An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 127

Clinton Howell Antiques - May 10, 2021 - Issue 127
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
Time for a commercial break. "The Spring Show", our springtime version of the 12 day show similar to what we, the AADLA (the Art and Antique Dealers League of America) did at Christmas, is viewable on I think you will enjoy it. There is an interview of me about the show and some of the objects and art work are truly amazing--not just my own inventory. In case you aren't familiar with it, it runs for 12 days, has new objects every day and is a simple scroll through of items--just 37 per day so as not to tax computer skills and/or take up your whole day and make the process simple. Today is Day 4. I hope you enjoy it.

The Anson name is well known in England among seafarers as it was Admiral George Anson (1697-1762) who, in the 1740's, circumnavigated the globe taking some enormous prizes (captured ships) that set the Admiral up financially for the rest of his life. (For Patrick O'Brian fans, Anson's voyage was the story of "The Golden Ocean"--O'Brian's novels are great historical romps featuring the 18th and early 19th century British Navy with incredible detail. His later series of Aubrey/Maturin novels rivals the Horatio Hornblower series.) A lot of that fortune was plowed into Shugborough Hall in Staffordshire, a house that I visited once in the 1980's. Oddly, he was not the owner of the house--his older brother was the owner--but supplied cash for expansion, notwithstanding. It is not a prepossessing house, in my opinion, although there are one or two views that are quite sensational. The design is Palladian, but best seen from the back--Shugborough has some sensational furniture, a table that is similar to the one in the MMA by Matthias Locke, another table with a great pietra dure top and much more--I walked away from Shugborough with a feeling that it was opulent, slightly musty in feeling, but surprising. It was the home of Lord Lichfield, Princess Margaret's husband, but is now run entirely by the National Trust.

There is one detail that I learned on walking through the house that upended my understanding of the material, composition, which is more commonly known as compo. Compo is a mixture of linseed oil, whiting (a plaster like substance) rosin and glue and is a material that molds very well. Its greatest asset is that when you gently heat compo, you can bend it and cut it very easily. Hence, compo could be used on curved surfaces. To not have to carve every last lamb's tongue molding or bell flower or whatever, was a labor saving device of immense practicality. My understanding, prior to my visit to Shugborough, was that compo was not used on furniture (just frames and mantel pieces) until post 1800, but at Shugborough, there is a suite of gilded furniture dating to the 1790's that has compo decoration. In the academic article on compo (in the link below) the author talks about the value of the novelty and innovative potential of compo. Clearly, the Anson family was willing to try something new in buying a suite of furniture with compo adornments.

The furniture trade in the 18th century was, like any cutting edge industry, looking for ways of lowering costs and increasing productivity. Molded plaster was not new to 18th century England, but it also did not work on furniture for its brittleness. Furthermore, house moldings, such as the ones you will see in the Kirklington Park room at the Metropolitan Museum, were often made on site. Furniture required a more resilient material and compo, which is thought to have been "invented" in the 1770's, was the right material at the right time. Robert Adam style furniture, for example, often has numerous husks, swags, bell flowers, etc., that lend themselves to molded compositions. For my part, I was under the impression prior to my visit to Shugborough, that you could find compo on, as I state above, on mirror frames and mantel pieces, but definitely not furniture. Why does this matter? That question directly relates to the dating of a piece of furniture. To see compo on, for example, a chair or table that stylistically reads as 1785 would have seemed very strange to me prior to my visit to Shugborouh. That is one reason, but the second is more important. Composition melts when it is placed in a caustic solution, which is often used to strip items of their finishes, whether paint or any other material. I can't tell you how many quite spectacular mantelpieces I have seen destroyed for having been placed in a caustic vat. Interestingly, carton pierre, which we call papier mache, was another material that frame makers, in particular, but also furniture makers, started playing with as a substitute for carved wood. It was particularly popular in early Victorian England, but you will see items dating to as early as 1750 composed of carton pierre. Thank God fiberglass was a lone way off!

When I was in London in the early 1970's, many of the firms that were around as early as the 1840's were still in operation. George Jackson & Sons--compo molding suppliers--were one of those firms, founded in the 1780's. They had moved several times over the years, always edging westward, further away from the city. (Shoreditch was the "furniture area of London" in the late 18th and early 19th centuries is East London.) Indeed, I used to visit a polishing supply place called Gedge's in High Holborn which had been there since the 1850's. Jackson's was wonderful as you could see endless molds that were made when the firm first began. It was like visiting a museum of moldings. Their last outpost was in Hammersmith--I am not certain if they are still there.  In any case, my revelation about compo just reinforces how difficult it can be to "know" something as incontrovertible fact in the world of English antique furniture. It is both fun and troublesome, but sometimes you can learn unusual facts on visits that you might think are only going to be pleasant. That's why it is worth visiting houses that aren't necessarily known for anything unless, of course, you are a fan of Patrick O'Brian. This is how the National Trust sorts their collection 6,037 objects at Shugborough and like any attic sale there is something to please everyone.  An academic article on composition.