It is easy to forget just how many items in everyday use owe their names to English nobility and men of power. From something as mundane but universally consumed as the sandwich which is attributed to John Montagu, fourth Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792), who is said to be the inventor of this convenience food in order that he would not have to leave his gaming table to take supper, to the Wellington boot and the Derby hat. The latter was a type of hard crown hat created by William and Thomas Bowler in 1849, popularly worn at the annual races conceived by Sir Charles Bunbury and Edward Stanley, the 12th earl of Derby. In the history of English furniture there are two that stand out. One is the Davenport; a small writing desk which following its invention, was made in all fashionable styles throughout the 19th century. It was named after a Captain Davenport who instructed Messrs Gillows of Lancaster to make such a piece during the 1790's. This should not be confused with an item of the same name more used in America to describe a combination of a bed and a sofa first made by the A.H. Davenport company of Boston, Mass., in the early 20th century. But the sofa/bed conveniently brings me to unquestionably the most popular piece of English furniture to be found in fine houses, embassies, civic offices, county halls, gentlemen's clubs and royal palaces all over the world - the Chesterfield settee. With its distinctive deep buttoned, quilted leather upholstery and low seat it provides supreme comfort. Identifiable by the equal height to rolled arm and back, it has become synonymous with England. It is said the politician and writer Lord Phillip Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield, 1694-1773, was the one who first commissioned a settee that would provide the sitter with ease and grace without creasing his clothes. How delighted he would be to know that his idea would bear his name and innumerable bottoms from its inception to the present day.
The role of the Confidant - or Confidante if feminine - has been important in any dramatic story since Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were writing their plays in the 6th century BC. Although secondary the person is relied upon to harbour the secret thoughts and desires of the main character, and so honouring that trust will save the day while betrayal of it leads to tragedy. Such characters showing both human traits became popular in French theatre during the mid-18th century, when a small sofa for two people was introduced whereon such secrets could be exchanged without fear of eavesdroppers. Now there's a strange expression. Originally eavesdrop referred to the water that dropped from the eaves of a house, then the ground on which the water fell. Soon it was used to describe a person that stood under the eaves in order to hear any conversation inside. But I digress. The new two-seat sofa was different inasmuch as the sitters were divided by an upholstered arm rest and more importantly they faced opposite directions. As it allowed a confidential conversation without the need to turn heads or appear to be whispering it too was given the name Confidante. Naturally it was soon introduced into English society and George Hepplewhite illustrated one in his Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide (1788). In the 19th century the form was a natural one for the Victorian desire for propriety and intrigue on the one hand and love of plush upholstery on the other with lines and shape in the earlier French style. One glorious example of such furniture is a suite in Raby Castle, County Durham attributed to the company of George Morant and Son, furniture suppliers to H.M.William IV and granted Royal Appointment to her Majesty Queen Victoria as Interior Decorators and Upholsterers from 1839. The Confidante illustrated is also attributed to Morant, relying heavily on what we call the 'French Hepplewhite' style with its gently scrolling show-wood legs and frame. I wonder what secrets passed across those armrests in the last century and a half, confidentially speaking of course.
As a rejection of the restrictions imposed by the Commonwealth ideology during the eleven years preceding the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, the last thirty years of the 17th century saw an open display of wealth in every possible way. In dress, in furnishings, in pastimes and pleasures. The ensuing reign of Queen Anne saw some restraint across the board but by the 1740's upper class society can be seen to divide between those who chose to splash their cash and those who didn't, certainly in the way they furnished their houses.
