An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 110

Clinton Howell Antiques - January 11, 2021 Issue 110
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
I am currently reading a book called, "The Shape of Time", by George Kubler. It is a type of book that I refer to as being a theory of everything, an attempt to explain how time, as the title suggests, shapes our world in a steady fashion--that newness and innovation are the expected results of continued replication and are, mostly, incremental. In addition, I was also at an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum called, "About Time Fashion and Duration" which I think Professor Kubler would have seen, at least in part, as a visual explanation of his book. But there is a question that has occurred to me in regards to replication and innovation. Kubler's thesis, if I understand him correctly, is that time, like water dripping on rock, creates a shape and that the human contribution of any one moment to the shaping of the rock is infinitesimal.  And when you see the dresses on display, where a dress from an earlier date is paired with one of a later date, you see that very little is "new".  My question is where does the concept of taste, also called style, sit in this theory?

Taste is complicated to parse simply because it is both proactive and reactive. For example, I have mentioned how Lord Burlington was an avatar for the Palladian style in London because he believed that it was the proper style for a republic and that Britain was the first proper Republic since Roman times. Obviously, he was trying to establish a style based on his beliefs. But if you jump ahead to Thomas Hope's, "Household Furniture and Interior Decoration" (1807) you see a reaction to, or more aptly against, current taste, a desire to go in a new direction. Clearly, taste is extraordinarily important in shaping events, shaping space, shaping thought and steering society so clearly there is a role for understanding taste. It is the influencers of taste therefore who, in a small way, are responsible for innovation heading in a particular direction. If you look at the water dripping on the stone, taste might be the wind that causes the drip to move just a hair, the beating of the butterfly wings that in the short run are incidental, but in the long run are consequential. 

We can't avoid taste--on a personal level, it is something we all have and depends wholly on how deeply you wish to involve yourself in the choices you make from what you wear to what you buy to where you live. Income, of course, will make a difference, but it is not the defining factor of taste by any stretch. Taste is like writing--you need to know grammar, you have to have a decent vocabulary and you have to be willing to try things and make mistakes. I remember the early issues of the magazine, "Interiors", before it made it to the US and was only available in the UK. The photography was superb, but what was really great was the broad range of tastes on display. They were not like country houses I have been writing about in the slightest. Instead they were visions woven by people who really cared to live in an environment that was they had shaped. Furthermore, you could be appalled by an interior, but admire it just the same. Like writing, taste is variable, witty, warm, amusing, severe, dramatic, what have you--it is a conscious choice about how you wish to live. It is also a concrete record, if recorded, of how you live(d).

My interest in taste is due to my passion for English furniture. English furniture of the 18th century is the visual representation of a history, but there is a lot more than what we see in one particular piece. There are the tools, the apprentice system, the workshops, the changing society and the daily incremental change they all undergo--all of this is represented in the decorative arts in stories that are both alive and some that will never be told. To see the shaping of furniture styles through the 18th century is much like the exhibition of fashion that I saw at the Met. Styles interweave--absolute innovations are minor, but details pop up from time to time which come and go. And yet the change over time in styles of chairs, for example, from 1700 to 1840, is visually quite dramatic. That the English craftsmen were so facile at woodworking and individual enough to try new concepts helped create a history of taste that is an extraordinary journey. My only hope is that the current disdain for 18th century English furniture doesn't cause us to lose this visual history because of its demotion to being "old fashioned taste". There's no such thing as far as I can tell.