An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 94

Clinton Howell Antiques - September 14, 2020 - Issue 94
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
Floors Castle is located in Roxburghshire, Scotland, near the market town of Kelso in the area of Scotland known as the Borders. I visited Floors in the 1990's and best remember the fairy tale aspect of the roof spires that are very striking as you arrive, particularly if you are on a bicycle, as I was. Approaching country houses on bicycle is ideal as you get to absorb not just the size, but the grandeur of what you are looking at and Floors, though not actually a castle, is grand. It was designed by William Adam, Robert Adam's father and was later given its dream-like spires under the Scottish architect, William Playfair, considered one of the great Scottish architects of the nineteenth century. I say dream-like as Floors is one of those places that captures your presuppositions of what a castle should look like. On a more practical level, anyone who understands upkeep will know that you need to be nigh on crazy to have so many spires to look after as all roofs are designed, sooner or later, to leak. My thoughts, as I pedaled towards the entrance, were that it looked like Henry the VIII's, Nonsuch Palace, a palace known by drawings and paintings as it was destroyed in the late 17th century. In any case, Floors had never been on my list as a place to see original furniture, but the exterior was so enchanting, I believed there had to be something exciting awaiting inside.

Floors has some very fine pieces. I sense that little time has been spent researching this aspect of the house as when you go to look for interior photographs on the internet (I was there in 1990 and I don't remember the interior at all, maybe because I was winded from biking) they are not particularly enlightening. There is some very fine gilded neoclassical furniture as well as some fine gilded Gainsborough style armchairs that look like they were made by a top London maker. There is also some very fine late 17th and early 18th century English furniture and a lovely French ebonized bureau plat (writing table) in the photographs, but there was no commentary with any of the photos. One thing I have noticed in visiting many of the houses that were furnished between 1740-1770, as Floors was (and earlier), is that they seem to have been furnished by a certain coterie of cabinetmakers such as Linnell, Chippendale or Mayhew and Ince and/or provincial makers. (Or Charles Elliot, as I noted a few weeks ago.) I am not certain if this is because of business relationships of exclusivity, or whether the great London makers which include Vile and Cobb, Vile's master, William Hallett, and others such as John Bradburn and William France were more involved with London commissions and/or clients coming to their premises to order bespoke pieces. Or were certain firms more aggressive marketers? What it says to me is that the purchase of made to order furniture was undergoing changes at this time and the firms that could, would bid on entire houses, rather than work piece by piece. With this in mind, I think these thirty years are a signal moment as to how the entire made to order cabinetmaking industry was undergoing seismic changes in business operations. 

The change in the furniture industry was due to the rise of the middle class--people whose ability to make money enabled them to live at a level heretofore unknown by any but the upper classes or, more accurately, people whose wealth was gained through inheritance. The driving force behind this altogether new concept of a middle class was the Industrial Revolution, trade and cheap labor and particularly unskilled labor, that was essential for jobs such as mining or the building of infrastructure such as canals and bridges. Britain in the mid to late 18th century was in the throes of profound change which some understood well and who honed their skills to meet a demand that heretofore had never existed. (Think of how the tech industry has grown in forty years for an analogy.) The demands on goods and services required all aspects of manufacturing to adapt and the furniture industry was no exception. I might add that the Lunar Society of Birmingham (I strongly recommend Jenny Uglow's book, "The Lunar Society") was directly focused on these changes. The members, all luminaries, included James Watt, whose steam engine was first used in the making of beer and then for extracting water from mines, Matthew Boulton, who assisted Watt and who made some of the finest gilt bronze garnitures in England (Boulton did not go down market--his product was just too labor intensive) and Josiah Wedgwood, who pitched his goods at various levels of expense to appeal to a broad buyer base. The furniture industry had no such luminaries, but what it did have were renegade apprentices who saw opportunity and broke their apprenticeships in order to make furniture "on spec". By 1790, the established cabinetmaking shops were offering various levels of goods in order to supersede this threat (known as the "dishonorable trade" at the time). In the shops that adapted, identical chairs in form would differ in price with the addition of, for example, the fluting of legs, the addition of a beaded moulding, book matched veneers and on and on. I have yet to look it up, but I am hoping that, in my visit to Abbotsford next week, another Scots border house and home to Sir Walter Scott, that I will be able to point out the two value levels made by the workshop of George Bullock, a leading early 19th century English cabinetmaker., This is self explanatory.  No photos, but a description of the vast amount of landscaping done to create the Floors of today. I did not cadge fairy tale-like from this article. I wrote it before finding this article. I am glad that someone else sees things the way I do. One excellent photo of the saloon. Nice early chairs and nice gilded Gainsboroughs. This is the same site as the link above with a view of the fairy tale castle. In case you are interested in the Lunar Society.