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Antiques And Their Historical Background



To many people the historical associations of an antique are as fascinating as the object itself. It is an absorbing pleasure, especially on a dismal wet Sunday in winter, to reflect on the origins and history of your latest acquisition and on its possible owners and their way of life.

For instance, I have a grandfather clock (Long-Case is the proper term) which came into my possession about five years ago. With a fine brass-spandrelled arch-dial and a lovely walnut-veneer case, it probably dates from around 1720-1730. At the same time I purchased a pair of fine eighteenth-century prints of about the same period, and as I look at them it is a source of never-ending pleasure to contemplate the tide of history that has flowed by since they were first sent into the world. Bonnie Prince Charlie was a child in Rome when they started their career in the houses and sale-rooms of England; the days and nights that have passed over them have witnessed the splendours of the Court of Louis XV and the tumbrils of 1793, the piles of French corpses in the Russian snows as the Grand Armee made its ruinous retreat from Moscow, the Coronation of the Princess Victoria, the Siege of Paris, the building of the Eiffel Tower, the growth of modern New York, the antics of Rasputin and the rise and fall of Hitlerism.

It is the same with all antiques; they possess this link with the remote, often the remote in both space and time. If you are lucky enough to possess any genuine old Chinese porcelain (K'ang Hsi, dating from 1662-1722, is quite old enough) you have something which springs from a way of life as remote from present day standards as if it were that of another planet. An antique vase from Japan is a link with the strangely beautiful world of Japanese No Drama and the civilisation of the Samurais. A piece of ancient Indian ivory connects your room with the rose-red streets of old Jaipur or the splendid snowclad peaks and lakeside cities of Kashmir.

Even a nineteenth-century French clock, of the kind which can still be purchased easily in the sale-rooms for $18 to $20, will have its interesting historical associations, especially if it bears a Paris mark. Beautiful specimens, some with glass domes, some without, are constantly cropping up and if you are prepared to pay up to $60 for them you can often find really lovely timepieces, enriched with charming painted porcelain panels and delicately enamelled dials.

Most of these fascinating objects will have emanated from the Paris of the Second Empire. They come from the world that saw the greatest Theatre in Europe, the Grand Opera, rise in all its golden-mirrored and glittering glory, that had the composers of `Faust' and `Carmen' walking about its streets, that knew the gaieties of Offenbach's `Bouffes Parisiennes' and the enchanting melodies of `Les Cloches de Corneville.' A world, in fact, which revelled in a redplush and gilt luxury of living which has apparently gone for ever.

This was the world in which many of the great collectors of the past grew up, and we can only marvel rather enviously now at the wonderful opportunities many of them enjoyed. There can, we feel, have been few human pleasures more delightful than amassing, say, a collection of the finest French furniture and objets d'art as was done to perfection by the Marquess of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace in the nineteenth century, now enshrined for all time in the Wallace Collection in London. This sumptuous treasure house is much more than a mere museum; it is French history crystallised into clocks and porcelain and paintings and cabinets, a supreme example of history made lovely and available in all its splendour for everyone now to enjoy. But the massing of treasures in this way is given to few men, and even they must have exceptional opportunities. No millionaire alive today, however keen his historical sense, could possibly build up such a collection now, for the originators of the Wallace had opportunity as well as money on their side.

As for the modest collector of modern times, he must be content with the smaller coin of the antiques world. Even a single piece of anything approximating the Wallace standards will fetch thousands of dollars in the great salerooms. Neither the magnificence of the Louis XV Sevres vases nor the perfection of the Marie Antoinette clocks and cabinets and candelabra in the Wallace Museum can possibly come within the ken of the collector of ordinary means.

But now that History is being seen more and more as a vast drama with not merely hundreds but millions of actors in it, the scope of possibility for the historically minded antique collector is constantly growing. And besides this increase of interest in the furniture and bibelots of the lesser individuals of the past there is now opened up for collecting a whole new period, that of the nineteenth century.

