An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts

The College did not teach a course in furniture styles. If we were interested in style, we needed to go to the library on the sixth floor, across the hall from the cafeteria. This was where I learned about the pioneers of English furniture history. Percy MacQuoid, Herbert Cescinsky, and R.W. Symonds. These were the style books of note, but it was Symonds who elevated the field to a level of expertise that set a standard for almost all authors thereafter. Importantly, he was a connoisseur, a man who understood the concept. later mined by Albert Sack in his work “Good, Better, Best”, that not all antiques are created the same. Minor changes in proportion, in detail, in timber could all affect how the object presented itself. Most of all, two craftsmen (or more accurately workshops) could interpret the same design quite differently. This may seem obvious, but if I say Chippendale chair, it evokes an image, not of the wide ranging styles that Chippendale chairs can be in, but of one particular chair. Rightly or wrongly, it limits your view of the antique genre.

The restoration department clearly knew that its students needed to understand a dimension that other students in the College didn’t necessarily need to know. That was the reason for the field trips that we took, albeit under our own steam, to various houses both within and outside of London, including Clandon, near Guildford in Surrey and Knole in Kent. We also visitied Ham House, Marble Hill House and we went behind the scenes of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Indeed, the museum sent along a set of Charles II “Restoration” chairs that were beset by worm. We were cautioned not to touch them, hollowed out as they were, as just by gripping them too hard could cause them to disintegrate in your hand. It was the most drastic case of worm I have ever seen and, because they had sat in a storeroom untouched for years on end, showed how efficient Anobium can be when left unmolested.

Visiting houses is its own reward insofar as you learn to be aware about how things fit. For example, visiting Ham House lets you see something very different from what you see at Chiswick House. What was the purpose of either house and why is the furniture in them appropriate? In these two houses, that is not such a difficult concept to ascertain and for the furniture expert, it teaches you that not all pieces of furniture were meant for an obvious function. Chiswick is a folly, in essence, a pleasure dome, an exercise in grand Palladian design. Ham is a house that is being lived in and utilized where functionality and scale are closely monitored. Visiting houses helps to interpret the photographs of furniture that you find in Symonds, et al, and makes it less iconic and far more approachable.

Looking at Furniture

The cabriole leg looks like such a simple, even obvious idea. Make a curved leg that has balance and that looks appropriate to the size of the item the leg is supporting. To be frank, there are lots of different styles of cabriole legs, but very few really good ones. This is the leg of a stool made of walnut circa 1715 belonging to a friend who sold it last year to a collector in San Francisco. I was interested in it because I once owned the pair to it, which I sold to Stair and Company back in the early 90’s. The stool works on a number of levels that work together, such as the oval shape which is relatively small, the curve on the leg nicely capped with the shell decoration and the sizable pads under the feet all help to offer a feeling of tension, sort of like a ballerina on tiptoe whose balance is just right. When you see the stool in real life, you realize that it was not made for a large scale drawing room, but for an intimate setting. As it happens, a pair of these stools came on the market recently and I was able to buy into them, so now I have either seen or owned four stools of this model. Unfortunately, I think the photographer over-emphasized the chromatic yellow in the shot, but you can rest assured that the stool, as well as the pair that I own, are not so orange and are, in fact, superb color. As an aside, I will say that photographing furniture is an art that is very hard to master.


An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts

The instructors at the colleges were not expert in everything so outside teachers were brought in, specifically for carving and gilding. The gilder, Mike Baker, was one of the very best in London and could achieve an old looking finish that the antiques trade just loved. Mike is long dead, but his assistant, Glen Beckwith, continues in his tradition. Anthony Harrington was the wood carver and Tony has been a life long friend. Indeed, the photo at left is of a 1755 rococo girandole and he carved the pair on my website. He, and his foreman, Barry, nearly went crazy doing it. The carving is in pine and is extraordinarily complex. My own talent in the field of carving was nonexistent, but I remember as a 19 year old seeing Brancusi’s “workshop” in the basement of the Louvre and feeling a great attraction to the concept of creating things out of wood with chisels. It continues to fascinate me, even now.

My favorite hands on class was in the polishing studio on the second floor. Burt Burrell, my teacher, was born Cockney and was my introduction not only to polishing, but Cockney rhyming slang. “Let’s take a butcher’s”, he would say, which in slang is shortening the rhyme for “look” from butcher’s hook. He was a remarkably agile finisher in modern and antique methods. The polishing department was very up to date on the latest materials and techniques, although both wax and French polishing were my fortes. Faux finishing, at least from a polisher’s perspective, which means to be able to create oak from a pine base (not easy because of the lack of pores in pine) or satinwood from mahogany (satinwood has few pores and mahogany has a fair number so the grain had to be well filled) was difficult. Burt was a master of all.