This is reflected in the pattern books of leading furniture makers of the time such as Matthias Locke and Thomas Chippendale wherein designs for chairs and tables will show an elaborately carved leg on one side and a plain straight leg on the other. In costume, men's fashion was still glamorous by today's standards, with deeply waisted frock coats and brightly coloured waistcoats, but there was less lace on display and buckles had replaced ribbon bows on shoes. However, judging by contemporary group portraits some interiors are notably austere; a picture and perhaps a looking glass, a side table or small centre table and two or three chairs. On the other hand a similarly wealthy family - bearing in mind one had to have a certain standard of living to afford a portrait - can be seen to be surrounded by luxury and exuberance. Pictures, mirrors, mantelpieces and overdoors, chairs and tables all carved with the fancy version of Mr Chippendale's design. Importantly, the predominant style at this time is known as Rococo. Emanating in France and then to Italy it arrived in England in the 1740's and was everything theatrical, dramatic, fantastical and larger than life. Using pine as the base timber it incorporated all things botanical, with Stylised Flowers and Lattice Work, Rocks and Shells, 'S' Scrolls, 'C' Scrolls and Raffle Leaves, Water Falls, Pagoda Tops and Chinese Fencing, Cluster Columns, and Garlands of every conception. All of this decoration was often covered with gesso and then water gilded, the highlights being burnished for even greater impact. Alternatively it was painted in pale grey or white and one of the finest examples of this is a mantlepiece in the British Section of Victoria and Albert Museum and should be seen just for the fun of it. Sometimes such paint has been removed or the carver's work left plain and polished, as in the frame illustrated.
In this age of instant everything and shopping from your armchair, how does a 130 year old antiques business remain relevant in today’s market with a declining high street retail environment and seemingly laissez faire attitude to brown furniture?
Well from meeting the oldest and best known family firm the answer sounds just like it does in every other industry, knowledge is power.
“There has always been and will always be a demand for the best antiques and decorative arts and the key is knowing the difference between good and the best. There is only one way to learn and that is years of experience.” says John Bly whose CV is almost as impressive as his knowledge. He is quick to add that one never stops learning but having been in business for well over 120 years the Blys are clearly at the top of their game.
With some of the worlds best museums, grandest stately homes, biggest collectors and famous interior designers amongst its clients the firm of John Bly is synonymous with authenticity, quality and originality.
So why go to John Bly?
The Blys are important people in their industry and their combined experience is unique, they've seen more, researched more, bought more and sold more fine things than anybody. And they are well regarded by others in their field which is highly unusual for any industry.
“We bring the past to life, deal in history and sell peace of mind” says James Bly, John’s son and the fifth generation to take the helm. It sounds light hearted but he takes it seriously. “It is the story behind the pieces we handle that make them astounding windows into the past; the social context of what was going on at the time a particular piece was made makes it all the more interesting and intriguing in this hi-tech world. Importantly everything we sell carries our guarantee of authenticity”.
(He recounts the history of the dumb waiter, a story worth visiting his gallery to hear!)
John and James Bly have spent their lives surrounded by and dealing with antiques and have an natural instinct about an item so if you want advice, help or guidance in this mysterious world they are the people to speak to. Viewing their stock is a history lesson in itself.
John spent a few years at Sotheby’s before joining his father and James trained as a cabinet maker before joining John, with these backgrounds it is easy to see how they can analyse pieces and spot exquisite details from 1000 paces.
“When you know how to make a piece of furniture you can appreciate the skills required for perfection especially in times when electricity had yet to be invented, hand sawing veneers by day and candlelight to within 1/18th of inch think is not easy!”
As well as having a stock of provenanced museum quality pieces the Blys offer their expertise to the great and the good. This “service” can be authenticating a piece that the client already has but the majority of the time it is to source that special piece or pieces.
Projects vary in size from single items to furnishing entire properties (residential and commercial) but the clients always know that they are getting the very best examples of their type with every piece carrying their seal of approval and certificate of authenticity.
And if you cannot get to them in the South East of England they will come to you and they are not limited geographically; with many collector clients in the USA they are across the pond several times a year.
Do they just handle furniture?
It seems not and there is much behind the dapper duos' elegant presence. They also provide a full interior design service if required and can build a team of experts as projects dictate.
With complete workshop facilities at their disposal enabling furniture design and cabinet making, full upholstery and window dressing, lighting (from hidden LED tracks to 3m crystal chandeliers), and even designing, making and fitting a bespoke carpet, they can achieve anything.
