An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 98

Clinton Howell Antiques - October 12, 2020 - Issue 98

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

I had the pleasure of attending, on my computer, the Annual Conference of the Furniture History Society on the weekend of October 3-4. If you think that I dive deeply into furniture, this group of lecturers, whose talks all related to George IV's interior design and re-design--he was an extraordinary spender with a capricious nature, often changing color schemes after a matter of weeks--these lecturers go to far greater depths than I explore. (I am a dealer, after all, not an academic.) One of the things that I concluded was that the top of the food chain, at least in the cabinetmaking world, had a sinecure if they worked for this Prince. Cost was never a problem, even though the Prince had to go hat in hand to his father, more than once, and his reckless expenditure became a subject in Parliament. The Prince was looked upon as the sire to the next generation, however, and it enabled him to work a monetary deal with his father to the tune of six hundred and thirty thousand pounds with the caveat that he had to marry Caroline of Brunswick, in spite his professed love and alleged marriage to the divorced Catholic, Mrs. Fitzherbert. The skepticism of and about the Prince, and later when he became King, by both Parliament and the people reached a fever pitch when George  was made King in 1820 and Caroline came to claim her title of Queen. The antipathy felt for the King, politically speaking ,reached its zenith at this point, but it did little for Caroline as her usefulness to the Whigs declined once the King was reined in. She died within a year of her return. The point is, as you might imagine, that a cabinetmaking firm with the Prince as a client could look forward to substantial paydays. 

The Prince was looking to be taken seriously from the moment he turned 21 in 1783. He needed a power base and so his one project or outlet was in creating his own home which became Carlton House (razed by the Prince, then King, in 1826). He worked with Henry Holland and started by emulating the stripped down classicism that came from France in the 1780's. But as time wore on and the French Revolution began to take a toll on French aristocracy, a new market opened up of great Parisian furniture being shucked by the French nobility who were more interested in saving their necks than their possessions. This was a turning point and it would have profound effects on the development of 19th century style. George saw value in the works created by and for Louis XIV, the last French monarch who truly knew how to achieve a stable France. It all seems a tad convoluted, but then the world communicated far more through tangible symbols than we do today. Or to put it more succinctly, today, anyone can have a Ferrari, but in those days, an early 18th century Boulle library case was extremely rare. (Still is, as a matter of fact.)

The most fascinating aspect of all of this, in my mind, is how the English cabinetmaking and metal working trade made extraordinary strides in emulating the work of their 18th century counterparts from France. Matthew Boulton had achieved a high status for his work in the last quarter of the 18th century, but his celebrity as a producer of ormolu (gilded brass or bronze) was almost unique in England. Indeed, the English had, for much of the 18th century, ordered specialty bronzes for the grandest of their designs from France. But with France in turmoil, British craftsmen took up the gauntlet and started producing high quality work. Rundell Bridge and Rundell is the firm that comes to mind when thinking of sensational gilded brass and, yes, they worked for the Prince. (They also made jewelry which surely caught the Prince's eye.)  They were so successful that they set up offices around the globe including in Baghdad, South America, Calcutta and other places. The influx of 18th century French furniture helped introduce the interest in "historical" styles. In other words, taste making had been placed in the hands of the ultra wealthy, foremost of whom was the Prince, and that taste was for selective aspects of the past, brass inlaid furniture, for example, or boulle work. It was also manifested in furniture inset with porcelain of semi-precious stones. The great mid-18th century mahogany furniture made by the top English cabinetmakers had, for all intents and purposes, been shunted aside. 

The Prince, however, was not just focused on one thing, I sense that he was never focused on one thing, save for Mrs. Fitzherbert. He also purchased and built himself a small French style villa in Brighton which, after the introduction of the architect, John Nash, became what is stylistically referred to as an Indo-Islamic building, replete with domes and not what you would expect in a coastal English town. The Brighton Pavilion is sensational in every aspect of the word and you can see, when you click the link below, that the decoration is effuse. Effusive in style, effusive in quantity and effusive in just plain being over the top with details that need to be seen to be completely understood. One of the lecturers on Sunday has studied the colors used in Brighton, another level of effusive that is over the top. It is hard not to think that the Prince just allowed things to get out of hand--a persuasive word from an architect and six months later, a bill for something that might never be noticed by the Prince. Even more difficult to comprehend is just how much this would have affected the main stream cabinetmaking industry, those that were making prosaic household furniture. To my way of thinking, it was a slide into furniture that relied less on originality and more on picking the right historical vibe to explore. A new kind of specialism was forthcoming from all of this and it changed the cabinetmaking industry to an extent that would not have been imaginable in the mid-18th century.

I want to recommend (highly) a book on the late 18th century titled, "Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire", by Amanda Foreman. I read it when it first came out in 1988 and, unlike many of the histories of the era, it had a lot of original research. The mores of the time period are shocking and the political partisanship is deeply disturbing. Georgiana may be the subject, but Charles Fox and William Pitt (Pitt the Younger) are heavily featured as is the Prince, of course, whose position as the fulcrum of power in Parliament was something he never quite seemed to grasp or even use to his benefit. Save for spending money.  The Prince's first architect. A short taste of Caroline's fated marriage.  A nice review of Rundell Bridge and Rundell  A blog with some good shots of Carlton House objects and furniture.  I suggest a visit, but this can get you started.