Fenton House: An Exquisite Collection
Hampstead hides abundant delightful secrets. Those tired of the loudness of Covent Garden, or even of the marvellous yet busy National Gallery, should take a break and get lost in this small neighbourhood of London. This area inspired poet John Keats; and the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson even thought of living here for a season. It is here where John Constable or Lucien Freud hid away, and where today residents may claim to spot the epic Ridley Scott, irreverent Stephen Fry, or lost Liam Gallagher. This is the serene northern hill of the hustle and bustle of London, a hill where the air you breathe feels clean and almost pure.
The oldest building on this picturesque location is Fenton House (built c. 1686), an “inspiration” so to speak, that thanks to the donation by Lady Binning to the National Trust in 1952, forms part of one of the most interesting and curious collections of this city.
Dynamic collections prove the historic value of Fenton House. For instance, it holds the collection of Early Keyboard Instruments by ex-military Benton Fletcher (1866-1944). Fletcher, a cultural man also interested in archaeology – he even dug with Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) the mentor of Howard Carter (1874-1939) - amalgamated a comprehensive collection of rare examples of harpsichords, virginals, spinets, clavichords, and pianos signed by the most prominent Italian and British masters from the sixteenth to seventeenth centuries. The collection includes originally handcrafted pieces by Burkart Shudi (1702-1773) and John Broadwood (1732-1812), famed fabricators of these types of instruments. Other creations found in the house are from the mysterious Marcus Siculus who signed a virginal with his name and date in 1540, and Vicentius Pratensis (active in the seventeenth century) who is similarly difficult to identify but still important to the history of musical instruments. As if this is not enough, more is exhibited: another Shudi that used to be owned by Fanny Davies (1861-1934), and a harpsichordfabricated in 1612 by Hans Rückers from Antwerp (c.1555- c.1623) that is thought to have been owned by G.F. Haendel (1685-1759) and that today surely is owned by the Queen of England herself.
Perhaps the most pleasant note left behind is that Fletcher required students of music should keep making use of the instruments. Even though the National Trust covetously cares for their preservation, it is one of the only locations in the world where these beautiful, antique instruments can be heard once a week.
I can assure you, dear reader, that one waltzes from room to room at Fenton House, indifferent to time or weather, when accompanied by these instruments. That is, until you realize that there are many more collections in the house. You will feel obligated to stop the music, and concentrate all five senses on the rest. Surely this is because for many of us, it is the first time that we see such an ample representation of needlework of such quality and so well preserved. Additionally, it may be the first time that we hear about George Salting (1836-1909), one of the most important art collectors and connoisseurs of the 19th century, or because of the vast collection of ceramics beautifully displayed.
George Salting, his niece and beneficiary, Katherine Salting (Lady Binning, 1871-1952) and her mother Mrs William Salting née Millicent Browne (d.1924) were avid collectors of valuable, characteristic nineteenth-century needlework. These usually portray biblical scenes or scenes of an imaginary popular event. Not all of their collection remains at Fenton House; the rest is divided between the V&A in London and the Burrell in Glasgow. The most coveted object still at Fenton House could possibly be a magnificently detailed jewellery box, now storing no more than the character of its century. It is covered in elaborate stumpwork – raised embroidery – representing mythological and biblical figures. It is one of those objects that take you by the hand and softly accommodate you in a carriage drawn by horses in a trot, heading to a wheat field in the 17th century summer or places you in a chamber of a refined castle in the Champagne where the fire from the chimneybreast reflects the warm tones of the enormous oak interiors. You spot a beautiful girl sitting in the boudoir, taking off her stunning jewels, storing them affectionately in the same box that now you, too, are admiring.
Another of the admirable features of the house is the ceramics collection. Here we are introduced to Mr George Salting’s collecting style personally. He was Australian by birth but studied at Eton in Britain. He decided to live in England permanently by the age of 30. He became an avid and obsessive collector, so much so that he never got married and dedicated all his time and money to his objects. Salting is the epitome of a generation of collectors that enriched the nineteenth century. How do I come to this conclusion, you may ask?
