The Return of English Country Style
By Scott Baldinger
Do you want to live like Lord Grantham? Well you can, and not a moment too soon; leave it to the hit PBS series Downton Abbey, notable for its exquisite settings and costumes, to rekindle interest in the English country- house lifestyle. The unspoken but clearly evident motif in the show is the pride the English took in the furnishings and accoutrements of country life, whether it was deeply embedded in the landed aristocracy with origins deep in post-Conquest lineage, or the burgeoning industrial magnates of the nineteenth century who wanted to follow their lead in every way possible. And no wonder: During the late 18th and throughout most of the 19th century, it was the country estate that embraced, as Geoffrey Beard, the author of The National Trust Book of English Furniture, wrote, an all-encompassing decorative art style that sought “to harmonize architecture, decoration and furniture, and to achieve an effect of dignified simplicity,” leading to the creation of works of craftsmanship that have an undeniable appeal to this day.
The auction of English, Continental & American Furniture, Fine Art and Decorations at Stair Galleries on June 28th presents an opportunity to buy some English Country House lifestyle for your Hudson Valley Country house. “The market is off by 70 percent” according to Colin Stair, whose family has been in the English antique business for just over a century, and has seen the ebbs and flows of this ever changing market. “It’s an exceptionally good time to buy right now, I don’t know how long this will last.”
Works in the sale highlight the remarkable craftsmanship of the work produced during the lengthy range of George III and the Regency period, both styles being notable reactions to the preceding rage for Rococo and characterized by an emphasis on greater aesthetic simplicity and functionality. Lot 473, a rare Regency mechanical desk available at the sale, is a fine example of the artisanship shown by these furniture makers. A period masterpiece that reveals the highest standards of craftsmanship, it could be thought of as an antique “laptop,” with its own protected passwords (through intricate nobs and levers that only the owner could operate) and built-in ink wells. It was an expensive piece of furniture, something that someone of great wealth would own at that time. Of more simple yet elegant utility is a George III mahogany breakfront bookcase (Lot 464); a Beau Brummell gentleman’s dressing table fitted with a mirror and numerous covered compartments (Lot 477); and an 1830 Wellington double chest, probably used by a collector of silver, coins and metals (Lot 488). Though high in style and quality, this furniture has become very affordable at auction, in some cases less expensive than buying a new, machine-made piece from a catalogue.
The pride the English took in the quality of their everyday objects can be seen in the workmanship and design of pieces that would have been used by servants. An example is an early Victorian Regency carved hall bench (Lot 487) and a George III inlaid mahogany serpentine-front chest of drawers, Lot 447, with its own pullout brushing slide, used for toiletries, brushing clothes, laying out cuff links and the like. It is a useful piece of furniture with fine period details but also of handy utility to a manservant striving to dress his master to perfection.
Rural life in the English countryside was a popular subject for artists of the time, particularly if there was a horse in the picture as in Lot 218, Richard Barrett Davis’s painting The Donnybrook Horse Fair, and Lot 219, Benjamin Cam Norton’s A Bay Racehorse in Loose Box demonstrate. At the time, Americans who had obtained a high status in society looked to the English landed gentry for their decorative and artistic tastes; while in England the lord of the manor would often be painted on his horse, in America, with nary a lord in sight, perhaps the closest thing that would not seem too presumptuous was Lot 217, John Chester Matthew’s Major Brown’s Racehorse, The Primate, With Jockey Up.
All are available at the sale, and all are great things to invest in for your own country home, whether it’s a bustling estate or a far more modest retreat from the madness of the modern day.