An Antiquarian's Tale Issue 10

Clinton Howell Antiques - October 9, 2017 - Issue 10

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

The most interesting project of my second year at the London College of Furniture was a classmate's copy of the Pharaoh's chair from the Tutenkhamun Exhibition that opened at the British Museum in 1972. I remember waiting in long lines to go see that exhibition, the first blockbuster exhibition, I believe, in the world of art and antiques. I think you could say that globalism was given a huge shot in the arm by it, but I think you could also say that it was the nasence of a nativist mentality that determined who was allowed to own things not from their own country. So, while collectors geared up their checkbooks, national  leaders were descrying the plunder of their heritage. Without getting into the argument, I will say that collecting is as much about saving the world as plundering is in destroying it. There is a delicate balance that has yet to be found between the two.

My classmate certainly hit on a popular idea when he decided to copy the Golden Throne of Tutankhamun. The chair was  gaudy, as was my classmate's reproduction. But the effect of his choice made all of us realize that the world of furniture was much larger than English or even European furniture. The first plywood and therefore the first veneer, for example, was Egyptian. Hide glue, that aromatic jolt that I received each morning, was used in Egyptian times. The first claw feet were Egyptian. When you really started to look at furniture history, your realized that English furniture, as sophisticated as it is, was hardly the first at anything. Did the 18th century English craftsmen take the furniture making process better than it had ever been? Yes, but so did the French and the Germans. So, what was I thinking as I learned about how derivative everything was? In essence, it did not bother me for a second. Because I learned that English furniture is much more than a sum of its parts. It was a continuum, one that was illuminated as I read more and more English history. It was a poignant idiom, on a very large scale, in the world of the decorative arts, one that has enraptured many for its craftsmanship, design and beauty. Tutunkhamun's throne was just another good starting point for understanding that. 

To all my subscribers, I would like to offer tickets to either the San Francisco Fall Art and Antiques Show being held at Fort Mason from Oct.26-29. I am also doing the AADLA Fair in Wallace Hall located at St. Ignatius Loyola, located between 83rd and 84th Streets on Park Avenue, running from Oct. 27-30. I will be taking the red eye back from San Francisco in order to be at the AADLA Fair final day. Both shows should be really superb.

Looking at Furniture

I almost hesitate to show this table, one of a pair that a friend owns, not because they aren''t good, but because they embody the very best of English craftsmanship and yet in a very subtle manner that might normally go unnoticed by fans of the 18th century craftsmanship. (These tables date c. 1835.) The table looks pretty simple, plain, all mahogany with a little carving on the legs and trestle bases. But when you look at the carving, you realize that it isn't quite so simple. Furthermore, when you really closely look at all aspects of the table, you realize that a great deal of effort went into them. Aside from the very fine quality mahogany veneers, the table is an homage to complex simplicity. For some reason, the table reminds me of Chippendale the Younger's work at the Stourhead Library (Stourhead is located in Wiltshire and is famous for its lake surrounded by azaleas and rhododendrons, but the house has some extraordinary furniture). These tables date later than the furniture at Stourhead by a good twenty years and don't have the Chippendale name, but they certainly deserve notice. They are four feet wide and could either be used as consoles or a pair of writing tables.