A number of years ago, a new book was published by Dr. Adam Bowett entitled, “English Furniture; 1660-1714, From Charles II to Queen Anne”. I was familiar with Dr. Bowett’s work from articles he had written for The Furniture History Society and his efforts to debunk some of the shibboleths of earlier historians and of the antiques trade. Dr. Bowett’s approach is to look for commercial reasons as to why things happened in the trade such as the move, for example, from walnut to mahogany, a move predicated by the high import duties placed on walnut by the English government and for no other reason. His method is to examine trade records, census records and physical evidence from saw cuts to wood dyes. To me, it is pragmatic and practical and leaving very little to hypotheses based on “educated’ guesses.

I was lucky enough to hear Dr. Bowett speak last Monday at the Royal Oak. He mentioned a number of statistics that I thought quite startling. For example, the population of London in 1720 was approximately 500,000 and one in every twenty people was involved in some aspect of the furniture making or dsipersing business. Another startling statistic is that the English exported furniture to virtually every country in Europe, save for France, at a rate of five pieces to every one they imported. England, as it turns out, was the cabinetmaker for Europe and explains why so much furniture in the English style is still found throughout Europe.

I have taught classes over the years and have always emphasized the fact that the interior decoration industry, which of course includes furniture production, was the US Steel or GM for the British as those two companies were for America in the 1950’s. It was a gigantic industry, capable of stylistic and practical adaptation virtually overnight. Dr. Bowett makes this clear and I can only hope that those people who enjoy this kind of social history will see fit to purchase his first book and the second one coming out in November that covers the years 1714-1740.

William Gaddis’ book, “The Recognitions” is to reading as driving to Buffalo in a snowstorm from New York City is to motoring. It is a long and difficult ride, but it is quite extraordinary and the gist of it is about what is or more likely, what is not original. It is a subject that has to concern every kind of artist as the source for inspiration doesn’t reside solely in the creative side of our cerebellum. We have all been imprinted with a way of seeing and doing that has bearing on what has gone on before. Hence, is anything truly original?

The furniture world, particularly today, is very far from being original in my opinion. It might well be creative and, at times pleasingly unusual, but never original. Eileen Gray’s chair that sold at the Yves St. Laurent-Pierre Berge sale for twenty-eight million dollars was not original. It was different and extremely striking and I would have loved to have owned it, but that is all I can say about it. I think the predicament for all furniture designers is to design in a way that emphasizes one aspect of a piece over another, but that has been going on since furniture design began. In other words, the gradual development of furniture makes Ms. Gray’s chair just another layer to the rather vast cake of chair design not unlike the way trees add layers year in and year out and grow bigger and seemingly more complex.

I think the word creative is far more important to understand than the word original, at least when it comes to design. Original denotes to me a transcendant uniqueness and that, in my opinion, belies the modus operandi of all design. Of course, I am linking in with the Theory of Evolution here, not on purpose but through logic. If there is a God, he had to have had the sense to try and fail, try and fail and then try and succeed. Design is a gradual process that even a supreme being would have had to use to create what has been created in this world and hence His designs, like the ones in the furniture world, evolved. It has hard to call anything original when you realize all that has gone before. Mitigate that with the joy of being creative, different and unusual and the thrill in design is still to be had.

The rash of incivility that has burst upon the American public like fetid pustules in various venues across the nation leaves one gasping at the lack of acuity on the part of those people who feel that their angst, anger or other emotion is worth our notice. Furthermore, why do they feel that the people and organizations they represent such as the House of Representatives or the United States Tennis Association deserve their bad behavior? Take everything else away and it is nothing but bad behavior.

John Cobb, the famed cabinetmaker who was partnered with William Vile, was said to have been haughty. In the mid eighteenth century in England, you had to be extremely good to get away with such behavior or you would get no further work. Given that cabinetmakers waited almost as long to be paid as tailors, you can possibly forgive a certain froideur. But incivility remains incivility and that is bad manners.

Perhaps it is a fear of the future that makes people behave badly. If ever there was a moment when the future seems uncertain, it is now and that may be the source of all these tantrums. I regret to say that bad manners are unforgivable regardless of the moment. I hope that I have always behaved but fear that I have not. In that case, I apologize one more time for any past intemperance on my part.

I well remember the day I walked around the Victoria and Albert Museum in London back in 1972 and found to my surprise that I could identify the date of most of the furniture without reading the labels on the cards. It was a little bit like having the key to something you never thought you would be able to unlock. There is a sense of exhilaration in realizing that you have knowledge, albeit as limited as I knew it to be at that point in my career.

