THE PARRY COLLECTION
One Collection. Two woods.
Oak from Wales by Dr. Bill Cotton
To see the Parry collection of largely Welsh oak furniture assembled together is to enter the world of a dedicated and distinguished collector, one whose love of one of Britain's greatest regional furniture traditions is immediately apparent. Over many years of sharing our mutual passion for furniture, I have seen at first hand the ways in which the Parrys have assembled and refined their collection, ever moving to capture a new form which would augment or complement other pieces in their collection. Their attachment, first and foremost for the great tradition of cupboard furniture from North Wales no doubt reflects John Parry's own ancestry and background as a Welshman. What he has achieved in drawing together this oak furniture collection is, outside the National Collection of Wales, held at St. Fagans, Cardiff, simply without parallel. It is interesting, too, that historically, those who have formed collections of oak furniture have largely concentrated their interest on seventeenth century pieces. In contrast to this, the Parry collection is refreshingly unusual in representing an oak furniture tradition which, with a few notable exceptions, dates from the eighteenth century.
As collectors, the Parrys are distinguished, too, in their generosity in opening their home to furniture scholars and others who share their passionate interest in furniture. In particular, many members of the Regional Furniture Society will fondly remember the hospitality of John and his wife, Norma, and those memorable occasions on which the Society visited their home to see and handle their furniture collection.
Looking at the collection, for a moment, as a single entity, one immediately recognises that it demonstrates the firm principles of classical connoisseurship surrounding its selection. Overwhelmingly, perhaps, the distinctive colour and patination of the furniture will impress the viewer first. Welsh oak furniture is notable for its deep reddish brown colour, often reflecting, as it does, the application of the appropriately named pigment, 'Dragon's blood'. The richness of this colour, combined with the typically deep patination of wax and other layers acquired in use, clearly excited John as a collector, as it does, of course, for the many who are attracted to Welsh traditional furniture. What is rare about this collection, however, is the universally high quality of this aspect of the furniture.
It is equally true that the Parry's insistence on originality of construction is immediately apparent. Throughout, one is impressed at the historically intact nature of the pieces in the collection. One is, of course, also struck by the recognition that this furnitures' past owners must have similarly loved and maintained these pieces in family ownership, often on the hill and valley farms of North Wales. If there is one regret about seeing such cared for pieces, it is the lack of being able to link them back to their previous owners, and, in this, to have a greater sense of the domestic life in which they shared.
As well as John and Norma's love of rich surface finish and the integrity of construction, is their sense of prominence of the particular types of furniture which they preferred to collect. Of the ten dressers included, seven are from North Wales, and all demonstrate the classic use of raised fielded panels which are so integral to the high quality of dressers and cupboards of the eighteenth century, from that region. Four of these have integral drawers or cupboards as part of the shelf structure, and represent the association which some dressers have with the cwpwrdd tridarn and deuddarns from the same region. It is difficult to comment here in detail on such a consistently high quality collection of dressers, but one dresser, (lot 249), which may easily be unique, has a gallery of turned spindles above the cornice of the shelves, a feature whose use can only be speculated upon.
As one might expect, the collection contains classic examples of both deuddarns and cwprdd tridarns, as well as Welsh press cupboards, a settle, corner cupboards, coffors bach, and what represented John's absolute delight, the so-called 'spice' cupboards. These small cupboards with doors and different arrangements of drawers, represent some of the most aesthetically pleasing examples to come to the market in recent years. A few items in the collection date from the seventeenth century, and although of the highest quality, one can be less certain of their Welsh origins. Amongst this group there are several low dressers, and a magnificent refectory table with six turned legs and gadroon-carved frieze.
It is, in one way a sad thing to see such a grand collection being offered to the market. At another level, however, the deep pleasure which the Parrys have had in seeking out these treasures, examining them, and sharing them with others, has brought its own rich rewards. For many collectors of Welsh oak furniture who have perhaps the more modest aspiration to own one exemplary example of Welsh furniture, it is hard to imagine a more exciting choice becoming available in the foreseeable future, and the fruits of the Parry's collecting energy and skills will be passed into new ownership.
A PASSION FOR WALNUT, BY PETER HOLMES
I first met the Parrys after they had read the only letter I have ever written to the 'Antiques Trade Gazette'. This concerned the derogatory use of the term 'restored condition' when we go to great lengths to conserve original surfaces and worm-eaten timbers in order to preserve the integrity and value of a fine piece. John telephoned me at our workshop a few days after publication and invited me to his home in North Wales to inspect his collection with a view to organising a small conservation programme.
I remember well that my initial reaction was one of surprise and delight as John took me around the house and revealed this extraordinarily focused and carefully chosen group of furniture. We stopped at each piece as he recalled with his infectious enthusiasm what initially attracted him to the object and the story behind the purchase. I realised that here was a collection of oak and walnut furniture chosen by someone who, right from his first acquisition had progressed to develop an acute eye for that rare combination of fine craftsmanship, good proportion, unusual detail and, most importantly, wonderful patina and condition.
In walnut, almost above any other timber, the importance of colour and patina are paramount. At its best, the honey colours, the golden toffee, treacly hues of a veneered walnut surface that has born the use and abuse, the sun and the candlewax of the last two hundred and fifty years or so is sublime, even for a brief moment life enhancing. And here in the Parry collection there are an unusually high number of examples of this rare combination of elements.
Like many people who have formed a collection of furniture in the twentieth Century, John Parry's background is not in the applied arts, but his exceptional eye for colour, condition and detail have enabled him to develop a breadth of knowledge in the stylistic details used in early 18th Century English walnut furniture that is quite exceptional. It is the focused nature of the Parry collection that makes it such a rarity.
Every serious collection of English furniture should have at least one fine example from the 'Walnut Period'. Firstly, to illustrate the new sophistication that was developing in 'case' furniture in the early 18th Century when cabinet-makers were using this native hardwood in veneered decoration, all the while refining the use of details such as 'herringbone' and 'cross' bandings to great effect, and secondly, to show the ageing process we know as patina, which aside from the beauty already alluded to, demonstrates the nature of 'untouched' condition.
The piece John was proudest to show me in his collection was the William and Mary writing-table with rising top and bookrest, (lot 260). This desk is a magnificent and rare survivor, many contemporary pieces with such delicate legs and stretchers having been lost to the ravages of woodworm and changing fashion long ago. It is a sophisticated artefact of its time, refined in detail and in excellent condition.
The piece which to me has the best of every element desired is the George I burr-walnut bachelors chest with a superstructure of four drawers, (lot 270), one of the most recent additions to the collection. I first saw it at the Grosvenor House Fair last year and knew immediately that it was destined for North Wales. It is an extremely rare article in that it is of a rather severe, masculine design, of an unusual proportion, made very much for a specific functional use but at the same time it has a timeless quality, with a superb colour and surface and in a most remarkable state of preservation.
I feel sure that with the slightly addictive nature of collecting being what it is, it won't be long before the nucleus of the next Parry collection begins to take shape!
Dr. B. D. Cotton is President of the Regional Furniture Society and author of 'The English Regional Chair', Suffolk, 1990.
Peter Homes is The Director of Spink Restoration.