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.