This is one of the biggest treasure houses imaginable, especially in `Victoriana.' Until recently, the Victorian Age was too close to us to be of deep interest as a `historical period,' and even now there is a certain prejudice against anything made after 183o, at least in some of the more exclusive antique-collecting circles. For this date, 1830, is usually considered to be the dividing line between the end of the great tradition of craftsmanship which came to a superb climax in the reign of Louis XV, afterwards suffering a gradual diminuendo, and the beginning of the machinemade products of Victorian times.

But recently there has been a strong impetus of interest in what is generally called Victoriana. The term is only partly satisfactory since a vast field for collectors lies in other nineteenth-century lands than Britain which are not strictly `Victorian' at all. Still, the Great Queen did, in her later years, come to be considered as `the Grandmother of Europe,' and it is fitting that her name should be used in an attempt to find a general term for all objects made during her reign.

The collecting opportunities for anyone deeply interested in the history of Europe from about 1830 to igoo are tremendous indeed. In spite of the growing army of collectors in all fields the mine is seemingly inexhaustible. So much was produced, such vast quantities of chairs and sofas, porcelain, mirrors, clocks, majolica, jardinieres, gilt-framed pictures and prints, paperweights, whatnots, Wolverhampton papiermache trays, decorative oil-lamps and elaborate epergnes. There is also the big domain of Victorian silver and jewellery waiting to be explored. Here is indeed a royal abundance which should last out the Collectors' Siege for a very long time.

THE EXPENSE OF ANTIQUE COLLECTING

Generally speaking, the further back your historical tastes lead you the more expensive your Antiques are likely to be, but this is far from true in certain fields. If you want high quality French furniture and objets d'art the top-price period is the eighteenth century, not any earlier epoch. If you collect silver you will find that the best Georgian silver is also among the highest-priced, though not the oldest. And, if European porcelain or long case clocks particularly attract you, there are in any case no specimens of any very great age since none were made earlier than three hundred years ago.

But it is true to say that there are many fields where collectors' items will be more expensive according to their age. Fine Chinese antiques especially, porcelains and jades and ivories, will, if they come from the earlier periods, be extremely expensive. More recent specimens can be acquired with greater ease, though even these are steadily going up in price. And if you are interested in book and manuscript collecting you will find that very early printed books and mediaeval manuscripts are most keenly sought after and the prices rise accordingly.

Again, suppose you are interested in the history of Russia and wish to commence a collection of antiques with a Muscovite flavour. This will hardly be easy, in any case, but early Russian antiques, if they ever appear at all in the sale-rooms, are likely to fetch very high prices indeed. You would find a collection of, say, `Victorian' or `Edwardian' Russian simpler to make, though certainly far from simple owing to the peculiar nature of Russian history. The superb examples of jewellery for which Faberge has become famous are, of course, beyond the reach of the modest collector. But they are, at least for those with the means to buy them, easier to obtain than any of the earlier Antiques of Russia.

HISTORY IN COUNTRY HOUSE COLLECTIONS

A keen interest in the history behind antiques can always be enhanced and gratified by visits to the many historical Houses, Castles and Museums now open to the public. England is specially rich in these and a full descriptive and illustrated Guide to them is annually available. The buildings are in most cases themselves marvellous architectural antiques while the opportunities they afford inside for the collector to learn are boundless.

Their treasures are usually on a scale and of a quality beyond the reach of the average visitor, but not always. A delightful small Queen Anne manor house, such as Belgrave Hall at Leicester, will give exquisite and intimate domestic glimpses of eighteenth-century furnishings which the collector might well aspire to emulate in his own home. At all events, it will give an insight into the perfection which it is possible to achieve in limited surroundings.

The entrancing needlework chairs, the superb antique embroidered bedcover, the lovely Chinoiserie long case clock in the hall and the charming cabinets and paintings are all displayed at Belgrave in the restricted compass of a few rooms. Coming to the house, which suggests a large Queen Anne rectory, from the bustle of the surrounding city, is a delicious and sudden step back in time. It is a reminder of the beauty that lay in the lesser masterpieces of our forefathers just as much as in the Castle Howards and Blenheim Palaces and Royal Pavilions.

