We are delighted to share our forthcoming summer exhibition, Great Provenances: Exceptional Antiques from Notable Collections, running at our St. James’s gallery from the 25th of June to the 13th of July.
This exhibition is a perfect introduction to English antique furniture for anyone curious about heritage, patronage, and legacy in the arts. Each piece in the exhibition can be traced back hundreds of years—in most cases, to its original owner and original house. These pieces of furniture were some of the most treasured pieces in the house, often surpassing the paintings, silver, and jewellery in expense and importance. In grand country houses and palaces of the 17th and 18th century, the state bed often took the crown as the most expensive item in the interior. Several of the pieces in the exhibition were commissioned to celebrate important milestones, including accession to the family title and marriages.
The history of furniture and works of art does not stop with the original owner: the way the piece travels through different collections over time also tells a story that can be just as fascinating and revealing.
The market for antique furniture is defined by of the central characteristics of English design history: furniture makers of the time rarely signed their work. Antique dealers and furniture historians rely on stylistic elements and other qualitative measures to attribute furniture to a specific maker. Where original bills from cabinetmakers survive in family archives, definitive attributions can be made: however the survival of these bills is a rarity.
We are approaching the furniture and works of art in this exhibition from a different direction. We are focusing on the patrons and collectors who originally commissioned and acquired these magnificent pieces for their collections. In some cases, we know the cabinetmaker who the patron commissioned for the work and in other cases we have relied on stylistic evidence and other related pieces from the same collection to make an attribution. For one piece, we are delighted to present a new attribution for the first time based on recent archival research.
The discussion around themes of heritage and legacy has captured contemporary interest in recent months. The conversation around Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi often circled back to the fact that Charles II had previously owned what is now the most expensive painting in the world. This provenance provided a historical anchor for the painting, which added to its elusive intrigue and spectacle. The recent blockbuster sale of the Rockefeller collection drew modern collectors in droves to the saleroom hoping to acquire a piece of history.
The market for antique furniture is burgeoning with a focus on pieces that are beautifully designed, of course, but also ones that have that extra intangible value. Provenance embodies everything that this current market stands for: an appetite for history, a connection to the past, and a colourful story to ground a work within its cultural moment.
Perhaps the watchmaker Patek Philippe said it best in its iconic advertisting campaign, first launched twenty years ago: ‘You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.’
Once the exhibition opens on the 25th of June, we will be highlighting a piece from the exhibition each day with detailed information on its history, design, and cultural significance.