An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 74

Clinton Howell Antiques - April 20, 2020 - Issue 74
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
I can say that my very best lessons learned about antique furniture came from visiting houses in the UK, both the houses that were assembled over time as well as those that were largely untouched. The advantages you can get from visiting a house are many, the most important being that, in many cases, you can learn the way a style was interpreted around a house. Nostell Priory, a Chippendale furnished house for example, has a fantastic set of dining room chairs that, style-wise, read as 1750-55. And yet the main sitting room has a pair of inlaid commodes that one has to date post 1765. In other words, houses weren't necessarily furnished in one fell swoop. Again and again, one will see houses where the interior style pre-dates furniture that is often of several ensuing periods. There are very few houses, for example, like the Adam/Chippendale collaboration at Harewood where everything, interior decoration and furniture, align date-wise. There are a number of such houses, of course, but save for about 10-12 houses that I know of, most contain an amalgamation of custom made furniture from a number of eras. That was just the way things were unless you were very rich and, even then, furniture kept arriving in the newest and latest styles. Corsham Court, for example, which has one of the great Thomas Johnston mirrors dating circa 1750, also has commodes made by Henry Hill from the 1770's. Sledmere, in North Yorkshire, is unusual in that it was refurbished in the early 20th century. It has some magnificent furniture, including a wonderful set of Chinese Chippendale dining chairs--among the best I have ever seen. However, established dining rooms were not the rule in 18th century houses, notwithstanding the Nostell dining room.  Such a display is rare in 18th century homes as the dining table (largely a mid-18th century development) was taken apart and rolled out of sight. The chairs would line the edge of the room. 

The houses that tell you the most can be quite surprising for not being well known as good furniture houses. Chirk Castle just in Wales on the English border has a wonderful, early inlaid console table by Gillows dating around 1770. Culzean Castle in southwest Scotland, overlooking the Irish Sea, has some original furniture dating from when Robert Adam redesigned the interior, by a London maker called Charles Elliot. When I visited, I had never heard of Elliot before and had always assumed that Adam divided most of his interior work between the firms of Chippendale, Linnell and Mayhew and Ince.
The very first time I noticed mirrors placed into the wall was at Hopetoun House outside of Edinburgh. This was a revelation to me as all of a sudden, I understood why many period mirrors have a later supporting frame screwed to the back of an 18th century frame. (This is important in divining the age of a frame.) The fact is that the mirrors were placed into the walls and the carved frames placed around the glass. This would insure that if anything fell off the wall, it would be the frame, and not the glass which was far more valuable in the 18th century.

Some houses reveal an altogether different kind of history. Felbrigg in Norfolk has several rooms decorated at different time periods with a terrific Gothic library. This is also true of a number of houses including Ham House, which I referenced recently, and Stourhead, best known for its gardens but also with some major pieces of furniture including a card table by William Linnell, the progenitor of the famous John Linnell whose work is found, as stated above, in many Robert Adam projects. There are also times when you see a house that is missing items such as, for example, Kenwood House. When I visited Kenwood as a student, the person leading the tour said that the furniture had been disbursed. As it happens, a number of years later and as a dealer, I spied a wonderful small painted Adam bench that showed up in auction in Massachusetts that, as it turned out, came from Kenwood. This kind of thing happens more than you might imagine. At this moment, I own a documented Chippendale secretaire bookcase made by Thomas Chippendale for Paxton House that is pictured in the late Christopher Gilbert's book on Chippendale. It stood out the moment I saw it as a piece of Chippendale furniture. The lesson was well learned.