But quite apart from what you may seek to emulate in your own home, it is undoubtedly one of the supreme joys to see the famous collections in the magnificent settings of the great Castles and Palaces. A superb Sevres vase or a Titian or a Rembrandt has its glory enhanced by a splendid background of damasked walls and gilded ceilings, sumptuously wrought staircases and panelled halls. A fine Louis XV serpentine and ormolu-mounted commode will enchant the senses more when framed by a towering and richly curtained eighteenth-century window. Especially if it gives on to a limitless vista of emerald lawns and distant misty elms and far-off wooded hills enclosing the whole domain.

As for mediaeval antiques, they absolutely cry aloud for the setting of castellated abbey or moated grange. For this reason they are far less suitable for the modest private collector than pieces of a later and more `domestic' date, quite apart from the difficulty of getting them. I always feel that the collection of armour at the Wallace Museum, splendid as it is, strikes a jarring note in that otherwise perfect place. It looks strangely ill at ease among that sumptuous assembly of Watteaus and Fragonards and elegant escritoires and Pompadour enchantments which recall the more purely domestic civilisation of a later day.

Many of the famous houses of England preserve their wellauthenticated traditions of historical association with actual objects. The beds which Queen Elizabeth I slept in are, no doubt, legion, and should be viewed with reserve. But there is a wide field of interest to be explored in the other treasures of dozens of them, Hatfield House or Burghley, for instance. Hatfield includes, besides an overwhelming collection of general antiques, some most interesting personal relics of Queen Elizabeth, such as her openwork garden hat, silk stockings and gloves, and the remarkable illuminated parchment tracing her pedigree back to Adam. There is also the exquisite crystal and gold-mounted posset set ornamented with jewels and enamel which has been attributed to Benvenuto Cellini; it was the Spanish Ambassador's betrothal gift to Philip of Spain and Queen Mary.

Other antiques of historical interest at Hatfield are the plaster statue of King James I in the great Drawing-Room, presented by the King himself; the cradle of Charles I with the initials of his mother, Anne of Denmark, and the famous Rainbow Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I by Zuccharo. At Burghley there are other relics and associations with Elizabeth, including one of her skirts, and a splendid fourposter bed which has a better claim than most to have been the one actually used by the Queen. From the window of this bedroom the lime tree planted by her can still be seen, and in the Pagoda Room is a fine portrait of her by Marc Gheeraedts.

History, however, is as much a matter of recent times as of the more picturesque centuries of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. For those interested in the Victorian period the great houses of England provide an Aladdin's Cave indeed.

One of the most fascinating of Victorian mansions is undoubtedly Waddesdon Manor, near Aylesbury. This beautiful replica of a French Chateau was constructed by Hippolyte Destailleur for the Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, was afterwards bequeathed to the National Trust, and is now open to all. Inside is an astounding collection of French eighteenth-century decorative objects, including paintings, Savonnerie carpets and Sevres porcelain. It provides, like the Wallace Museum, an insight into what it was possible for a wealthy Victorian with eighteenth-century tastes to amass in one house.

At Hughenden Manor, near High Wycombe, may be seen a good example of a Victorian country gentleman's residence. It contains some furnishings left exactly as they were at the time of the death of Disraeli, who was for a number of years its owner. And perhaps for Victorian enthusiasts the most fascinating house of all will be Osborne, in the Isle of Wight, where the rooms as lived in by Queen Victoria herself can still be seen, virtually undisturbed.

Finally, to come right up to the history made by our own century, there is the poignant collection of mementoes of the Russian Imperial Family at Luton Hoo. This includes some superb specimens of Faberge jewellery which indeed merit the overworked modern epithet fabulous. They are among the most wonderful objects ever produced by the hand of man, and their dramatic associations with the last chapter of Tsarist history must always make them doubly interesting, both to the student and the connoisseur.