Among the most interesting furniture made in eighteenth century England was “transitional” furniture, furniture that bridged the style interregnum from one stylistic era to the next as, for example, from the rococo to the neoclassical. This furniture is not coveted when it is awkward or aesthetically challenged but those pieces are rare, because eighteenth century cabinetmakers were just that good in leaping from one style to the next.

It is almost always transitional furniture that stumps the neophyte enthusiast. Style books and museums prefer to feature examples of stylistic finesse, not the rare, hard-to-find transitional pieces. If there was ever a need for going to see furniture in shops, particularly high end antique establishments, it is for filling in this knowledge gap. It is far more intriguing to look at both the debasement of one style and the genesis of another all in one piece as it forces us to think. Isn’t that a good thing?

William Gaddis’ book, “The Recognitions”, is not a book with a great plot, but the writing is sublime and I am assuming that the plot will catch up. There are certainly some hilarious passages. And there are some wonderful and rather perspicacious sentences several of which I quote below;

“Most people are clever because they don’t know how to be honest.”

“Thus, therefore, are those also who do not know what is true yet hold some appearance of knowledge, and do many evil things as if they were good, and hasten to destruction as if it were salvation.”

The second quote is particularly poignant vis-a-vis the screamers at the town hall meetings who wish to drown out any discussion on health care.

The great thing about antique furniture, and it is definitely one of the reasons that became a dealer of furniture, is that all objects have a sense of honesty, even the ones that have been altered or which some people like to call fakes. After all, the objects only speak for themselves.

The protagonist in William Caddis’ novel, ” The Recognitions”, Wyatt Gwyon, is a faker of old master paintings. As the novel was published in the 1950’s, old master paintings were considered the ne plus ultra of art investments. That is no longer the case, but what is so interesting is not the fakery but the artist. Unlike Ayn Rand’s noble architect, Howard Roark, in “The Fountainhead” whose originality is unquestioned, Gwyon is made to appear as if he channels old master artists. His character is both an aesthete and a misanthrope, a life dedicated to art and little else. And the enigma is that the one painting he can’t complete is the portrait of his mother.

In the early 1970’s when I was a student at the London College of Furniture, I came to know a great many restorers from outside the college. Almost all of them had stories about the 1930’s and trying to get things into great collections past the gamut of experts that would determine authenticity. One fellow carried around a story about a tea caddy that he had made and which was bought by Percival Griffiths, the noted walnut collector. As far as these men were concerned, they might just be craftsmen, but they knew enough to outsmart the experts. Such is the role of every expert, to ultimately be outsmarted.

Gaddis’ character seems more disconnected than anything else, but that is the Gaddis style. At one point, however, he gets a little technical and talks about the glair from eggs used to help create craqueleur in a painting. It reminds me just a bit of Robertson Davies in the Cornish Trilogy, Bred in the Bone is one that I remember, or of Lovejoy, the antique “divvy” created by Jonathan Gash. Faking is really not so complicated. It is like magic. Just get all the heads turned in one direction and go in the opposite direction. The problem is that sooner or later, someone will catch on. They always do.

William Gaddis’ book, “The Recognitions” , is a dense novel filled with abstruse references, a few of which I can grasp and some which flow right by me. The vocabulary is equally dense and his prose borders on poetry from time to time. At one point, his protagonist, Wyatt Gwyon, utters a terrific and memorable line, “every work of art is a perfect necessity”. The statement redounds with meaning and speaks of the nature of art and its sense of originality and uniqueness.

English antique furniture from the 18th century is not original in the sense that its source is a continuum of design that spread through Europe in the early to mid 18th century. However, in the sense that every craftsmen becomes a designer in the making of a piece of furniture, every piece is unique. It is this which makes 18th century English furniture so compelling. As compelling as later design is in the 19th and 20th centuries, and some of it most certainly is for its original use of materials and clean design, it is the 18th century that works so well for me.

Contemporary art, as far as I can see, is driven by investment value. There are names who have made the grade and most that have not. I don’t think it is because of the intrinsic value of their work in either case, it is more about who can make the best case for being a cause celebre. Money counts in this world of art and it will be interesting if future generations agree or believe that this world of the early twenty-first century was crazy. As far as I can see, perfect necessity seems the last thing on peoples minds these days