An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 67

Clinton Howell Antiques - March 2, 2020 - Issue 67

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

The missing note in my appreciation of London is that I have yet to talk about any buildings. Heaven forfend, London has over a thousand years of buildings within its confines and I haven't said a word about any of them. Don't think I don't care, because I do. In fact, I probably care more about architecture than I do about food, except when I am eating, and then I care more about food.  (A.J. Liebling never talked about architecture or even Paris at large, at least not when he was talking about food.) Having said this, I have to say that the interiors of buildings are usually far more interesting to me than the exteriors. And London's architecture tends to be rather subtle save for a few blockbusters like Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, St. Paul's, the Royal Hospital and, if you head out further, the Royal Naval College in Greenwich, Hampton Court and I could go on for a while in this vein, so please note that I am being just a tad ironic. And, of course, it is, for example, the fact that Kensington Palace is in Hyde Park that makes it wonderful--not so much its architecture.  Apsley House, Wellington's residence, is also part of the park, which makes it far more noticeable than were it stuffed in with a great many other houses on a block somewhere. And there are great buildings stuffed into spaces all over London.

One of the grander buildings stuffed into a space is, in my opinion, Burlington House. It is on Piccadilly, the main drag that goes from Hyde Park Corner, past Green Park and on to the Eros statue resting atop a column at Piccadilly Circus. Burlington House is the home of the Royal Academy, which is host to extraordinary exhibitions, the most notable being the Summer Exhibition which is open to any and all artists and runs, I think, from May through June and perhaps a little longer. Burlington is worth mentioning because Lord Burlington believed in Palladian architecture. He felt that for England to be truly recognized as a proper Republic, the capitol should reflect the Republican (classical) architecture of Rome, the last great Republic. Of course, this is a little screwy as Palladio practiced architecture in the 16th century in the north of Italy in and around Venice. Despite his "The Four Books of Architecture" which have sealed his name as one of the major architects in history, he was never picked up by the powers (the Pope) in Rome. But Burlington picked his books up and, as an architect in his own right and with the help of William Kent, an Englishman he met on the Grand Tour in Italy, he brought the style home with him. As one of the richest men in England, he built according to the classical ideal he espoused and ergo, Burlington House. I don't know what Burlington thought about all the Wren and Hawksmoor churches sprouting up around London at this time, although they were, save for St. Paul's, not boldly baroque.

All of what I am writing about is sub-text to the history of the City of London, and it is, what I would call, a nano-second of how and why London developed. The minutiae is interesting, however, and it is what makes London so extraordinary. It is captivating to know why buildings were built, who built them, their purpose and their role in the history of London. Kensington Palace, for example, was worked on for many years, beginning with William and Mary around 1690 and included architects such as May, Wren, Hawksmoor, Vanbrugh and our friend, William Kent (for the interior). A part of Kensington Palace is open to the public and I well remember my first visit as part of my antiques restoration course at the London College of Furniture. The long gallery was in the final stages of having the paint that someone had applied, stripped off. It had been a monumental task and very labor intensive. What was really fascinating, however, was not the long gallery, but the mural over the stairs which showed the inimical William Kent (the painter of the mural) looking over the faux balustrade down onto the stairs with a lot of other not-so-noteworthy--beneath the stairs--souls. Kent had been appointed court painter, a job he ultimately relinquished, but was able to cast himself into the future with this self portrait. However, what is really intriguing was the interior decoration Kent created, most of which was based on his experiences and, one presumes, the memories and/or sketches he made in Italy. The most intriguing for me was not the famed Cupola Room, but the Etruscan room, the first of its kind in England. The originality of this design was amply revived by Robert Adam at Osterley Park (another London abode) forty years later. It, and Adam's Etruscan work at Osterley, are absolutely must see, in my opinion.

How can one possibly relate all that is conveyed in the buildings of a city such as London? It isn't possible for me to do it in this blog. Regency London, for example, with the work of John Nash molded London dramatically. And then there are all those houses with plaques saying someone important lived here, that someone you may or may not know. And, of course, there are 19th and 20th century London, some of which is lovable and some of which is distinctly unlovable. I strongly recommend walking tours as they will start you on this feast of historical information that makes London so unique. And  you might just find that you, too, will gain some insight about this tremendous and fascinating city. I reluctantly rest my case.