PAINTINGS IN COUNTRY HOUSES

One of the greatest glories of the English Country Houses is the assemblage of paintings that adorn their walls. For any antique lover whose main interest is pictures it would be impossible to imagine a more delightful holiday than a tour round some of these. In the course of such a tour he will see a good deal of the history of England and Europe actually portrayed in the pictures. A good example of this is in the paintings at Castle Ashby and Althorp of the Duke of Buckingham after his assassination by Felton, the Puritan fanatic, at Portsmouth in 1628. Pictures like these will be frequently encountered, as well as a galaxy of more sober but none the less wonderful portraits, such as the Vandyck Charles I at Althorp and the `Armada' painting of Elizabeth at Woburn.

But perhaps even more remarkable is the superb way in which the English country house collections illustrate the history of painting itself. Many of the great collections were started in the eighteenth century, and they naturally reflect the tastes of the time. Claude, Poussin and Salvator Rosa examples will often be found, and in collections of the second half of the century there is usually a fine assemblage of portraits. English portrait painters, particularly Reynolds and Gainsborough, are most lavishly represented, a lovely specimen of the former being the picture of Georgiana, Countess Spencer, and her daughter at Althorp.

Many splendid European paintings had, of course, already been bought by the wealthy connoisseurs before the end of the eighteenth century. But the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars saw an enormous increase in the number available to English buyers. It was the wholesale removal of paintings to England, as well as of wonderful specimens of French aristocratic furnishings, that helps to explain why so many English houses are rich in them.

CONCLUSION

Thus, anyone with a special interest in the history interwoven into antiques can find two absorbing outlets for his passion. There is, first, the intense personal interest which he can take in building his own private collection. If he is modest in his expectations, and does not anticipate Rembrandts or fine Louis XV cabinets or pieces of Sevres that belonged to Madame Pompadour he can have a great deal of pleasure for a quite small outlay.

Certainly anyone prepared to spend up to, say, three thousand dollars on a collection can, with careful planning, still do very well. Even a thousand will produce some lovely objects, such as an assemblage of French clocks and the less expensive kinds of porcelain. There is no need whatever to be depressed by the astronomical prices constantly recorded in the great sale-rooms of London and elsewhere. Because a single French commode or a single Flemish painting has fetched more money than you are ever likely to have available for your entire collection need not distress you.

Moreover, the history of the sale-rooms is full of examples of objects which were originally sold for a few dollars and are now commanding enormous figures. Fashion has much to do with the control of prices, in antiques as well as other things. Those who bought Victoriana some years ago when the fashion was against them were able to do splendidly on very small sums. Similarly, there is now a great field of possibility awaiting in Edwardiana, which has not yet attained fashionable status in the collectors' world, for you can see beautiful Edwardian furniture and objets d'art going sometimes for next to nothing at House Sales.

The wise collector should in fact be adventurous, while not aiming at impossibilities. He should buy what he can find which is good of its kind, and pay no heed whatever to the dictates of fashion which only force prices up artificially.

The second outlet for the historically-minded collector is, as we have seen, in the great wealth of antiques awaiting study in the Houses and Museums open to the public. In some of these there are special Connoisseurs Days when, by paying a little more, you can enjoy the house in almost complete privacy. In any case, if you avoid the obvious rush times of summer week-ends and Bank Holidays, it is usually possible to see the treasures of England's houses in small and quiet parties. At one I visited recently, on a Thursday, there were only four in the group. Moreover, most of the houses now have refreshment facilities, sometimes in very beautiful rooms which themselves contain fine gilt mirrors or other antiques.

Finally, in considering antiques as part of history, we can often use them as a yardstick by which to measure much which is offered to us at the present. Many of the so-called objets d'art and pictures which are part of the `contemporary trend' will seem very poor things indeed to the man or woman who has developed a real sense of craftsmanship and beauty through an acquaintance with the marvellous works of the past.