An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 97

Clinton Howell Antiques - October 5, 2020 - Issue 97
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
The magnificence of Harewood House in North Yorkshire is easily seen in the movie, Downtown Abbey. It is an extraordinary estate with an interior designed by Robert Adam (1728-92), the house designed by John Carr( 1723-1807), the landscape by Lancelot "Capability" Brown (1715 or 16-1783) and the furniture by Thomas Chippendale (1718-79). This is about as famous a group of names you can have as the design team for one house. Furthermore, the interior was created when neo-classicism, that is Robert Adam's version of neo-classicism, was just taking off as the latest style. I recommend you look at the first link below to see just how crisp the look of the interiors (still) are. Adam was clearly on a winner with the Lascelles family who were remolding the landscape (by hand) under Brown's direction. The interior must have seemed like a piece of cake in comparison. 

The crispness of this "new" classicism by Adam is best evoked in Harewood although I might add that his work at Osterley Park in London is also redolent of the newness (the late 1750's) of the style as he had just returned from Italy and likely had many new ideas for interiors. If you look carefully at the photos of the mirrors in Harewood, you will see exceptional definition of the carving with a rather flat profile without the depth of the baroque, rococo, chinoiserie or Gothick styles. (I have added a link to Ronald Phillips Antiques who have in their inventory a mirror from Harewood House that shows the incredible detail of the new classical carving, particularly in the highly detailed swags that fall off the urn of the top--so different from carving of five years earlier.) It almost has a sense of caricature about it, a definitive breakaway from carving tropes such as the ho-ho bird pictured on this page. The three dimensional quality is almost wholly abandoned for profiles of urns, griffins, sphinxes or putti that feel less integral to the whole, sort of as if they were pasted on the frame after the fact. Carved swags of bellflowers are often used to connect the many elements on a mirror and this, like the ho-ho bird of the rococo style, becomes a trope along with vases and ribbons. I strongly recommend that when you get to the link below that you click until the image fills the screen so that you can see just how intricate the Adam interior really is.

The content (the moldings and trophies) of neo-classicism is not so different from the content of Palladianism. Strictly speaking, there is no Palladian furniture (it is an architectural term) although mirrors and a few other pieces may get described as either Palladian or Kentian (after William Kent 1685-1748). The repertoire of molding styles come from  classical Greece and Rome and were used in Palladian settings and then, once again, in neo-classical settings. When you have an object like a mirror frame, however, it is the frame that defines the style which in turn determines the scale of the moldings. Inevitably, carvers in the neo-classical style modified the scale of their moldings to fit the often rigid geometry, predominantly rectangles and ovals, of frames made in the neo-classical period. Furthermore, the frame became a kind of clothes horse to decorative detail such as the aforementioned putti, sphinxes, griffins, ribbons, urns as well as honey suckle, anthemions, palm leaves, paterae, lots of swags and rosettes. In Palladian times, the frame dominated the wall and the carving served as decoration to the frame, but with Adam's work, it was the decorative detail, not to mention the mirror plate and the desire to reflect as much light as possible, which superseded everything, not that the frames weren't imposing as they grew in size, probably due to greater availability of larger plates. Adam's work is quite remarkable and it is worth looking at--I have written about him in almost every blog and if you look at all of his houses, even on the internet, you will see that he was formulaic in his approach, but that every job evolves just a bit differently from the next. And yet within twenty years, Adam's neo-classicism would be snidely referred to by Horace Walpole as frippery and a new neo-classicism would emerge. Style marries no one, I might suggest. Interior shots of Harewood House. A mirror from Harewood at Ronald Phillips Antiques in London. Neo-classical chair from my inventory. Another neo-classical chair slightly later than the pair above---it has gotten curves and is getting sexy. The page on Robert Adam--the list of his work is there and one house he worked on was Paxton. I own a piece documented and illustrated (in Christopher Gilbert's book on Thomas Chippendale) from Paxton illustrated herewith,