Posts tagged ‘Interior Decorators’

February 6, 2017

Thornton-Smith Antiques – ‘The Georgian House’.


‘The Georgian House’ – W.& E. Thornton-Smith. c.1910.

Following the very kind donation of antique dealer ephemera by Tim Turner at Sworders Auctioneers we thought we should compose a fuller account of our investigations of the catalogue of the antique dealers W.& E. Thornton-Smith.


Phillips of Hitchin, ‘The Georgian House’, catalogue, c.1920.

The catalogue is a type that was produced by many antique dealers during the early 20th century.  A key comparison is the catalogue produced by Amyas Phillips, of the firm of Phillips of Hitchin, who also produced a catalogue of stock titled ‘The Georgian House’ (this one c.1920).  The Thornton-Smith’s catalogue appears to date from c.1910, given the suggested information on the back of the catalogue (i.e. that Thornton-Smith had ‘New Premises’ at 11 Soho Square, London); they appeared to have moved to 11 Soho Square in c.1910.


Thornton-Smith catalogue, c.1910.

It must have been quite an extensive business; they state that they had ‘one of the largest stocks of English Antique Furniture in the country’ (but then, many dealers also suggested that at the time, and since). If we are to believe the information in the catalogue, they had 40 four-post beds in stock, all on show ‘in an historic Georgian House, decorated in the manner of that period.’


Thornton-Smith catalogue, c.1910.


Thornton-Smith catalogue, c.1910.

The catalogue also contains an extensive number of black & white photographs illustrating the range of stock held by Thornton-Smith in the period.

Walter George Thornton-Smith (d.1963) established his antique dealing business in c.1906, with Ernest Thornton-Smith. Like many antique furniture businesses at the time, Thornton-Smith also provided a full interior decoration service for their clients.  Indeed, such was the reputation of Thronton-Smith as decorators that they started the careers of two of the most well-known interior designers of the 20th century – Syrie Maugham (1879-1955), wife of the writer W. Somerset Maugham, and interior decorator par excellence during the 1920s and 1930s (famous for her interior schemes made entirely with shades of white) began her training with Walter Thornton-Smith in the early 1920s, before setting up ‘Syrie Limited’ at 85 Baker Street, London in 1922.  It seems that Thornton-Smith was introduced to Syrie when he was commissioned to decorate her home at York Terrace; she was at the time recovering from her recently failed marriage to the Industrialist Henry Wellcome (1853-1936).

The other key interior decorator associated with Thornton-Smith was John Fowler (1906-1977), of Colefax & Fowler, who briefly trained at Thornton-Smith in the late 1920s.

Thornton-Smith was a highly successful businessman and, like many dealers and collectors of antiques at the time, he also took a keen interest in ‘ancient buildings’. He developed a number of historic architectural projects, often recreating ‘historic homes’ by recycling architectural elements from demolished buildings.  One of the earliest of his projects was the dismantling and re-siting of a 16th century half-timbered building ‘Kingston Hill’, near Woodbridge in Suffolk (it’s not known where he re-sited the building?).  His major project however was Shoppenhangers Manor, Maidenhead, Berkshire.


Shoppenhangers Manor, Maidenhead, as seen in c.1950. Photograph from Apollo Magazine, August 1956.

Thornton-Smith bought the site of the original manor house at Shoppenhangers (the site had already been cleared of the remains of the original manor) in 1914 and set about recreating a 16th century manor house on the foundations of the original house.  The project seems to have taken 4 years to complete, and was assembled, recreated, using an astonishing range of architectural elements, from a wide geographical area, and made available through a variety of opportunities and events.  Painted glass from Selby Abbey, for example, made available following the major fire at Selby Abbey in 1906, was installed in the ‘Long Room’ at Shoppenhangers; there were ceilings from an ‘ancient inn at Banbury’, and panelling from an ‘old house’ at Faversham, as well as that ‘removed from a Venetian Palace’. Other materials apparently came from West Wycombe Park and from ‘an ancient house in Spain’.  One of the most important rooms in Shoppenhangers Manor, the ‘drawing room’ was lined with panelling from Billingbear Park, Wokingham.


Shoppenhangers Manor, the drawing room. Photograph from Apollo Magazine, August 1956.

It’s not actually clear how Thornton-Smith acquired the panelling from Billingbear Park – given that the house was still occupied until a devastating fire in 1924 (some 6 years after Thornton-Smith supposedly completed his house), but it may be that Billingbear Park was refurbished/remodelled sometime in the 1910s, or that Thornton-Smith acquired the panelling in 1924 and continued to construct his ‘new-old’ house? If you are interested in reading more about Thornton-Smith’s project at Shoppenhangers, it was the subject of a short essay by Horace Shipp, in Apollo Magazine in August 1956, pp.41-45 – ‘A Home and it’s Treasures, Shoppenhangers Manor and the Collection of Walter Thornton Smith’.  After Thornton-Smith died, Shoppenhangers Manor was sold to the Esso Petroleum Company in 1965, when there was also an auction sale of the contents; it was converted into an hotel in the late 1960s, and was eventually demolished in 2007.

