An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 81

Clinton Howell Antiques - June 8, 2020 - Issue 81

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

The difficult to get to houses are often the houses that are the most desirable. I have visited many houses, but there are a number that I have not seen and would like to get to and a number that I would like to return to such as the house I covered last week, Saltram, and a house known mostly (to 18th century furniture lovers) for its incredible furniture, Corsham Court. Corsham is still privately owned and has visiting times which are not necessarily in line with the desire that I have, which is to visit at least two houses per day. I have been to Corsham three times and visited twice, because on one visit, I was on the wrong day, the day having been changed only weeks earlier. I understand from their website that they will provide private visits these days which means the next time I go, I will ring in advance.

The site of Corsham has had a house for a very long time although it has clearly had many alterations, some good, some not so good. I am not an architectural student, and the Tudor front, to me at least, looks like a lot of other Tudor houses. The grounds of the house are by the noted landscape designer Capability Brown and I regret to say, I paid them little heed as well, as my focus was, per usual, on the furniture. I did however, notice the peacocks roaming the grounds, something I can't say I am crazy about. They are only interesting when they display their tail feathers, otherwise they are loud and shit everywhere. Forgive the vernacular, but it is unpleasant in my opinion.

Inside is where the story really takes shape. The gallery is a triple cube room, something Wiltshire seems to have a supply of as Wilton House has a single and double cube room designed by Inigo Jones (I think). Frankly, the double cube works the best, but the double and triple cube rooms are reception rooms and space is always desirable so I will leave it to the proportionists to figure out if the cube concept works or not. The Methuen family, which still owns the house, had extraordinary taste in their furniture purchases as well as in art. Although Robert Adam designed mirrror frames for the house, the item that I most wanted to see was a mirror by Thomas Johnson. Johnson was England's greatest rococo designer. To differentiate between Johnson and the rest (Chippendale, Linnell, Mayhew and Ince, etc.) is to say that Johnson understood the concept of rococo, which was to make a piece of furniture look unlike what it is supposed to be. For example, if you have a looking glass, how do you change peoples minds into thinking it was something other than a looking glass? In great rococo, there are no holds barred so if you want the looking glass to be a pond, you put carvings around the pond that make it look like a pond. You do not hold back--you throw in grottoes, fisherman, fish, water currents, foliage and you do a lot of it. Johnson does this--see the link below. If you can't get to Corsham, I advise a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington in London--they have a Johnson mirror which is wonderful.And if you want to compare a really, really good rococo mirror not by Johnson, check out this link to my website- This is very good English rococo, but in no way rivals Johnson's artistry.

But of course, there has to be Chippendale at Corsham and there is, a great commode. Corsham, for some inexplicable reason, has few photographs available of their furniture--the focus is largely on the art collection. That is a pity as they have great examples by great 18th century makers including a Pembroke table by Henry Hill of Marlborough. Henry Hill 's work lays bare the myopic lens we all use when talking about 18th century furniture and focus solely on London. His work is as good as any from London. Corsham is an extraordinary visit, well worth the time and Wiltshire is very close to London. See all the links below.