I had forgotten how close the election of 1801 was until reading Jefferson’s biography. Jefferson was looked upon as a radical, far too democratic in nature, by the Federalist Party. Jefferson’s own great fear was that the Federalists would want to re-align with England and that the American revolution and experiment in government would have all been for nothing. The election hung between Jefferson and Aaron Burr, nominally a Republican and Jefferson’s running mate, but had Burr received more votes, he would have been President. Jefferson won out despite the obvious politicking done by Burr to capture the Presidency.

The concept of what is or is not radical is often hard to make out in retrospect. English furniture was radically affected by the design work of William Kent, whose inspiration was entirely Italian and baroque in style. His work for Robert Walpole at Houghton House and later at other houses such as Holkham, changed English furniture style completely. You can learn about this at the Bard Graduate Center on 86th St. where there is a magnificent exhibition on William Kent. His influence helped create an English style that was unique and not reliant on Italian, Dutch or French inspiration.

Jefferson is now revered by both parties. He was a Republican and so the present day Republican Party lays claim to him, but his Republicanism was a far cry from what Republicans stand for today. Jefferson was against hereditary privilege and at the least, would disagree with the passing of excessive amounts of money (read privilege) from one generation to the next.  It is, however, Jefferson’s flaws that are magnified by those who wish to trivialize the third President’s contributions to American democracy. That is an easy thing to do as he was clearly hypocritical in his handling of both slavery and native Americans. That flaw should not be overlooked, but it is not his only legacy.


Jon Meacham’s biography, “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power”, has me wanting to get into greater depth on Jefferson’s life. Jefferson, despite his avowed republicanism, is every inch a thinker and every inch a politician. I admire the thinking part and realize, reluctantly, that the political side of the character is just as important.  I say reluctantly because Jefferson knew that a number of issues, most notably slavery, needed dealing with but that many of them were just too hot to handle for the young United States.

Jefferson was a shopper. He was amazed at the markets of Paris where he purchased all sorts of things from porcelain to furniture to chess sets to a copying machine (which I saw at Monticello two years ago and I just happen to have the identical model in inventory) and clothes. He was clearly impressed by the variety of items that he could buy, but he was also impressed by the quality of what he bought. American markets were developing rapidly but they just did not have the same breadth of goods available that could be found in Europe.

Jefferson’s overwhelming fear, the reason that he stayed in politics after returning from France, was that the American government would realign with the British monarchy. He felt that the natural outgrowth of the monarchy was privilege for the few. Having seen the French Revolution first hand, he felt it of great importance for the people to be part of the government. As a result, he did not feel that the Federal government was evil nor that it should be powerless. In other words, Jefferson realized that there were contradictions in democracy that required compromise. As I said, he was a thinker.


My daughter visited this weekend and iterated that she had stopped drinking the Apple Kool Aid and purchased herself a Galaxy phone. I applaud independent thinking and my daughter is inclined to figure things out for herself. So I mentioned that one of the early principles of capitalism was planned obsolescence or more prosaically the creation of products that were designed to fail in the long run. She was quite clearly offended by this concept. I, too, am offended by it as my three year old toaster oven seems completely over the hill, not to mention five phones in twelve years, several computers, etc.

Eighteenth century English furniture was built to last. One of the primary reasons is that the clients were not just difficult, they were basically in the position to bankrupt any cabinetmaker who did not make things of quality. This was particularly true in the early part of the 18th century when the market was so narrow for the high end makers. When the middle class started to expand, it became less true simply because there were more clients to turn to. The overall quality of furniture, in a broad sense, declined although it took years for it to lose the luster of the early 18th century makers.

My daughter has been furnishing her new apartment with things purchased off of Craig’s List. When I mentioned that I had bought some items for very little money at auction—that is 18th century furniture and that these pieces had survived 250 years, she was extremely interested. Her curiosity is based on the economics of the situation, first and foremost, but her sense of responsibility to the environment and her revulsion at the concept of planned obsolescence are also a factor. It is as good a way to get into the antiques world as any.


My friend Titi Halle, owner and operator of Cora Ginsburg Antique Textiles, called me the other day to talk about antique shows and how fragile the market seems these days. She also mentioned that I should go see a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art called the “Interwoven Globe”. I am glad she did because it is a great show. Actually, that doesn’t really say enough. It is an extraordinary show. Go to see it if you haven’t already.

If you are a fan of Chinese wall paper, you can see the classic wall paper design (that Gracie Wallpaper reproduces) in silk, double sided in vivid colors that paint could never hope to duplicate. Or, the early 18thcentury Japanese coat that suggests 20th century art. Then there are the “bizarre” silk materials from the late 17th to early 18th century which defy categorization. Or the silk Iranian carpet which has over 1000 knots per square inch. This is but a small sample of the great things on view.

There is so much that I realize that I have to go and look again. I was so enthusiastic that I felt that I had to buy the catalogue and yet not all of what is exhibited is in it, which is the only thing that annoys me about the exhibition. I have renewed admiration for Titi and the work that she does. She knows her material spectacularly well and yet the field of textiles is largely underappreciated and not that well understood. It would be nice to think that this exhibition could change that.