Which brings us back to the Phillips of Hitchin ‘The Georgian House’ catalogue.  The antique dealers Frederick W. Phillips and Amyas Phillips have been the subject of earlier blog posts in the antique dealers blog (see Phillips of Hitchin posts), but one of the interesting aspects about the Phillips family business is also their architectural projects, which are in direct correlation with those of Walter Thornton-Smith (they must have known each other I’m sure!).  Phillips’ major project (one of many, that also included the dismantling and sale of the London home of Sir Isaac Newton in the 1910s) was the reconstruction of Baliffscourt in Sussex.


Baliffscourt, West Sussex. Wikicommons.

Amyas Phillips was engaged by Lord Moyne in 1927 to recreate a late Medieval manor house, and, like Thornton-Smith, he began assembling the ‘ancient manor house’ by scouring the country for historic architectural elements, creating a house that is a poem of romantic architectural fragments.

Whatever the real stories behind the provenance of the architectural elements that eventually made their way to these ‘new-old’ homes, these architectural projects illustrate the significance of the key roles that the antique trade played in these romantic recreations of the past, providing the perfect back-drop for the assemblage of antique furniture and objects that the dealers also supplied.


April 1, 2015

The semantics of the antique trade

One (just one) of the research objectives of the Antique Dealers project is to map, analyse and contextualise the changing language of description and classification used by the antique trade over the period 1900-2000 – and our interactive website (soon to be officially launched) will begin the process of tracking the huge variety of classifications and descriptions that reflect, as well as act as catalysts for, the specialist marketing practices deployed by, and developed by, the trade.  So, for example, some of the questions we are thinking about are when, and where, did antique dealers begin to call themselves ‘Old English Furniture Dealers’, and when/where did ‘antique furniture dealers’ emerge to be a dominant trade classification/description…or when/where did ‘Old Chelsea Porcelain’ emerge as a description deployed by antique dealers…or ‘Old Irish Glass’….?

The language of description and layering of classifications suggest subtle (and sometimes less so subtle) positioning within the complex collecting and classificatory structures of the antique markets over time.

Within the archives of the Metropolitan Museum are some interesting examples of the changing landscape of antique dealer descriptions –

french invoice 7.9.15 det

Invoice from French & Co, 1915, Box 37 Folder 40, Robert Lehman papers, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives.

Here, (above) in 1915, the well-known dealers, French & Co, describe themselves as selling ‘Antique Furniture and Tapestries of Guaranteed Authenticity’, and also list ‘Interior Decorators’ as a practice.  Later letterheads and invoices issued by French & Co., in the 1950s, for example, classify them as selling ‘Works of Art’.

By contrast, an invoice issued in 1952 by James A. Lewis & Son Inc., the American branch of the London antique dealers, indicated that they were ‘Specialists in Old English Furniture & Porcelains’ –

lewis inv 25.11.52 det

Invoice from James Lewis & Son, 1952, Box 38 Folder 15, Robert Lehman papers. The Metropolitan Museum Archives. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum Archives.

Whereas ‘Charles of London’ (Charles Duveen, we encountered in previous blog entries) described themselves as ‘Dealers in Antique & Decorative Works of Art’ in 1936 – (see below) –

charles inv 9.11.36

Invoice from Charles of London, 1936, Box 37 Folder 12, Robert Lehman papers. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum Archives.


And the specialist ceramics (as we might say today) dealer H.R. Hancock described themselves in an invoice of 1934 as dealers in ‘Old Chinese Porcelain, Furniture and Works of Art’ – (see below) –

hancock inv 9.10.34 det

Invoice, H.R. Hancock, 1934, Box 38 Folder 2, Robert Lehman papers. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum Archives.

An investigation of the framework of meanings behind these changes and shifts are a key part of the antique dealer research project.


August 21, 2014

The Architecture of the Trade – antique, second-hand, and reproduction furniture

A longer than usual Blog entry – but the issues are complex! – I recently visited Tyne & Wear archives (at the Discovery Museum in Newcastle) to have a look at the archive of an antique dealer named Robertson, trading in Newcastle in the 1960s and 1970s. Unfortunately we couldn’t find the archive! I did have a reference (1556) from the National Archives site (honest!) and it suggested that the archive was in Newcastle, but there’s no record of it at T&W archives – more digging is needed.

Anyway, I didn’t waste the day, I had a look at the archive of George Hobbs Limited, which dates from c.1921 up to 1967. Investigating the Hobbs archive has directed attention again to key issues we are dealing with in the research for the project – we’ve had endless discussions about this! And that is who/what we include in our ‘cultural geography’ of the antique trade. The main point here is that any history of the antique trade needs to address both the mutability of the term ‘antique’ (more on that in a future blog entry), and the hybridity of antique trade itself. Historically the ‘Antique Trade’ has involved a complex overlapping of practices and initiatives. Hobbs is a good case in point.

