Big and Little History in Three Parts

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,, 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.

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