Going Wilde

Barry Harwood Living with Antiques

The dining room is the largest room in the house and continues to function as the center for socializing. The relatively high ceilings with no cornice molding and the tall windows are indicative of the 1870s date of the house. Most of the furniture is ebonized and reflects the influence of Japanese lacquer work. The walls are papered with “Fruit,” one of William Morris’s first designs. The rare brass and copper chandelier is by William Benson, one of the first English designers to develop a modern vocabulary for electric lighting. The rectangular hanging cabinet was made in New York by Kimbel and Cabus about 1880 and is an early sophisticated American response to the new reform-minded English modern Gothic style. All photographs by Peter Aaron.

When I was a child growing up in New York we would visit museums and I was enchanted with period rooms. I thought the Venetian bedroom at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was particularly evocative; I daydreamed and thought “I wouldn’t mind living in there!” My career in the decorative arts led me to the Brooklyn Museum over thirty years ago. The amazing suite of period rooms at Brooklyn has occupied me ever since; I have striven over the years to make them more archeologically accurate and admittedly have had to rein in my tendency for excess. When my husband Joseph and I purchased our little “Victorian” getaway in Columbia County along the Hudson River thirty-three years ago, I knew my dream to live in a period room might be realized. I fully intended that the interior would be true to the 1870s date of the house, but knew some self-indulgence in my decorating choices would go unfettered. I almost immediately began to order the reproduction wallpapers, and therefore the themes and color schemes of each room were set early on. The accumulation of all the furniture and objects occupied us for the next three decades. Working within a limited budget, we scoured small antique shops and the obvious flea markets from Farmington, Bouckville, and Brimfield to the Alameda flea market in California. Trips to London always included the great antiques markets, and then excursions to country houses for decorating inspiration. Houses such as Edward Linley Sambourne’s and Frederic Leighton’s, in London, as well as Cragside and Wightwick Manor in the country were revelations.

When the house was built in the 1870s, forced air heating systems were new and the house therefore had fake mantels in the parlor and dining room. Early on we added a functional fireplace. Its narrow proportions, however, were a real decorating challenge and for years the bare bricks of the hearth were exposed. Amazingly, we discovered a period ebonized overmantel mirror in pristine condition that fit precisely into the odd space; the mantel shelf, lower frame, and marble surround were designed anew. The American needlepoint lambrequin is an amazing survival from the last quarter of the nineteenth century. On the mantel, a pair of unusual Doulton Lambeth kerosene lamps decorated by Hannah Barlow and a pair of black Chinese cloisonné vases decorated with butterflies flank a Cincinnati-made ebonized clock. American-made brass fire tools, fender, and screen complete the ensemble.

The 1870s and 1880s has always been the period in the United States that most fascinated me. It was the moment when our country began to take on many of the characteristics, good and not so good, that were to characterize it at home and abroad in the modern period. It was a time of great change due largely to industrialization. As trade and commerce increased, Westerners were exposed to exotic cultures and a mania for Asian things ensued. This new interest in non-Western cultures was a characteristic of the aesthetic movement. It melded with the nascent arts and craft movement begun by William Morris, who lauded the virtue and dignity of the medieval craftsman. Simultaneously the machine, the very means of production, began to influence not only how things were made, but also how they appeared—the machine aesthetic. A preference for simpler design, less artifice, and more awareness of materials led to design reform and the seeds of our modern taste for abstraction were planted. In spite of the dense two-dimensional decoration and sometimes outré color schemes of the period, a strong sense of order and rectilinearity in design began to emerge.

The decoration of the parlor is the most eclectic in the house and includes modern Gothic, aesthetic movement, and Renaissance revival designs. The walls are papered with one of Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin’s designs for the Houses of Parliament—a juxtaposition of the English rose, Irish shamrock, and Scottish thistle that alludes to the United Kingdom. The hexagonal shape of the new, “starry” oculus in the ceiling echoes that of the 1880s Gothic revival French chandelier, made of gilt metal with enamel decoration and cranberry glass. The seating is upholstered with modern hand-printed Renaissance-inspired silk velvet made in Venice by Emma Gaggia, and the cotton curtains are metallic-printed in the “Granada” pattern by Fortuny, also from Venice. The pier mirror is a large, very good example of an American gilded molded-gesso frame. The tufted leather sofa and Chinese-made Aubusson-style carpet are new.

For every successful period room interpretation, the curator has to invent a backstory for those who lived there. In the case of our home—which, when myriad little repair needs emerged soon after its purchase, we christened “Thornside”—the imagined first owners had several experiences that shaped the interior of their newly built house. In 1876, they traveled to Philadelphia to visit the Centennial Exhibition and were exposed to aesthetic movement designs and to the new recently imported from England. And then they made the Grand Tour. In England they discovered Augustus Pugin, William Morris, and high-styled Anglo-Japanesque ceramics. In Italy they were entranced by the classical Roman past, the Florentine Renaissance, and the magic of Venice. All of these influences are manifested in the decoration of Thornside.

We call the parlor the room of the five Virgins and fifteen angels. As more and more travelers made the European grand tour, the souvenir business grew, especially in Italy. The parlor is hung with many of these Italian souvenirs including hand-tinted topographical photographs of Venice, to the right; chromolithographs of Fra Angelico angels; and, ceramic reproductions of, in particular, sixteenth-century plaques and statuettes by the della Robbia family. The best of these della Robbia reproductions, including the winged cherub plaque above the cabinet and the bust of a boy on the table at the left, were made by the Cantagalli firm in Florence beginning in 1878. The cabinet is piled with high-style English porcelains in the aesthetic taste by Royal Worcester, Minton, Moorcroft, Doulton Lambeth, Coalport, and William Brownfield and Sons. The slipper chair to the right is a very fine Chinese-inspired design by Mitchell and Rammelsberg of Cincinnati.

