An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 134

Clinton Howell Antiques - June 29, 2021 - Issue  134

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

I will be writing blogs during the summer, but there will not be weekly consistency. I hope to be able to see and re-see things while I am in the UK and Holland, and possibly France. Revelation through repetition is my mantra when I go to where I have often been before. One thing I know that I want to see is the Thomas a Becket exhibition that is at the British Museum. The British Museum is, one of my favorite museums anywhere, simply because it is not enormous. (The Sumerian sculpture always thrills me.) The Louvre is also wonderful, but there are miles of corridors and the same is true about the Victoria and Albert. If you are a tourist, it is hard to get a feeling for a large museum in a day (let alone a country house which is why I go back to them again and again). As I am a tourist, albeit one who has returned again and again to the same places, I also hope that I will be able to find something altogether new. As one of the planned stops is a walk along Hadrian's Wall on the border of Scotland, I know that I will--the borders area on both sides of the English/Scottish border are packed with interesting houses, ruins and other sites. I hope to put some of what I see into words. And in Holland, I hope to return to the Rijksmuseum which I have only visited three times over the span of 50 years. There is a bureau bookcase there similar to one I sold to a client that I want to see up close. (So, I wrote this last week, fully expecting everything to go off as planned, but now the walk is off as is my visit to the UK. The Appalachian Trail will have to substitute as well as local art museums for wherever I will be. Alas, although Holland is still in the works.)

I have been touting a history book recently called "Revelations, The Early Modern World, 1450-1650", by Carlos M. N. Eire. There are many quite extraordinary historians alive today, but Eire's book was singularly striking in being a real page turner as the reader is led through the many twists and turns that result from the first printing press. It is hard not to correlate the computer, and more specifically the internet, with the printing press--the intense divisions that erupt from people being able to communicate ideas over a broad stretch of territory caught the Catholic Church by surprise, although it quickly recovered and, to its credit, reformed as well. This tumult led, ultimately, to the Age of Reason, which Eire suggests began with the Royal Society in 1661 in England, when a group of like minded scientists, doctors, mathematicians, architects and others, chose to use the scientific method to establish facts about how things worked. By the mid-18th century, the modern era was in full swing and the Industrial Revolution was well out of the starting gate.

The comparability of the upheaval brought about by the printing press and the upheaval brought about by the computer is still a matter that history will decide. For my own part, I see almost all of modern life affected by the computer. Architecture, for example, has moved away from the right angle in the last fifty years with great alacrity. When I visited Minneapolis a number of years ago, I went to the first Frank Gehry designed art museum, part of the University of Minnesota. His metal shapes were not integral to the museum as they are, for example, in his later work at the Guggenheim in Bilbao. They are bolted to the exterior of the building. With the computer, Gehry has been able to design his crumpled up pieces of paper into a building. I see the computer's imprint on interior design as well. Designers can now design their own material, their own furniture, lighting fixtures, etc., for a room. There is no reliance on what is available as everything is available. That has changed supply and demand (particularly for people who carry inventories as antique dealers do). And where would the electric car be without the computer? The internet is an even more obvious disruptor. Conspiracy theories are kept alive by people who don't know each other but who, wittingly or otherwise, work together. In his book, Eire draws no parallels to today--history needs some distance and I think his goal was to illuminate an era, not play Cassandra. But what Eire's book does is show that disruption finds an equilibrium. I'm looking forward to that.