An Antiquarian's Tale Issue 12

Clinton Howell Antiques - October 23, 2017 - Issue 12
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts

My greatest fascination at the London College of Furniture was in learning about woods. My skill is largely gone at this point in time--I am down to the obvious woods used in furniture making while the more exotic timbers are obscure to my memory. Gribble, the wood technology teacher gave us the single most important information on wood identification which was to it identify by the size of the pores. The size of pores is classified, although it can be a loose classification depending on how wet or dry a growing season may be. As a rule, larger pores tend to be the result of a growth spurt, usually associated with either spring or a rainy season. Oak, ash, hickory, chestnut and elm all have strong growth periods in the spring and are all ring porous. Timbers like maple, birch, sycamore, linden are semi-ring porous, having smaller pores. Their spring growth is not as pronounced. And then there are diffuse porous woods. Boxwood and ebony are both diffuse porous trees. Tropical timbers can have strong growth spurts, teak is often classified as a ring porous timber for this reason. Even mahogany can have moments where the pores are larger because of a growth spurt, but as a rule, most tropical timbers are semi-ring porous or semi-diffuse porous. 

Among my greatest pleasures at this time was in visiting the veneer merchants in Islington called Crispin's to look at all of the veneer they had on hand. Wood is just one of those materials, sort of like gems without the flash, that is marvelous to look at. (George Nakashima, the cabinetmaker, certainly understood this by emphasizing the use of untrimmed timber in his designs.) I was almost always joined by one of my friends from the Musical Instrument group at the College when I went to Crispin's and he quickly learned that I, like he, was a sucker for looking at exotic woods. We found sources for exotic timbers near and far. I remember driving to Norfolk to find some Brazilian "walnut", which was a good looking timber (but not as nice as English walnut in my eyes). On that trip to Norfolk, we passed the then under construction M25 (London circular road) and I remember passing a stand of poplar that were being cut and my co-conspirator urging me to stop to grab a sizable hunk--he used it for frets in lutes and guitars.

Looking at Furniture  

This is a bowl by Philip Moulthrop that I sold several years ago. Philip is the son of Ed and father of Matt, all of them wood turners and all highly esteemed for their craft. All three of them started careers in other fields, but wood turning captured their imaginations and their work can be found in many American collections and museums. This particular bowl is made of Liriodendron tulipifera, also known as poplar, a tree that can be found up to the border of Connecticut and Massachusetts and along the coast as far as Boston. The northern range of the tree is likely increasing as our weather warms. It is not the most prepossessing timbers when cut into planks (see photo below) although it you can find country furniture made with it. The wood has a slight greenish tinge when it is cut. 

The photograph below was one I took at the Metropolitan Museum in the American wing. It is a section of the musuem where everything is behind glass and more or lass crammed to the gills with what I would guess is a small portion of some of what has been donated. This photo shows a drawer "exploded", i.e. a drawer pre assembly (in this case, because it is "exploded", post assembly) with the front of the drawer at the bottom, the bottom liner above it and the side liner to the left. The bottom and the side are of poplar and the front, I think, was birch. (You can see the holes for the drawer pulls.) Poplar grows to great height and width making it a terrific tree for wide boards that can be used in drawer liner bottoms or on the backs of case  pieces. However, it is a far better turning timber and is more interesting in that iteration.

I would like to add that the drawer construction is standard for 18th century furniture. The English might have had more dovetails and finer than these. (There are American pieces with finer dovetails as well.) In England, the liners would be oak or pine--you can occasionally find them mixed with the side liners made of oak and the bottoms of pine. Dovetail construction is tedious and time consuming. The head of the woodworking department at the London College of Furniture told me that he and a technician made eight drawers one day just to see how quickly they could work. I imagine that, in the 18th century, that would have been a reasonably good pace, but something tells me that when you are really practiced at doing something, your speed becomes a function of unfettered application.