Although Joseph and I sanded and painted much woodwork, a small group of inspired local artisans made major contributions: Craig Dick was our master of wallpapering; Greg Blum, our mason, laid the encaustic tiles in the entryway and built the fireplace; upholsterers Larry Marshall and Robert Gumnitz returned nineteenth-century chairs to their original, indulgent glory; Mitchell Motsinger, our gifted sewer, recut old curtains and made others anew; and, furniture designer-maker Peter Superti did everything from re-carving missing finials to rewiring and hanging historical lighting. They all entered into the spirit of the project and became devotees of late nineteenth-century design. In a similar manner, a small coterie of dealers we have known for many decades and are dedicated to the period, offered us fabulous furniture and objects: Michael Whiteway, Paul Reeve, David Petrovsky, Andrew Van Styn, Eric Silver, Helen Hersh, and the late Robert Tuggle.

The decorating of Thornside has been a long and wonderful journey; finally I am living in my own suite of period rooms!

During the 1870s and 1880s, wall treatments were often tripartite and consisted of a dado below, large central fill area, and a frieze. Here the dado is a metallic bronze–painted pressed linoleum called Lincrusta. Introduced by Frederick Walton in 1877, Lincrusta is made of a paste of linseed oil and pulverized wood applied to a paper base. Above the dado is a beautiful, large-scale Cantagalli Adoration of the Child, after a c. 1477 work by Andrea della Robbia. The large two-handled vase to the left with an iridescent glaze is also by Cantagalli and imitates Italian Renaissance majolica. The side chair is a patented design by Charles Tisch of New York and the brass table to the left is by Charles Parker of Meriden, Connecticut.
My intention in the entryway was to introduce the visitor right away to the complex scheme of pattern-on-pattern that characterizes late nineteenth-century taste in interior design. The original mahogany bannister miraculously survived. The walls are papered in William Morris’s “Willow” custom colored in metallic gold, and the Lincrusta dado on the staircase is metallic silver. The frieze and ceiling are modern papers based on period aesthetic movement motifs. Modern encaustic tiles are set in the floor, and a rare pair of George Jacob Hunzinger gilded side chairs flanks a Hunzinger pedestal. In the corner is a 1886 John Rogers painted plaster figural group entitled the “Phrenology at the Fancy Ball” that can be interpreted as an illustration of the racially charged social turmoil caused by immigration at the time and that eerily continues to echo today.
Nineteenth-century families with an artistic bent often had a statuary room. The sculptures in such rooms of the upper classes were made of marble and bronze. For strivers, however, the works would have been made of unglazed porcelain, often called Parian ware after pieces made by the English firm Copeland and Garrett beginning in the 1840s. Parian figures were often small replicas of famous ancient statues, such as the small bust on the right derived from the Apollo Belvedere in Rome, or reductions of famous contemporary figures such as the Finding of Moses in the center, sculpted by William Beattie and made by Wedgwood. The wallpaper is a modern interpretation of neo-Grec designs, popularized during the Second Empire in France, by English architects George and Maurice Audsley. The ceiling light is another rare design by William Benson.
This is perhaps my favorite room. The aesthetic movement style is shown here to a greater unified effect than elsewhere is the house. The walls are papered with Morris’s “Bird and Anemone” and the ceiling with a modern version of his “Borage.” The frieze is composed of reproductions of scenes from Hiroshige’s One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, published between 1856 and 1859. It was inspired by a similar usage in a bedroom photographed for Artistic Houses (1883–1884), a book that showcases rooms of the Gilded Age. The assembled suite of furniture is made of maple carved to resemble bamboo. R. J. Horner and Company of New York was the most famous maker of this style of furniture and probably made the mirrored dresser, not shown. The bed, however, is labeled “Paine Furniture Company, Boston,” and attests to the popularity of this appealing style. Faux bamboo was most often used in women’s bedrooms. The picture frames originally were made for mirrors; the one over the bed is labeled “Toute’s, Rouen, France,” suggesting the international popularity of faux bamboo.
William Morris dominates the master bedroom. On the walls is “Compton,” an 1896 paper from Morris & Company. Morris died that year and the design might be his last; or it might be by his protégé John Henry Dearle; or a joint effort. The floor is carpeted with Morris’s “Lily” pattern. The curtains and bedcover are hand-stitched crewel embroidery, which has a long tradition in English interiors dating back at least to the seventeenth century. Morris would have approved; he greatly admired old crewelwork, which directly influenced his own early attempts at needlework. The bedstead in the modern Gothic style was probably made in Philadelphia in the shadow of Frank Furness and Daniel Pabst. The two bedside tables are inspired by a famous design of the English furniture maker Edward William Godwin, a champion of the aesthetic movement style. The chandelier and two mirrors—on the chest of drawers and to the right of the bed—are other examples of American brass designs made in and around Meriden, Connecticut.
The dresser with mirror is one of the more important pieces of furniture in the house. It was part of a bedroom suite made by Herter Brothers about 1880, and I got it for my sixtieth birthday. This is a form that Herter repeated often. The restrained use of marquetry suggests that this example was part of a suite for a lesser guest bedroom—it is not elaborate enough for the master of the house. A large and splendid kerosene lamp by Doulton Lambeth with its original shade and chimney sits on the dresser, along with naturalistic English stoneware jugs and a pair of sunflower-decorated vases by Pinder, Bourne and Company. The ebonized rocking chair in the foreground was patented by the Henry I. Seymour Chair Manufactory of Troy, New York, in 1875, and is an inspired use of the bentwood technique in American manufacturing.