The Grosvenor House Antiques Fair is on, and beautiful objects made in the reign of William and Mary are there to be swooned over.
The Grosvenor House Antiques Fair bears annual testimony to the fact that there is no paucity of exquisite and incredibly well-preserved and phenomenally expensive antiques in this country. Many would say it is the world’s greatest antique fair, and there can certainly be no question that the objects included, all carefully vetted and appropriate documented, are worthy of a rather distinguished country museum. it has not been the British way, however, to distract the eye from the objects themselves by presenting them with the amazing elegance which is a hallmark of the Paris Biennale; buyers at Grosvenor House must work out for themselves the appropriate context for the works they purchase. If you don’t have the kind of home in which these things are appropriate, the logic might seem to run, you really oughtn’t to be here at all.
This year, that is all shifting. The Hon. Olga Polizzi, who has been co-chairman of the fair for some years, is also director of Building and Design for Trusthouse Forte, and she has been one of the prime movers behind the Trushouse Forte prize at this year’s fair. Fifteen stands will be decorated by major London decorators, whose job will be the skilful presentation of the particular material being shown by the exhibitors to whom they have been assigned. The stands themselves will be like works of art, and may reach, or indeed surpass, the high standards of elegance set by the Paris fair. Decorators have been invited to apply to do up stands, and “we have only been able to accommodate about half of them,” explains Olga Polizzi. “Interest has been tremendous, and most of London’s really imaginative decorators and fabric houses are taking part.” The impressive list includes such luminaries as Nicky Haslam, Mary Fox Linton, Jane Churchill, Mrs. Monro and David Hicks. All of them, of course, will have to contend with the relatively small space available to them in the Grosvenor House Great Room, but good decoration today is more often a matter of facing such limitations than of working in the vacuum of freedom. “They can better show their gifts like this,” commented one member of the judging committee.
The prize for the most successful decoration — which has no doubt inspired the many applicants — is the contract to redecorate the Atholl Palace at Pitlochry in Perthshire, a Trusthouse Forte hotel which will be done to a very high standard to be a “really top hotel.” The details of the contract have yet to be determined, but it is anticipated that the job will be worth several million pounds, and it should be a major opportunity for a decorator to do a very large project with a relatively free rein. “This will be splendid for Trusthouse Forte,” says Olga Polizzi. “It’s the first time we’ve done such a thing, but if all goes well we would hope to do it again. Meanwhile, I think it should raise the standards of the displays enormously. I think this year’s fair will be beautiful.”
So indeed it should be. The theme of the fair this year, in keeping with the 300th anniversary of the accession of William and Mary to the throne, is work of the era of their brief reign. Queen Beatrix of The Netherlands is lending several treasures of the period which have not previously travelled from Holland to compose a display exhibition, and Princess Maigriet will actually travel to London to open the exhibition. In addition, a number of Dutch dealers will be showing at this year’s fair, in which the Vereeniging van Handelaren in Oude Kunst has played a role second only to that of the British Antique Dealers Association (BADA).
There are nearly 120 exhibitors for the fair, and almost all of them have stunning works of art on view. Certain companies have come up with the truly extraordinary, and the variety and richness of their exhibitions should be a true delight. At Pelham Galleries, newcomers to the fair this year, there will be part of the original wrought-iron railing from Chesterfield House, whose historic significance and magnificent detail are equally riveting. There will also be a fully functional gilt bronze model fire-engine, which must have given tremendous joy to the French child of 1760 for whom it was made; one can but hope that it will be bought for a similarly blessed child today, and will not make its way into the dreary hands of some collector who hides such youthful pleasures in glass cases.
Other highlights in the decorative arts are to be found in abundance. Klaber & Klaber have a fabulous Meissen pair of Neptune and Venus, by J.J. Kaendler. Interest in collecting Meissen has redoubled since the publication of Bruce Chatwin’s Utz, and this is a rare opportunity to buy some of the finest of the porcelain figures that have inspired such obsessiveness in certain of their devotees. Angela Gräfin von Wallwitz has important work from Du Pacquier, a plate whose re-creation of the surface value of etching is virtually trompe-l’oeil.
Remarkable furniture is the traditional hallmark of the show. Stair & Co. are showing an early-eighteenth-century combined bureau and dressing-table, veneered in walnut; this is surely one of the best pieces to be found at Grosvenor House. Norman Adams has a pair of Chippendale chairs with the original gros- and petit-point covering, which are altogether charming. Apter-Fredericks is showing a Queen Anne bookcase in burr walnut from about 1710. It has doors inset with mirrors, and has, behind those doors, the sort of catacombs of drawers and compartments and shelves which are always so very useful for the accumulated debris of life. The piece has wonderful colouring, and an overall elegance of design, and is in nearly perfect condition. Apter-Fredericks also has other fine pieces from the eighteenth century, including a pair of George III Chippendale chairs and a William Gates side-table.
Some of the finest paintings are at Whitford & Hughes, not a member of BADA, who are showing one of Monet’s less wintry scenes of Vétheuil — whose church he painted in the snow so often, most famously, perhaps, in the painting at the Musée d’Orsay. Thomas Agnew, who did not exhibit at last year’s fair, has major works by Jean-Baptiste Pater, and by Louis Boilly. Ackermann’s has its usual range of sporting pictures, among them work by Thomas Spencer. Iona has some pre-Victorian animal portraits, including a rather touching painting of a short-horn bull who won a prize round about 1840. And Kate de Rothschild has a pen, brown ink, and wash rendering of The Holy Family with the Infant St. John, by Santi di Tito.
Oriental art, which made so fine a showing at the Winter Antiques Show in New York, will also be well represented at Grosvenor House. Spink & Son is showing seventh-century T’ang pottery horses, and a really stunning eighteenth-century red lacquer cabinet, which recalls a similar piece at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Earle D. Vandekaar has a stunning pair of Chinese export “famille-rose” wine-bottle coolers, enamelled with lotus blossoms, ducks, and a crane; in spirit if not in appearance, they recall Sunday afternoons in St. James’s. At Bluett’s, fourteenth-century Sino-Tibetan saddle fittings decorated with gold leaf, turquoise, and pearls are on offer; we are told that they may have been used by Genghis Khan, whose grandeur in parade or in battle must surpass all one’s wildest imaginings.
Rupert Gentle advertises that he has an “unusually large eighteenth-century Dutch kettle” — surely it is at this point that Dutch and British culture most truly meet. The kettle was made almost a century after the demise of William and Mary, but how could the Dutch nation ever have seemed to be at any distance from our own, when it could produce so very wonderful a thing as an “unusually large kettle”? One can but wonder how some gifted and ambitious interior designer might integrate an “unusually large kettle” into a stand display in a way that would manifest his suitability to decorate an acreage of Trusthouse Forte property in Scotland.
The fair opens with a charity gala on Wednesday 14 June, and will be open to the public from 15 to 24 June. The Princess of Wales will be attending the opening of the fair, which benefits the British Lung Foundation, and for which tickets are available from the Charity Gala Office. The Grosvenor House Antiques Fair, The Hub, Emson Close, Saffron Walden, Essex.