But my really favorite class, not upholstery despite my initial interest, was the Wood Technology class run by a man we affectionately called Gribble (a type of woodworm). His full time job was as a consultant, mostly about homes that were afflicted by wet or dry rot (a home destroyer that is hard to conquer). He taught us about the Anobium punctatum (the woodworm that most everyone knows) and got me interested in wood identification which was ultimately going to compel me to look at and photograph timber trees. He was the first to tell us about a product being developed that would seep into and fill the pores on badly eaten sections of woodworm. That product obviated the need to fill the holes one by one with hot glue, a tedious and very labor intensive job. He also made it clear that every piece of furniture fumigated needed two shots as you needed to wait three weeks after the first fumigation to fumigate any eggs that might have reached the larval (the destructive phase) stage. Gribble’s fascination with his own subject was entirely infectious and inspiring.

Looking at Furniture

This pair of consoles were sold by me several years ago, but remain a great favorite. I don’t think the rams’ heads above the legs are necessarily beautifully carved detail per se (in fact, the heads are cast composition) although their faux bronze finish not only works, but has held up very well in the last two hundred years. The classicism is almost in code, with “columns” that have faux volutes and a bead, rams’ heads and little else. I think the design is remarkably successful with an artistic quality that is very rare in high end English furniture. I don’t mean that high end furniture is not artistic–it most certainly is–but that makers seldom dared to be so creative in execution at this time, circa 1815. And when they were, their success was, as a rule, mixed, although almost always interesting. One of the leading architects of this era, Sir John Soane whose house museum in Lincoln’s Inn, London, is well worth seeing, practiced intensely severe classicism. The designer of these tables was most certainly aware of Soane’s work as these tables epitomize his philosophy of less is more.

The second great feature of these tables is the quality of the mahogany. The mahogany, Swietenia mahogani, I believe, was first used in Europe in 1514 in Spain. It only became the wood of choice for cabinetmakers after the English Parliament slapped a tax on walnut in the 1740’s of one pound per pound. Mahogany, if brought from British colonies (often as ballast) was five pence per pound. As it happened, it became a very popular timber at least partly for the spectacular color a good polisher could evoke. With time, it also develops a tremendous patina, clearly evident in this pair of tables. It is also interesting to note that I bought these two tables years apart. They both came out of the Midlands of England and I bought the first and liked it so much that I took it home for a number of years. And then the second one showed up so I made an economic decision that I could not ignore.


An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts

The London College of Furniture is a nondescript seven story white brick building about a quarter mile from the Aldgate East tube station. The neighborhood, at least in 1972, was mainly two to three story buildings so from the fifth floor up on the stair well in the College, you had a bird’s eye view of everything to the east. The most interesting thing was a building almost next door that was, essentially, two buildings at a right angle to one another joined by a curve-not just a curve, a ravishing curve that the roofline elegantly revealed. I understand that it was torn down. Alas, alack!

The restoration class was located on the fourth floor and most people would start to arrive by 8, even though classes officially started at 9. The restoration class was composed of older, more mature students who clearly wanted to get their work done and move on. Before I knew it, I was learning how to sharpen tools and cut joints—mortise and tenon, dovetail, lapped, finger, etc. I was not that adept with a chisel and, frankly, the very first thing you need to learn is to not fight with the material you are working with as it just makes everything that much more difficult. Repetition teaches you this, but in a way, it is not much different from learning any skill—practice, practice, practice.

The most distinct memory that I have of that room is the overwhelming odor of hide glue, the essential glue of mankind since the dawn of civilization. Made from the bones of animals (there are other less glutinous glues made from rabbit skins and fish bones, but hide is THE furniture glue) it is heated in a double boiler and applied hot. It is an amazing adhesive, but like all glues, it relies most on the quality of the items being glued. For example, a rub joint is made between two flat surfaces. All you really have to do is apply glue to both surfaces and rub the pieces together—no clamp is required. If however, they aren’t flat, they will not glue properly. Elementary logic, but not one easily grasped by amateur woodworkers who insist on using epoxies or casein (milk based) glues. Furthermore, those glues always need clamping.

Looking at Furniture

The detail of the top of this Regency center table (c. 1815) does, I believe, reveal the power of porphyry. It is porphyry mined in the Sinai Peninsula and was the marble of choice for the grandest of items. The Vatican Museum has an enormous tazza of porphyry, rather ill-proportioned in my opinion, but enormously wide (ten feet at least, if I remember correctly. I also well remember visiting the Archaeology Museum of Istanbul and seeing three wonderfully carved, porphyry sarcophagi, slightly damaged, sitting outside in the rain. These would be major exhibits in London, New York, Beijing or Paris. Without doubt, there are more examples of this splendid marble scattered throughout the Mediterranean area. Porphyry is extraordinarily rare now.

What I love about this table is the scale of it. It is 34” high and I can

see it being used in a sculpture gallery that is painted in grey and white so that the only color would be found in either the sculptures themselves or on the table top. The frame around the top has a delicate gilded bead that has lost most of its gilding. Other bronze on the table includes the feet and open fret gallery on the base, a very unusual feature. The strongest woodworking feature is, without doubt the stem which is reeded (hollowed out). I will be taking this table to the San Francisco Fall Art and Antiques Show at the end of October.