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Majestic stone figures populate a 'world of beauty'

For almost a hundred years, the Crowther family here has been selling period garden ornaments out of great landscaped parks and the courtyards, terraces, pavilsions, and gardens of the stately homes, neglected castles, and vast chateaux of England and Europe.

Crowther of Syon Lodge, situated in a former dower house built by the Adams brothers for the Duke of Northumberland in 1770, is one of England's most unusual antiques businesses. It specializes in indoor and outdoor statuary and enormous wrought-iron gates, and in period paneled rooms and mantelpieces removed before demolition of great estate houses.

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During an interview with Derek Crowther, present head of the firm, and his wife, Cornelia, we sit in a courtyard crowded with its own population of majestic stone figures, lifesize classical marble statutes, crouching lions, sleek bronze dogs, stone gladiators in combat, carved griffins, and lead cupids.

In the distance are graceful fountains, aviaries, great urns, jardinieres, and wall masks from long-gone gardens -- plus a perfect 17th-century Italian temple made of Istrian marble that could be bought for a mere $21,000. A tall obelisk, soaring skyward, once graced an 18th-century landscape. A stone sundial from the garden of an English country house seems a bargain at $480. And a Regency garden bench seat on wheels was marked at $1,100.

The business began, Mr. Crowther relates, with his grandfather, Tom Crowther, a stonemason in Fulham who produced marble mantels and who also restored mantelpieces for the British aristrocracy and the West End London trade.

"When he discovered what antique dealers got for the pieces he had expertly repaired, he decided to go into business for himself -- buying, restoring, and selling such fittings from old houses," Mr. Crowther says. "It was his son Bert who later bought Syon Lodge and expanded the business to include the rich array of garden ornaments and furnishings and the magnificent wood paneling from drawing rooms and dining rooms of great houses."

Strolling through the workshops where objects are repaired for resale, Mr. Crowther continues, "It is incredible.We are specialists in garden pieces, but these days we have to go farther and farther afield to find them. We not only buy all over England, but in France and Italy as well. We even foresee a time when we may have to start buying back what we have sold to the United States."

Because there is a dwindling supply and an increasing demand, Mr. Crowther admits it is difficult to keep up his stock of 16th-, 17th-, 18th-, and 19 th-century artifacts, "although when a great country house is coming down and a garden is being bulldozed, the owners are good to let us know."

The fading of empire took some of the glamour away from owning country estates, and the number of outstanding country houses began to decline about half a century ago.

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Restoration craftsmen are also disappearing, Mr. Crowther says, and the skilled stonemasons, joiners, and woodworkers that he most needs are particularly hard to find.

Yet, he continues, "When we sell a roomful of paneling [the pine paneling we were inspecting had just been sold to an American industrialist for $27,000], we ship it and install it. After six months, when the wood has settled down and adjusted to the humidity of its new location, we send experts back to take care of any shrinkage, cracks, or other repairs."

He says the logistics of the business requires many laborers to truck objects from all parts of England and the Continent, ship them across oceans, and simply to move the big and weighty treasures around the premises.

People drop in from all over the world to browse through the showrooms, workshops, and courtyards, although about 80 percent of sales now go to the US -- to landscape architects, interior designers, shops, and private individuals.

"Americans," Mr. Crowther says, "really know something about the good pieces, and they understand them. They know that such things represent craft skills that are often dead or dying, and that present-day reproductions have neither the patina nor the character of originals."

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth selected mantelpieces and garden ornaments for Windsor Castle here. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor purchased lead garden figures, fire dogs, and marble mantelpieces for their Paris home. Young members of the royal family still come to Mr. Crowther for help in finding suitable outdoor antiques.

Crowther of Syon Lodge today not only maintains the original quarters at Busch Corner, London Road, Isleworth, Middlexes, but also maintains a showroom at 6 Old Bond Street in London.

"It is a tough business today," Derek Crowther concludes. "To make a good living at it, you have to get up early in the morning, and get on the road, and stay on the move, in order to find the material and the skills that you need to keep going. But we feel we are dealing with a world of romanticism and beauty, of history and tradition, and we are proud to be a part of it."

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