The belief that the world will end if we don’t take an action, almost any action, has come to be the norm for governments. It is a dangerous state as it forces everyone to think in black and white, good guy vs. bad guy. The harm that it can do is enormous and, if you think about such moments in history, they tend to lead to authoritarian rule. People in power  make decisions that are based on instinct and if those instincts are wrong, oh boy.

This is what is happening on a layer of different levels in the US government. The ISIS threat has assumed massive importance and though it should not be ignored, I can’t believe in the omnipotence of their ability to sow mayhem. On a different level, but one that means a great deal to antique dealers, is the rhetoric surrounding the plight of the elephant. What has never been fully explained by anyone is how the banning of the sale of antique ivory will save the elephant.

Hysteria has a number of downsides. The worst of them is how it undermines the confidence of people who are working to solve a problem in a rational fashion. In essence, the cry of “wolf” is self defeating and liable to disillusion an important audience. This is how a number of dealers feel about non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as the World Wildlife Fund, a terrific organization, but one that is not open to compromise.

Our globalized society has distinct opportunities to do good, but not if situations are hyped on emotions and instinct. Thoughtfulness can save both time and money and be far more effective in dealing with problems. The pundits that love to talk in a black and white fashion should not be given the platforms they have as they are not looking for dialogue, they are playing to an audience that wants to hear their kind of message. The hysteria epidemic is on us. We need to take it down a notch.


Part III

In the first year or two of “The Antiques Road Show”, the hugely popular PBS show that encourages people to bring in their treasures for valuing by “experts”, there was an episode in Seattle where a man brought in a highboy, I think it was from Connecticut or Massachusetts. It glistened like a new penny and the owner was clearly delighted with himself for the condition it was in. However, the expert informed him that, without the original finish, which the owner had stripped, the value of the high boy was far less, from a high of $100,000 to around $35,000.

I tell this story because the most important lesson that I learned at the London College of Furniture was to do as little as possible to a piece of furniture—don’t remove anything and make sure that whatever you may be adding is reversible. This is the philosophy behind all conservation and it is not an easy one to maintain. At times, conservation can seem like the opposite of restoration, at least in the minds of the customer. But philosophical conversion is easier when you relate the story of the man from Seattle. And that is where you are led when you focus on a subject—you develop an understanding and a philosophy which will be a large part of your life.

David Christian’s “Big History” demonstrates how history is whatever you want to make it, not in terms of re-writing it, of course, but as a porthole to engagement. You can stop off at any point in the history of the earth and be fascinated by the steps that led to us being here now and you can even try to glimpse the future as he does in his TED talk. I found the fascination of history by starting small and branching ever outwards into more and different areas that in some way related to the history of antique furniture. Frankly, I feel that I only skimmed the surface, that the potential for exploration into why things are the way they are is, well, limitless.


Part II

What I was able to see in my new found passion were tangible objects still surviving today that directly related to and part of real history. But the London College of Furniture was nothing, if not thorough, about all that we should learn. We also had other courses to do with timber technology. In this class, we delved into botany, entomology, chemistry, hydrology, mycology—it was all on the table since all of these can affect furniture at some point or another. Of these, botany interested me the most in that I was fascinated why the primary show woods (surface timbers) in English furniture—oak, walnut and mahogany—became known to cabinet makers. Why not maple, teak, yew, sycamore, beech, elm, chestnut, etc.? </p> <p>The questions kept coming as you might imagine. The answers were not always logical, either. For example, the 18<sup>th</sup> century carvers were said to have preferred mahogany to walnut, but every carver I have talked to says that they are both good to carve. Apparently, thanks to the research of John Cross and Adam Bowett, the real reason for the switch to mahogany surfaced as being caused by stiff taxes being assessed on walnut from France. Economic theorists would enjoy the consequences of that action and would no doubt use it demonstrate the function of government overreach. In this case, it introduced an entire new timber to the English cabinetmaking world.</p> <p>There is more, of course, if you allow your mind to roam. There is the understanding of trade routes and the influences they had on taste. There is the history of tools and craft as well as the history of machinery and even metallurgy. All of these relate to the creation of furniture. Of particular interest to me was understanding the chemistry of finishes such as lacquer, varnish, paint, shellac, wax, and oil. Frankly, I realized after about ten years that it was the history of mankind and virtually all knowledge that I was studying, not just the history of furniture. To  put things in perspective,  I was doing the work that I could have done earlier, only now there was a context to it.

 


Part I

David Christian is an Anglo-American history professor teaching in Australia who decided that he would approach the teaching of history in a broader fashion, in a way that encompassed not just history but which would inevitably link history with all of the sciences and humanities. He called it “Big History” and he was extremely successful in converting at least one wealthy patron, the wealthiest as it happens, Bill Gates. You can see a short synopsis, 18 minutes, on Christian’s Ted talk, https://www.ted.com/talks/david_christian_big_history, which starts with the Big Bang and runs through to the present day.

When I attended the London College of Furniture in the early 1970’s I had no idea where it would lead me. I wasn’t sure of what I was getting into in the first place, I just knew that I wanted to get involved in life in London and that I might learn how to make furniture at the same time. It wasn’t long before I was turned off by the modern manufacturing process with its noisy and dangerous machines and was drawn to the antique restoration course, a small group of people whose commitment to the craft aspect of antiques was impressive. As I was new to craft and relatively inept at all aspects of restoration, I realized that I had to do more to catch up to what the course was about.

I started to catch up by going to the library and reading the books on furniture history. There was the legendary set of four volumes entitled, “The Age of Oak”, “The Age of Walnut”, “The Age of Mahogany” and “The Age of Satinwood” by Percy MacQuoid. There were also books by Herbert Cescinsky, R.W. Symonds and Ralph Edwards. All of a sudden, and not really putting a great deal of thought into what I was reading, I found myself immersed in English history. But the story of English history is the story of European history as well as American history, etc. In other words, I found myself looking at world history through the eyes of someone interested in furniture.

It seemed a bizarre turn of events as I had never taken any European history courses, I had in fact studiously ignored doing so. I remember not wanting to memorize dates and names and here I was learning about Catherine de Braganza from Portugal, Louis XIV and his defeat at the Battle of Blenheim, Catherine the Great, Frederick the Great, Napoleon, etc. But now I wanted to learn about them and that was, of course, the difference. I was involved in figuring out the pattern that led to how and why English furniture developed the way it did. It was political science that focused on the role of luxury design and its role as the enhancement of a monarch’s greatness.