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.