An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 84

Clinton Howell Antiques - July 5, 2020 - Issue 84

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

I am torn about what to write about next for a couple of reasons. The foremost is that I am reading a biography of William Hogarth by Jenny Uglow which is just fascinating. Born in 1697, Hogarth's career spans the era of Robert Walpole's prime ministership--he was, essentially, Britain's first PM. This is the perfect opening to talk about Houghton House in Norfolk, Walpole's country estate, one of the most famous English country houses in the UK for a number of different reasons, one of the foremost being that it is the birthplace of the English "high" baroque furniture style, the William Kent invention designed to complement the Palladian structure of Houghton House. As you might suspect, this is an essential paradox as the baroque and the Palladian styles are not intrinsically compatible--at least architecturally. Throw in what I have learned about Kent, Burlington (Kent's patron and promoter of Palladianism) Hogarth and his father-in-law, Sir James Thornhill, George II's "serjeant-painter", a title that passed to Thornhill's son, and you find massive contradictions and arguments that might better be termed, personal animosities, not aesthetic differences.

All this and I haven't started talking about the house. Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex make up what is called East Anglia. They are flat and lend themselves to agriculture--no coal mines in the vicinity that I am aware of, but agrarian and wealthy nonetheless. Because of visiting times, I went to Holkham House first, built be Thomas Coke made Earl of Leicester, in 1744 at a slightly later date than Houghton. I thought Holkham was the ne plus ultra of country houses and three hours later, I was at Houghton and realized that you never should judge what the "best" might be, you just tried to focus on what you could understand, what you could see was extraordinary and that, in your delirious excitement, you would be destined to forget ten minutes after leaving the house. (I have been to Houghton four times, I think.) Walpole did not spare the horses on building his home. I will focus on Kent's furniture, but rest assured, every aspect of the house is worth spending time in.

As it happened, on one of my visits, I was with the former curator of European paintings pre-1800 of the Houston Fine arts Museum. We are friends and have spent similar times in our careers driving around the UK, trying to read maps while driving, figuring out opening times for houses and wondering if we can fit one more house in by driving at 80 miles per hour over country roads to see whatever it is we wished to see. On this occasion, we were there to see the paintings sold to Catherine the Great by Horace Walpole, which were being lent, by the Hermitage, I think, for the exhibition. My friend Pete was, of course, focusing on the paintings and at one point made a slightly derisive comment about the furniture--musty old stuff, or something to that affect. I launched into him, explaining that English baroque, unladen of Dutch or French influence, began with this furniture. William Kent, possibly England's most influential designer, despite Hogarth's enmity and possibly jealousy, was asked to design Palladian furniture and what he did was essentially use English craftsmen to create Italianate furniture. It opened a whole new world to the English furniture industry. One can argue about its beauty, or lack of it, but one cannot argue about its importance. The photos below, unfortunately, don't begin to bring home the magnificence of the interior. I can't say that I have ever had furniture as important as that which is in the main drawing rooms. The closest I have come was a pair of gilt stools, and a pair of gilt therms (pedestals) that had putti heads and tapering scaled supports--the stools were circa 1710 and the therms circa 1735 and definitely designed by Kent. But that was a long time ago. It was a wonderful time period for decorative invention and the English craftsmen (many of whom were Dutch or French) proved more than equal to the task. If you want to see extraordinary furniture, Houghton stands out along with a few other houses (Kedleston, which I visited earlier, is another) and you will have reason to stay in the area to visit the other houses in the neighborhood such as Holkham, Felbrigg and Blickling, all distinctively wonderful.