An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 76

Clinton Howell Antiques - May 4, 2020 - Issue 76

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

Erddig Hall is a house that I had learned about from some friends who were curators. They described it as almost out of a fairy tale with a remote location in North Wales, a Welsh  pronunciation that had nothing to do with its letters and finally, the fact that the house had been, more or less, untouched for several hundred years. This is the academic's dream, regardless of discipline, to find the mother lode of untouched items that reveal aspects of history-through-objects heretofore undiscovered and unknown. Tutankhamun's tomb was such an event and Erddig was often talked about in furniture history circles as being such a place. It isn't, but it is a pleasant surprise in North Wales and after visiting Bodnant the previous evening to view the famed laburnum arch, I was ready to be completely stunned by Erddig. 

Like many of the houses I have visited over the years, Erddig was unprepossessing as regards to its architecture. Don't get me wrong, it is a lovely and large limestone fronted house in an austere Palladian style (herewith the link, it doesn't reek of Vanbrughian excess that you might find at Blenheim or Castle Howard. As one comes to learn, the exterior grandeur of many great country houses doesn't define what is in those houses or vice-versa. One of the loveliest overmantels I have seen was in a small National Trust property called Peckover in Cambridgeshire. Great things are everywhere, you just have to go and visit. Seemingly inconsequential spots can be absolutely stunning with things. But what is so remarkable about Erddig is its complement of great items from top quality London makers such as James Moore and Giles Grendey. North Wales is a substantial trek from London, but of course, the furniture would have likely been sent via the nearest seaport. Still, this gives a snapshot of how some of the world lived in the first quarter of the 18th century when you had both the will and the money to furnish in the latest style.

Knowing that Erddig had great furniture, specifically some japanned furniture as well as some very good gilded furniture, I was stunned by what I saw. Superb quality pieces throughout the collection were in both the bedrooms and drawing room and hall. The bedroom (if you click the link above, you have to search a bit for the bedroom and there is no photo with the japanned bureau bookcase in it, but there is a photo of the bureau bookcase on its own--just keep clicking) has one of the finest japanned bureau bookcases by the noted London maker, Giles Grendey, that I have seen. The condition of the piece, as seen from behind a rope, was superb. The bedroom is chinoiserie and there are a pair of japanned commodes on either side of the bed. You will also see tremendous photos of the early looking glasses and good shots of some of the seating furniture. The looking glasses are sizeable, not at all diminutive. The border glasses shown are very expensive for what they were and there are a good number of them in the house. Further, there is a gilt table with a verre eglomise top, the subject of the painting being the crest the family crest. The glass has a big crack through it, but I, for one, am delighted that it was kept and never re-done. But further, you will also see in the photos (something I have long forgotten about) silver gilded chairs. Silver gilding was not common and could be used for several reasons, the first because it was different and far less gaudy than gold, but secondly because if you put a coat of orange shellac on the silver, it made the silver look like gold and so it was less expensive. To confuse the matter further, there is white gold that does not tarnish which was used in the same fashion as silver leaf. I can't possibly know whether the chairs are white gold or silver leaf, nor whether they were meant to have a coat of varnish. This must be a kind of Welsh sophistication or snobbery that the English couldn't possibly understand. No one else can, either.