In the first half of the nineteenth century, taste for objects and those who collected them continued in the same vein that inspired the eighteenth century. However, during the late 30s, new wealth, sometimes arising from nothing thanks to the Industrial Revolutions of the time, did not have the old-fashioned ‘education’ or a good sense of taste. They were not too far from being descendants of those who had gone on the “Grand Tour” – those cultural trips to Italy and Europe – and yet they still had not inherited the taste, the need for the trips or the collections of that type. They started from zero. And because they generally worked for their income, they did not want to spend it on things they did not comprehend. This included the Old Masters or Antiquities, seen as ‘risky’ as they could result in large economic losses due to falsifications or reattribution.
One could see this as a return to the 17th century Dutch phenomenon of the “patron-collector.” The wealthy took pride in being patrons of their contemporaries who they could understand, direct and follow. Furthermore, by buying the pieces directly from these artists, they were guaranteeing their authenticity. One must remember that on a parallel level, of course, the descendants of those “cognoscenti” of the Grand Tour of the 18th century and some exceptions in the new member of the bourgeoisie, kept the Old Master collecting tradition alive.
Though the previous generation had provided the foundations for the wealth of the mid 19th century, the generation of collectors that Salting formed part of, like good children, rebelled against their predecessors. This rebellious generation was introverted, but moulded by personalities as complex as Louis Huth (1821-1905), Walter Pater (1839-1894) or John Ruskin (1819-1900). These collectors had a new focus and spirit to enter in the world of art. The past movement of Romanticism – a Pantheistic and extreme relationship between man and nature – was at a steady decline. Some of the 19th century rebels went for the Impressionist interpretation championed by artists like J.M.W. Turner (1771-1851), Nevertheless, not all were prepared for their Impressionist contemporary art, so the new collectors disregarded all the artworks that their taste (not their purses) did not accept.
In the case of our friend Salting, he got to accumulate one of the biggest and varied collections of the 19th century, largely thanks to his well known stinginess which allowed him to acquire his pieces at the lowest possible prices. His objectives were British furniture, bronzes, glass from almost every century, manuscripts, paintings, and miniatures, and an eternal list of art qualities. His home was a version of the seventeenth century “cabinet of curiosities” with man living within it, a version of Ali Baba’s suffocating cave with a man living amongst the treasures. By comparison, Fenton House is typically English -- refined with a wild touch.
As stated before, Salting’s greatest efforts and most personal interests were directed towards collecting ceramics – particularly porcelain. The delicate style of Napoleon III often dominated collections of the time and so it was a struggle to collect porcelain at the standard of the eighteenth century collections, without falling into imitation. He and Lady Binning achieved this. Fenton House holds a fine selection of the best porcelain of the world from their combined efforts. Like any proud British collection, it includes works from Derby representing the “Agricultural Seasons” and “Rustic Seasons”, early English Plymouth and Bristol porcelain, and even the “Gold Anchor” period of Chelsea wares personifying thought-provoking themes of “Spring” and “Winter.” These are not simply seasons, but personify the era’s sensibility to sublime nature. For the specialists: there is a room filled with Staffordshire work with cute – yet difficult for a foreigner – representations of figures.
From beyond the United Kingdom we can find Meissen, the majority signed by J.J Kändler (active in Meissen between 1731-1775) and J.F. Lück (active 1759-1762), as well as works from factories at Frankenthal, Hoechst, Furstenberg and Nymphenburg, which with their delicate ways. These not only talk about enjoying life, they have a brave attitude and are conscious of man undoing himself from some yokes and stepping closer to knowledge and liberty. This delicate depiction of radical transitions makes these groups much more than mindless “fêtes galantes”: viewing them is a sublime enjoyment.
But if there was reason to Salting’s fame as a ceramic collector it was most probably due to his inclination to Oriental porcelain; an inclination that despite being followed by other marvellous collectors like Emile Guimet (1836-1918), was followed by a small minority. There are Korean and Japanese ceramics in display cases at Fenton House, but Salting’s dedication to Chinese ceramics was the grandest and most interesting. For example, he was one of the first in obtaining ceramics from the Tang period. He looked back further than the best collections of the eighteenth century more attracted to other fashions.
