An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 87

Clinton Howell Antiques - July 27, 2020 - Issue 87

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

Claydon House is in Buckinghamshire, not too far from London, just about two hours by car. Claydon is the kind of house that, if you visit, you will never forget it. I can guarantee this. However, if you open up the National Trust web link to Claydon below, you will scratch your head and wonder just why the house is so memorable because, from the outside, it doesn't look like much. And yet, one of the most memorable rooms you will ever see is behind that mild mannered facade, so continue on in your weblink search to the interior photos and then you will understand what I am talking about. What a room! (It is more than just one room, but the one room, a bedroom, is like a coup de grace to everything else you see.) The room was created by the carver Luke Lightfoot about whom little is known. Lightfoot is said to have worked with the great master of rococo carving, Thomas Johnson, about whom I rhapsodized in my Corsham Court article a number of weeks back. Lightfoot was also thought to have become a general contractor on top of being a wood carver and of taking over the work at Claydon for Edmund Verney, eventually driving him into debt so that he had to flee creditors by moving to the Continent. But Lightfoot knew what he was doing, even if he was charging top dollar for his work, because it is sensational.

To digress for just a moment, I draw attention to the photograph on this page of a ho-ho* bird that is part of a girandole that I own. I bought the girandole, which dates circa 1750, and decided to have the pair made for it. (My woodcarver suggested a price which was steep, but I thought the pair would be easier to sell. They generate a great deal of interest, but they have yet to sell.) I reference my ho-ho bird because it epitomizes the artistry that English wood carvers achieved during the English rococo period and that is precisely what you will see when you get to Claydon. The bedroom that is sensational is a Chinoiserie, rococo carved room that is stunning. If I translate what my one girandole cost to the cost of this one room, I can imagine Edmund Verney keeling over at what he had to pay Lightfoot for this bedroom. (My guess in today's money would be several million dollars if you could find a craftsman capable of doing such a job.) The upstairs, what the English call the first floor, has enough carving to satisfy those of us who believe that the closest thing to "art" in the furniture world is wood carving. I have been three times and will go again when I next have the opportunity.

The house is rich on the interior. It isn't splashy, it is just rich. The marquetry floor has ivory inlay, for example. The balustrade has a wonderful wrought iron wheat sheaf motif. For the very obvious reason that I know what awaits me upstairs, I forget about the furniture altogether (not entirely as I remember a good drum table in the center of the downstairs hall). This house is a singular experience, one that you will love or perhaps make you feel is too over the top. For me, it is extraordinary. I might add a doorway was removed (borrowed) from Claydon for the landmark exhibition in Washington, D.C. in 1985, known as the Treasure Houses of Britain. The cover of the catalogue has a close-up of that door frame showing a ho-ho bird sitting on the lintel. The man who assembled all the objects used in the exhibition, Gervase Jackson-Stops, chose the cover and I asked him why? He responded that it was the most English-y of all the things in the collection that he could use--a very English response. I include links to the interior of Claydon below, but I suggest a visit. I also show the cover of the catalogue to the exhibit--a stunning ho-ho bird. 

*The ho-ho bird is the bird seen by English craftsmen in Chinese lacquer work. The English did not know whether the bird was real or mythical--the English had not believed that the abundant flower we know as the peony existed until one was brought back from China so the confusion about the reality of the ho-ho bird was no less. The mild mannered exterior of Claydon House. Carving that gives you scale but which does not show detail. Not a well focused photograph, but you do get a sense of the detail. My really wonderful girandoles. A slightly more decorous pair of ho-ho birds in my inventory. The cover of the Treasure Houses of Britain catalogue with a great ho-ho bird.