An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 100

Clinton Howell Antiques - October 19, 2020 - Issue 100
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
To start, I would like to recommend to all the San Francisco Fall Art and Antiques Show being sponsored by InCollect that I am exhibiting in. You can visit the show by clicking this link; 

Written histories gain or lose credibility as new information is unearthed or if a convincingly different point of view is set forth. One aspect of history that is alternately extolled and overlooked is the role of technology. We extol the creators of what we might consider seminal inventions such as the wheel, the light bulb, the internal combustion engine, etc., but we often forget what likely had huge impact on the outcome of a given moment. The proverb that bemoans, "for the want of a nail, a kingdom is lost", has validity. Having recently read Ron Chernow's excellent biography of Ulysses S. Grant, Chernow hails Grant as a military genius. He makes it clear that Grant was the first general in history to employ three armies simultaneously, his own as well as Sherman and Sheridan's armies, to defeat Lee who was thoroughly stuck in at Richmond. Grant's genius was feted around the world for his awareness of Lee's position and how he overcame it. How was it possible to manipulate three armies at once without communication--obviously, it was through the telegraph and, to some extent, the railroad. (For want of a telegraph...) To my mind, this raises all sorts of historical questions. Where did the wire line come from, how was it made, who strung the wire and was this technical superiority  solely a Union advantage? Would Grant have succeeded without the telegraph? (Grant took Vicksburg without a telegraph, so it is likely, but still, he understood how to use the tools at hand.) These questions are, at least for me, fascinating historical anomalies.

History is filled with such moments. Among the more famous yet little known historical facts is the first mass production line developed for making pulleys in Portsmouth, England in 1802. (One hundred years before Henry Ford.) Samuel Bentham (brother to the philosopher, Jeremy) and a Frenchman, Marc Isambard Brunel (father of the much more famous Isambard Kingdom Brunel, possibly the most famous English industrial designer of the 19th century) implemented a system to mass produce pulleys, something every ship needed hundreds, if not thousands, for smooth sailing. This innovation was clearly not thought much of at the time, possibly because it represented common sense and not a specific technical achievement, but it certainly helped the British navy to achieve dominance on the high seas. Technology is, in a manner of speaking, always in the back seat ready to be actuated when innovation is required and because of that, history either reflects on it, or not. 

My fascination with the role of technology was piqued by a visit, my first, to IKEA. I seldom buy any new furniture (surprise) because the old stuff works pretty well. But IKEA was really interesting. I would have loved to have had Brunel and Bentham along to see their modular concept in its twenty-first century form--US Grant might also have been intrigued as a planning problem. Even more intriguing to me is how history will view this product in a hundred years or more? Will it even be a footnote? For example, if you were to look at furniture patents in the 19th century, you will see endless patents for all sorts of furniture, most of it mechanical, but also for steel coils, springs, upholstery short cuts, etc. Little of it has survived (think Barcalounger) and none of it is remembered. History has walked right over an era of incredible innovation (for furniture) for a reason. It isn't used anymore and it has little to no interest, at least as furniture. This is not the case for 18th century furniture. Why has it survived and will it, in a hundred or more years, maintain its interest? As far as I am concerned, the odds are in favor of the 18th century product outlasting the IKEA product. The judge, fair or unfair, will be history. And there will be lots of back stories.