It is not possible to categorize the Bly look as they work intimately with each client but the common thread throughout is the wow factor. “If the client isn’t totally blown away, bowled over and in awe of their own house by the end, we have not succeeded” says John who often gets wheeled in for the final stamp of approval.
Dare one mention mid-century modern and contemporary?
“Even in some of the more contemporary interiors we have worked in, the placing of one or two well selected antique pieces will have spectacular results, they can have a museum presence and we have been asked on occasion to frame and hang the written history of a piece for all to learn about. The pieces come alive when the stories behind them are recounted, it is about the history.
A cold room becomes cosy and white walls fill with colour when the combination is done properly.”
Let us not forget each generation of every stately home in England patronised the arts and modern style of their time; they inherited great collections of course but also had their eye on the latest trends and fashions. Just look at George III’s son, Prince Regent and latterly Chatsworth House and Blenheim Palace.
So the Blys are the go-to people for anyone serious about antiques.
Whether you are furnishing your house or looking for the finest tea caddy and need sound advice make sure you look them up.
“Buy from Bly, the most experienced and the best."
In the Right Place at the Right Time.
The term 'occasional furniture' actually dates back to the period between1660 and 1740 when the gentry took advantage of social change and had multi-purpose furniture made to suit different requirements at different times of the day. Extending the dining table, or having miniature beds on wooden wheels called 'truckles' to go under the main bed during the day were nothing new, but having small adaptable furniture that folded down or opened up were new in the Carolean era. Production of these pieces was made possible by improved methods of construction heralded by the introduction of a new craft and a new craftsman - the cabinet maker. His ability to create more finely cut joints, having access to more sophisticated hinges and of course the best long-seasoned quality timbers allowed him to create furniture that could be a serving board one minute to be quickly transformed into a table for gaming, needlework or tea the next. At this time rooms were not set permanently as we have them today or indeed as they have been since the mid-eighteenth century. Circular tables were made to tilt and long rectangular ones had disproportionately small centre sections from which two long flaps or leaves were hinged to be supported when horizontal by a framework rather like a gate, hence gateleg. Once invented these in various forms never went out of fashion and followed the styles of decoration throughout the ensuing periods. Still the most interesting are surely the earliest examples, miraculously surviving over three hundred years of use. Here the art of the wood turner comes into play, for now was the time when more than one person was responsible for making a piece of furniture. At first one can see just a single turned upright as in the table illustrated, but by 1700 the legs, stretchers and most of the gate were formed by the turner. An informal supper is over, let's fold down the table, tuck it away and dance.
Of all the wonderful landscape paintings in the world it may seem strange to relate, on one of the warmest February days on record, the genre that appeals most to me is the winter scene. From Andrew Wyeth to Hendrick Avercamp it's the silence that snow brings coupled with the sound of voices carrying over greater distance than they do in summer that captivate the imagination. I know that seems a contradiction but when snow stops falling and has settled deep, there is a quiet unlike any other before all sounds are magnified. Laughter and shouting, the hiss of skates on ice or, in the case of Wyeth, just the wind cutting through a fence to create a musical note that changes according to the velocity. The grandest examples of winter landscapes are generally considered to be painted in oil, but I have a particular fondness for Gouache.
Gouache is similar to watercolour, but with a binding agent to make it opaque. This was traditionally gum Arabic but it is popularly known as 'water colours mixed with egg white'. It requires an extra skill in its application because dries to a different hue than it appears when wet with lighter tones drying darker and vice versa. The term, derived from the Italian guazzo, was originally applied to the early 16th century practice of applying oil paint over a tempera base, but however achieved the effect is of great depth and infinite detail. The example illustrated is by Paradyen, an artist at the Court of the Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst-Dessau who lived at the Court of the Czar from 1741 until 1755. While there he was employed to paint portraits of the Czar's family in addition to many landscapes. Several of his portraits hang in the Old Masters Gallery of Dresden and in the last years of his life he gained further recognition in Paris, and is sometimes referred to in catalogues as 'Le Parisien'. One additional benefit of many Gouache paintings is that they are small enough to hang even on a crowded wall. Oh thank goodness, there's a storm on its way.