An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 88

Clinton Howell Antiques - August 3, 2020 - Issue 88

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

I almost feel like sending the Claydon House email again simply because I love rococo wood carving and the Chinoiserie work at that house is unique in the catalogue of decoration of a country house. I can think of a few other houses that stand out for being unique, Brighton Pavilion is a good example, but the vast majority are known for different and less flamboyant reasons. This is not to say that there was no flamboyance just that, for example, most Chinoiserie rooms are a function of Chinese made wallpaper with japanned* furniture so the singularity, at least on the surface, is not as dramatic as it is at Claydon. But the rooms varied in many ways, the wall paper, the furniture, the carpets, the woodwork all were crafted on a room by room basis. If you don't look carefully, they come across as a fairly common sight and you almost get blase to the concept.  The Chinoiserie bedroom in Nostell Priory, however, is worth focusing on, particularly the green japanned furniture made by Thomas Chippendale who worked for Sir Rowland Winn under the direction of Robert Adam. Japanned Chinoiserie style furniture was more apt to be a color, not black, if it was used in a bedroom and the green furniture in the Chinoiserie bedroom is really quite rare in the realm of japanned furniture.

If you looked at the Chinoiserie room at Saltram House in Devon that I wrote about a while back, you will see that the wall paper was of Chinese figures. In Nostell, it is about peony flowers and more feminine in feel. The peony, prior to its import, was thought by the English to be an imaginary flower and not something that grew in the earth and it is the focus along with multi-colored (real) pheasants scattered among the branches. This was the bedroom for the mistress of the house and it is clear that the attempt was to create a less austere room. Those other rooms are filled, I might say, with spectacular, documented furniture that is original to the house. (Most of the furniture in the house is by Chippendale, but there is also some Gillows of Lancaster furniture, as well.) For a house that is largely about (great ) brown furniture, the Chinoiserie of the japanned furniture stands out as unusual and singular. 
Nostell Priory is one of those houses that you must not miss if you are a furniture nut. I have been two times and often feel the need to go again. When you arrive at the house, you feel that the work is from the 1750's, but there is a distinct neo-classical bent to what is there. I recommend the links to the photographs of the furniture below. It is English cabinetmaking that reflects the great work made in mahogany by Chippendale, William Vile, William Bradshaw and Gillows of Lancaster, most of the furniture in the house, as stated above, being by Thomas Chippendale. A fascinating aside is how I noticed that the dining room suite of chairs were made of what is known as Cuban mahogany, dark and rich mahogany from trees that likely grew in rich swampy soil and which absorbed lots of minerals from the ground. This wood is highly prized, but often remains quite dark through the passage of time, hardly fading at all. Unless, of course, the wood is placed in direct sunlight as two of the suite at Nostell were (in the window alcoves). This pair of chairs have not been moved and are brilliantly faded with an incredible patina. That the majority of the set was left around the dining table and unfaded was curious to me, but really informative. One should never worry about the color of your furniture. It is, after all, designed for use, first and foremost.

There are many things at Nostell that I can point to that indicate Chippendale's original aesthetic. For example, the pair of green painted stools (there is a matching pair of chairs as well) with fluted legs have the most wonderful "ankles" and "feet". The legs taper until they reach the ankles which are, essentially, just rounded turnings above a turned foot that splays outwards. These words hardly describe how well the legs stand--I strongly recommend bringing up the linked page below to look at all the details that Chippendale so adroitly employed to make his furniture work so well. One odd thing is that there is a commode in the sitting room that is against the wall and shows where someone, not Chippendale's workers, hacked the back of the commode to accommodate the rather deep baseboard moulding. It is almost a little shocking and can only be seen when you visit the house. Another odd thing is the fine medal cabinet that is behind a door and not in a moveable piece of furniture. There is a lot to see and I would recommend that anyone visiting Nostell take the time to visit not only Nostell, but the Temple Newsam Museum and Harewood House, all situated about a half hour to forty-five minutes from the center of Leeds in North Yorkshire.

*Japanning is, essentially, painted furniture, usually done on a smooth gesso ground in imitation of true lacquer from the East. The wikipedia on Nostell Priory.  q=Nostell+priory+chinoiserie+room&sxsrf=ALeKk02l5cInWftxEUThDahWQR8nWr0Axg:1595618307563&tbm=isch&source=iu&ictx=1 Some great shots of the Nostell interiors. Peacocks, an English dealing firm, has posted some great clear photos of furniture in Nostell Priory. A documented and original Thomas Chippendale made piece of furniture from my inventory.