It’s the most beautiful room in an exceptional house. In fact, the library at Ballyfin – the historic country mansion in County Laois, an hour or so’s drive from Dublin – is one of the most impressive in Ireland. The estate is a 19th-century national treasure, brought back to life for undisclosed millions by Chicago industrialist Fred Krehbiel and his Irish wife Kay – primarily to house their art collection and latterly as a boutique hotel.
The library’s pièce de résistance was once the secret bookshelf door that leads to the exquisite Victorian conservatory, but since the renovation it has been the opulent regency colza chandeliers (pictured overleaf) suspended from the ceiling in a set of three. “The largest one was, at some point, hanging in the Royal Academy in London,” explains James Hepworth, one of Ballyfin’s three shareholders and the man who found the house for the Krehbiels. “The two smaller ones are scaled-down versions of the original that we had made. We’ve done the same elsewhere in the house – there’s a very large gilded lantern in the entrance hall that’s a copy of an 18th-century original, and would have been impossible to find anywhere.” These pieces are grand examples of a growing trend in interiors that sees clients falling in love with something at auction and having it copied to complete sets or complement the original.
While provenance is king in the antiques and vintage markets, these kinds of reproductions are highly valued as lavish projects destined to become the next wave of top-tier auction prizes. “At this year’s Robert de Balkany: Rome & the Côte d’Azur sale in London we sold a late‑20th-century copy of a Thomas Chippendale desk [pictured on final page] created by London fine-furniture makers Arthur Brett,” says Robert Copley, international head of furniture at Christie’s. “It had an estimate of £10,000-£15,000 and went on to sell for £221,000.”
Christie’s frequently sells sets of antique chairs to clients who then decide to commission elegant copies, and the auction house has a shortlist of experts who are up to the task. Top of Copley’s list is furniture conservator and designer Peter Holmes. He has been instrumental in recreating some incredible pieces of late, including a copy of Sir John Soane’s four-poster bed, which is currently on show in his original bedroom at the Soane museum. “We worked from a watercolour of the bed painted in the early 19th century,” explains Holmes. “We recreated the silk hangings and used drawings made from an early‑19th-century bed by the illustrious furniture makers Gillows of Lancaster.” The cost of such projects can be high, for obvious reasons. “Reproducing an antique chair is incredibly labour intensive. A single piece can cost between £4,000 and £12,000, as you are effectively matching someone’s handwriting, and that’s a rare talent to have. If you are copying an 18th-century mahogany chair, for example, one issue is that the wood available today is inferior and I would use a maker who has some old mahogany. There are a million little idiosyncrasies that make up each object.”
A conservator or interior designer commissioned to create a reproduction often acts as a conductor or middleman, sourcing the best individual craftsmen for the job. A lot of their contacts remain closely guarded secrets, and many of these commissions involve taking a piece from one craftsman to another – like a couture dress moving through an atelier, from hand to hand. The conservator knows just who to call for each element.
“I’ve been working as an interior designer for over 20 years,” says Susie Atkinson, who recently completed the refurbishment of Beaverbrook, Lord Beaverbrook’s former home in Surrey, now a super-luxe country house hotel and golf club. “I know just the right people to work in brass or specialist upholstery. I know who is right for each component.” Much of Atkinson’s reproduction work is for private clients – projects that involve non-disclosure agreements. But her work for the Soho House group is well known. The sofas in some of the suites of the club’s Berlin outpost (pictured top) represent a paradigm of the high-end reproduction trend. “We found a 1930s pink velvet button-back scalloped sofa in Miami that was originally in a cinema,” she explains. “I think we bought it for $4,000. We wanted to scale it up for the bedrooms, so we shipped it home, redesigned it, made a prototype that was a disaster, remade the prototype and then produced it. It was hugely successful in the end.” Atkinson works in a similar way with her private clients, and estimates that scaling up an antique or vintage find customarily costs between two and three times as much as the original piece.
British designer Rupert Bevan has established himself as one of the top go-to people in the UK for specialist finishings and bespoke furniture reproduction. He created a remarkable curved black and gold chair with eagle-claw feet and eagle-head arms (pictured right) based on an 1869 Edward William Godwin for William Wyatt design that was bought by a client at auction; he was also involved in the Ballyfin project, copying a pair of Kentian console tables. He is an expert in finishing himself, and has a corps of specialist craftsmen working under the Bevan umbrella.
Recently he created a series of chairs based on a set of 18th-century “Chinese Chippendale” antiques. “This case was particularly unique,” he explains. “The client had seen the chairs at auction and wanted a painted version. He knew it was a crime to do that to original polished mahogany Chippendale, so we made a whole new set in timber with a painted 18th-century distemper finish. They look genuine. The original chairs were estimated for sale at around £3,000 each, and I was able to make fine copies for half the price. It was very rewarding to be able to recreate these chairs using British craftsmanship in the same 18th-century tradition as the originals.”
There’s one particularly exciting and unusual aspect to the reproduction movement. While many private clients are looking to match auction pieces, change the scale of an original so it’s fit for modern purpose, or create a “working” version of something while storing the original as an investment piece, in some instances they want something “copied” that may not actually exist. This was the case with a George Hepplewhite-designed regency dressing table Bevan created. “We found the original design, but we don’t know if it was ever realised,” he says. “I have always been fascinated by the concept of creating pieces of furniture that had been designed in the 18th century but never made.” It’s the design equivalent of finding a lost Bach concerto or Rachmaninov symphony, and performing it today with the best orchestra in the world.
Walking into Adare Manor in County Limerick today is like opening a door into the European gothic revival at its height. The Great Hall (pictured on opening pages) is full of red velvet and polished wood, just as it might have looked when the second Earl of Dunraven had it refurbished 200 years ago. Except, of course, many of the furnishings in this stately home-turned-hotel are new.
Perhaps the most impressive pieces are a pair of desks in the aesthetic of Augustus Pugin, the architect and designer who helped define the neogothic look in the first half of the 19th century. While Pugin’s handiwork is evident in many of the rooms, these desks are the work of modern craftsmen working under the auspices of interior designer Kim Partridge. “We took inspiration from an archived image found by our client and combined it with elements of a Pugin desk that was in the prime minister’s office in the New Palace of Westminster in 1844,” explains Partridge. “Our design focused on the ecclesiastical aesthetics he was renowned for, adding carved ornate corner paterae and gothic-style recessed panels flanked by raised mouldings.” The timber of choice was a dark burr and straight-grain walnut, to give the desk the right depth of patina. “We worked closely with our cabinet maker in the south of England, a master craftsman who is able to create aged and antique-style pieces hand-finished to our exact requirements.”
Partridge also recently completed a project for a client with a home in France, who wanted a copy of an antique chandelier they’d admired in the Bibliothèque Mazarine in Paris. “We approached our bespoke lighting manufacturer Dernier & Hamlyn and created a reproduction using patterns taken from their archive. We then made new moulds in order to achieve the splendid 2.5m diameter the client required, cast in brass and painstakingly gold-leafed. Patience is a virtue on projects like this: the drawing stage took six weeks and the manufacture 28 weeks.”
The pricing of reproduction commissions is always “on application” and Partridge can’t discuss how much her modern Pugin desks cost to realise – but they are likely to endure for centuries. “If you recreate something with precisely the same skill and materials as the original, even perhaps making improvements in terms of function, you start to question what authenticity actually means.”