An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 95

Clinton Howell Antiques - September 21, 2020- Issue 95
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
Abbotsford House is the home of Sir Walter Scott, easily one of the most beloved British writers for his poetry, novels and plays as well as a stupendous library on the history of Scotland. Abbotsford is decidedly not an architectural gem, but it was the first of its kind stylistically, that is Scottish Baronial. When you read the short write up on Scott in Wikipedia, you realize that he was an extraordinarily accomplished man as he was not only an author but a working lawyer and Sherriff-Depute. How he had time to build and landscape Abbotsford is hard to imagine. He, like his neighbors at Floors Castle (last week's blog) went for spires as well, although the lead up to the house is not as dramatic as it was at Floors and it is far smaller. Again, I was on a bicycle when I arrived which is just that much more a relaxed arrival than showing up in a car. The docents are never keen on seeing bicycle helmets and backpacks, but they quickly get used to the idea. The Scottish are friendly people as well and they take pride in their historical houses and Abbotsford is among the most popular. 

The Scottish Baronial style is pretty much whatever Walter Scott wanted it to be--he called it "like a Conundrum Castle". Hence, he had turrets, gables and bits and pieces from various parts of Scotland including Edinburgh Castle that he purchased, rooms for arms and armor, no symmetry in the placement of the wings and an extraordinary library which is worth seeing. Apparently a number of the volumes are very rare and when Scott went bankrupt through no fault of his own, a deal was eventually made to save the library and the house for Scott's heirs if the library was kept in tact. The reason for Scott's bankruptcy was a banking crisis in the UK that hit his publisher and partner, Ballantyne and Scott, though not liable for the money, insisted on paying the debt which was one hundred and twenty-six thousand pounds. Scott then set to work and started to write to pay off these debts and he ruined his health in the process, dying at the age of sixty-one.

Scott had a wide circle of acquaintances including the enigmatic artist and furniture maker, George Bullock. Not that much is known about Bullock but his high style furniture continues to be collected and in demand. Stylistically, his work stands apart from the traditional Regency style English furniture being produced at the end of 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries--Bullock integrated Greek and Roman classicism quite successfully--there is a link to a cabinet in the MFA, Boston, below. Nevertheless, Scott ordered furniture from Bullock, most likely through Richard Bridgens. Whether or not Bridgens was responsible for the commission (he worked at Abbotsford from 1814-19) what is interesting about the work is that there are, as I mentioned last week, two levels of cabinetmaking at the house. The dining chairs are, I would emphasize, plain and simple. They do not catch the eye, but are fully up to the task of being dining chairs. On another level, there is a cabinet that is Bullock, top of the line furniture, made to be seen and commented on as Bullock was a flashy designer with brass inlay and beautiful timber selections in the making of his pieces. The consideration of money is surely what underlies these two levels and what was demanded by the clients and required of the cabinet shops to survive. I happen to have in my inventory a Bullock style piece, possibly by someone like Bridgens, that is demonstrative of the great popularity Bullock achieved in his short life--he died at age 41. (It is currently not illustrated, but I will link to it in a future blog.)

The age of the open checkbook (Like tailors, cabinetmakers were low on the list of getting paid by their wealthier clients) was over, although not entirely and I have two pieces in my inventory which come from a commission and are unique in the stylistic history of English furniture. If you  open the link to my website, you will see a desk and metamorphic table that have unique hardware (handles) not to mention the rope twist molding around the tops of both tables and, of course the very unusual legs, both of which relate to designs by Thomas Hope, an aesthete (who happened to be part Scottish) whose design work is rare and sought after, much like Bullock's. The rarity of commissions in the early 19th century cannot be emphasized enough. 

LINKS to information in this blog.  A Bullock cabinet.  Self explanatory.   A bit about Bullock.  The house site. A few photographs of the interior.  A fun read, not many interior photos.,_Scottish_Borders  A few interior shots. This is the website for interior shots at Abbotsford. The dining room chairs are here, but I don't see the cabinet.  This is my table that has the Thomas Hope handles. The legs are also reminiscent of sketches done by Hope, as well. It is en suite with the metamorphic table below. The metamorphic library table en suite with the writing table in the previous link.