But Salting was a trendsetter in this regard. He preceded the epicurean “Aesthetic Movement” collectors who collected blue & white porcelain from the Kangxi period (1662-1722) from the 1860s. Salting had an extensive Kangxi period collection, and his niece followed suit to the point that she converted her living quarters into an exhibition space for the porcelain. In its origins, the Dutch East India Company (VOC), exported most of the blue and white ceramics in the seventeenth century. Then the oriental aesthetic strongly affected subsequent styles including Delft marvels in Holland, the first Worcesterwares and even today we remain trapped in an aura of historical marvel for blue and white.
Salting was a very particular collector, in style and criteria, but intelligent enough to always ask for advice and other opinions more expert than his own. With this knowledge of others’ opinions, he started moulding his own. This quality is what made him always look further than he usually did, as a person and connoisseur. Because of this, he got better objects every time; he undid the ones that did not seem appropriate to him anyway or did not obtain the quality of his new pieces – making him improve his collection to perfection.
Before his death, he left a grand part of his treasures like renaissance bronzes, medals, enamels, ceramics, and porcelain to the Victoria and Albert Museum. His best prints and drawings went to the British Museum. The National Gallery benefited extensively from his collection of Old Masters (164 paintings, including artists like Hans Memling (1430-1494), Robert Campin (1375-1444), Jan Davividsz de Heem (1606-1683) and the rare “A Young Woman Seated At A Virginal” by the extraordinary painter Jan Vermeer (1632-1675). Another great quantity went to his sole heir and niece Katherine (mentioned above) and so remained at Fenton House. The pictures still exhibited here were photographed by the Public Catalogue Foundation for the “Your Paintings” project.
As stated previously, the beautiful room with a view of the garden with air of the 17th century, used by Lady Binning as a library, surrounded by paintings and chinaware of the 18th century, still holds some of the eccentric porcelain collected by Salting. A mahogany glazed cabinet in the Chinese Chippendale style displays a sample of Chinese porcelain from the 9th to the 19th centuries. Between these delights, white plates enamelled by Ding Kilns or fine pieces of translucent blue (Qingbai) line the displays, both originally produced during the Song dynasty (960-1279). This Song Dynasty also created masterpieces in the Ru kilns using a slow and intelligent firing technique. Ru, the height of porcelain mastery, still remains to be surpassed today. A piece of this style is extremely rare. A sole work of this calibre came out of a private collection to auction in 2012, selling for over 26 million dollars.
We must continue our tour! I attempt to catch my breath after these masterpieces and recollections. I admire two amusing Kangxi era Foo ‘Dogs’ (Buddhist emblems of value and energy, guardians of temples, palaces, and tombs, always tied with wisdom, claimed to actually be lions) formed to hold incense sticks.
My perusal of the Library Room closes with a small sample of snuff-bottles, very popular in the eighteenth century but invented in sixteenth century China. The Chinese started to import tobacco, and it was a common belief snuff tobacco would provide medicinal effects. Believe it or not, the Dutch in the 17th century as well conjured that smoking combats diseases.
At this point in the tour, one could really be overwhelmed from the sensibilities on show in so many rooms. We can take a breather on one of the balconies of the Fenton House (whose wood is inscribed with cryptic dates and initials). We gaze upon the profile of London that looks so out of time now, and find the willpower to admire the last two rare pieces.
One, a Chinese silk picture of a White Eagle, is a possible copy of the Ming period (1368-1644) painting owned by the emperor Zhao Ji who governed under the name of Huizong (1102-1125). Even though he has the reputation of being a madman, he did not only find peace and prosperity instead of war, but he was responsible of the refinement in the arts, like we have seen.
The last, a shocking representation of birds and flowers by Irishman Samuel Dixon (d. 1769) using a peculiar technique of folded embossing paper to create a relief effect and then colouring it in with gouache paints. He would advertise it in his Dublin Workshops as an imitation of needlework. Who knows what secret pleasures the Salting collectors found in these memorable pieces!
Exhausted and dreading the emotion of leaving, I retire from this labyrinth of sensations and new experiences. Not without first thanking the heavens for letting me get familiar with the unknown surprises of Fenton House. These special collectors have made this small oasis possible and given us this island of treasures through the years, hidden in plain London. And as a final treat, a bottle of apple juice from Fenton House’s own orchard…
Cover Image: 'A cold but bright morning helps to light up the West Front of Fenton House' Ref: 112717 from National Trust Images website ©National Trust Images/Matthew Antrobus