George Hobbs is not listed under ‘antique dealers’ in the trade directories in the period 1920s-1950s, but is firmly categorised under ‘Furniture Dealers’  or ‘Furniture Brokers’- in the period in question this would normally indicate that Hobbs was a ‘second-hand’ furniture dealer.  You’ll already see a key point here…when does ‘second-hand’ furniture become ‘antique’ – the notion is too complex to deal with here in a short blog entry, but it’s worth holding that thought for now.

What is interesting about the Hobbs archive though is how it illustrates how ‘trade directory’ classifications are themselves a meta-classificatory form, one that smooths out, elides and indeed often obscures the complex nature of antique trade.  The stock books of Hobbs clearly demonstrate this (to me anyway!) –  the early stock books of the firm (dating from 1930s) clearly show that the majority of the furniture that they sold was described as ‘antique’ – here’s a few examples:

‘Old Chippendale armchair’ which was listed as valued at £1.0.0. [this is pre-decimal currency] in January 1939. Again, there’s not space here to deal with the semantic field but it’s worth noting the descriptive term ‘Old’….

‘Antique Mah[ogany] Bow Chest’, which was bought for £7.0.0. [this is pre-decimal currency) in August 1944, and sold for £29.10.0 [they did quite well out of this transaction!] in September 1945.

‘Antique Mahogany DL [drop leaf] table’ which was bought at the auction house of Anderson & Garland in September 1944 for £3.5.0. and following some restoration costing £3.19.0, was sold in January 1945 for £22.0.0.

There are many more examples in the stock books in the 1930s and mid 1940s of the sales of ‘antique furniture’, alongside quite obvious ‘second-hand’ and household furniture – things such as ‘4ft Hair Mattress’ bought for £5.10.0. in May 1945, and sold later that same month for £8.5.0. What is striking is that by the early 1950s the stock books clearly indicate that the selling of ‘antique’ furniture by Hobbs was much less common and second-hand furniture seems to have become much more the main trading activity of the firm. There may, of course, be some very specific reasons for the gradual change in the trading activities, but the point is that all the while that Hobbs was selling ‘antiques’ the firm remained in the trade directories at least, as ‘furniture brokers’.

Searching for ‘Hobbs’ in the trade directories in the archives at the Discovery Museum also illustrates a, by now, familiar pattern of practices that form, morph into, the ‘antique trade’ (if you’ve read my Dictionary of 19th Century Antique & Curiosity Dealers (2009/2011) you’ll read about this formation – (sorry for the plug there…I still have some copies btw if you’re interested!…).

Anyway, the firm of ‘George Hobbs Limited’ was incorporated in 1925 (as ‘Cabinet Makers and House Furnishers’…yet another practice!) – they appear to begin with ‘James Hobbs’ listed as ‘Chair Manufacturer’ at 14 Pilgrim Street, Newcastle, in trade directories in 1874; James Hobbs is then listed as ‘Cabinetmaker’ in 1886, before a listing as ‘Furniture Broker’ in 1889, when his son, George Hobbs, was also listed at 88 Pilgrim Street, as ‘Furniture Dealer’.  George Hobbs continues to be listed in the trade directories in the early 1900s to the 1920s as ‘Furniture Broker’.

This ‘problem’ in terms of classification is helpful though, as it directs attention to the complex nature of the history of the antique trade. Indeed, here’s another example to reinforce (and complicate) the point – it’s also an opportunity to show some photographs of another archive that I recently acquired, and that will be a useful resource for the research project of course!

The archive is from the firm of W.W. Hawkins, St. Michaels Tudor Works, Bond Street, Ipswich, Suffolk, and is composed of a number of albums of photographs and working drawings of furniture designs, and dates from c.1917 to to c.1960. Hawkins supplied ‘handmade, hand-carved’ reproduction furniture – the ‘Furniture of Old England’ as the livery on their vans indicated:


W.W. Hawkins delivery van, c.1950.


Reproduction furniture made by W.W. Hawkins c.1950.

And here’s an example of the kind of oak furniture (sometimes described as ‘Jacobethan’) – for those that are interested, the descriptions, left to right, are: ‘Tallboy, £34.19.0; Dressing Table £22.7.0.; Mirror £14.13.0. Stool £4.6.0.; 5ft Wardrobe £72.3.6.; 4ft Wardrobe £37.10.0.’


Design for a chair: W.W. Hawkins – design dated 1953.

Here’s also a design for a late 17th century style armchair. The archive is a fascinating insight into the fashion for reproduction antique furniture in the period.

I can’t categorically say that Hawkins sold ‘antique’ furniture as well as manufacturing reproduction antique furniture, but one of the photograph albums certainly appears to have illustrations of genuine antique furniture – they may have been models for the craftsworkers at Hawkins of course – this example (below) is one of a number of pieces in an album dated c.1917-1927 that appear to be genuine examples.



But even if Hawkins did not actually retail antique furniture there are plenty of examples of ‘antique furniture manufacturer’s’ also selling genuine antique furniture alongside the practice of furniture making, and, as I’ve suggested above, this was a practice through which the ‘antique trade’ as we now understand it, emerged. There are many other hybrid forms of course, ‘Interior Decorators’ is just one that automatically comes to mind, and part of the objectives of the present research project is to ‘unpack’ (as we say in academia!) these complex practices….


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