The message from the Christie's sale of Sir Albert Richardson's
possessions is that there has been an irreversible decline in the
taste for the aesthetics of understated elegance.
P.G. Wodehouse, writing in his light-hearted mood, would have
enjoyed telling the story of Sir Albert Richardson, whose
possessions were sold this week at Christie's. The collector's
pursuit of 18th- and 19th-century decorative art that once graced
the aristocratic residences of Britain is recounted in a preface to
Christie's catalog by his grandson Simon Houfe.
Richardson, who died in 1964, had belonged to a generation of
stiff upper-lipped Britons uninclined to compromise. "Life at Avenue
House was spartan, he would not allow electricity or modern
conveniences in the house and only with great reluctance tolerated
the telephone," Mr. Houfe muses.
Richardson was an extremist in traditionalism. To quote Mr.
Houfe: "The family shivered in the winter and sweltered in the
summer, making it extremely difficult to keep staff." Bedfordshire,
the county where Avenue House is located, in the small town of
Ampthill, gets chilly in the winter.
The architectural practice that Richardson ran at the back of his
house presumably accounts for his love of well-structured furniture.
Columns are a recurring feature in the pieces that the collector
sought out, whether in a pair of demi-lune consoles made around 1800
that brought Pounds 9,375, or about $15,000, or in the pediment of
an octagonal table designed by the famous George Bullock, which rose
to Pounds 73,875.
But what truly roused Richardson was reading the history of the
past by tracing its objects to those who made them or commissioned
A pair of George III "perfume burners" in the shape of white
marble urns with ormolu (gilt bronze) fittings must have overjoyed
the collector. The perfume burners are so close to a sketch in
Matthew Boulton's "Pattern Book" that they can be safely recognized
as the work of "the pre-eminent English manufacturer of objets de
luxe in the 18th century," in the words of Adrian Hume-Sayer, one of
the authors of the catalog.
Orlando Rock, the international head of decorative art at
Christie's, pointed out in an interview by telephone that when
Richardson acquired the perfume burners in 1933 little attention was
given to Boulton's work. Its true significance only came to light
when Sir Nicholas Goodison published his book "Matthew Boulton" in
2002. Speaking before the sale, Mr. Rock placed the perfume burners
among the top lots.
Yet on Tuesday, the pair fetched Pounds 91,875, not even half of
what another pair of Boulton's perfume burners cost last December.
True, this pair, which made Pounds 157,250 at Christie's London,
came from the collection of "The Princess Mary, the sister of George
VI, Princess Royal, Countess of Harewood."
The French Louis XVI style that inspired Boulton has been
gradually falling out of favor in the last two decades, and the
price difference largely reflects the premium paid nowadays for a
In a striking contrast, a George III dining room pedestal,
cautiously "attributed to Thomas Chippendale," more than tripled the
high estimate when it went up to Pounds 112,275. The design is in
the same Neoclassical vein as the Louis XVI style perfume burners
credited to Boulton. But the pedestal has a lot more going for it.
The figural motifs are the work of a supremely accomplished,
albeit anonymous sculptor. Better, the laughing ram's heads
projecting from the corners and the frowning masks carved halfway up
the sides have an expressiveness that give the piece of furniture a
Surrealist twist attuned to current tastes. What's more, the inside
metallic fittings, which have been preserved instead of making room
for shelves to transform the pedestal into a pier cabinet, make it a
Sadly, few among the items amassed by Richardson benefited from
such advantages, and the sale had its ups and downs. …