. Attracting the eye is the first step in making something memorable, because it is always a visceral reaction--awe, disgust, terror, etc. We were working for awe and we heard from the party planners that the obelisk was a huge success. And, to Richard's dismay, such a success that most of the table obelisks were appropriated by the guests. Obelisks were no longer just a column or a phallic symbol, they were desirable, interesting forms. This is how you learn.