An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 136

Clinton Howell Antiques - July 12, 2021 - Issue 136
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
The challenge of understanding a subject, any subject, almost always begins by mastering its language. If you have ever listened to architects discussing the salient features of buildings, you can find yourself being completely baffled very quickly. That is true in the world of furniture, as well. It isn't so much the structural terms, though they can be a little daunting, but in the array of materials and how they are treated. For example, there are several terms for highly figured mahogany--it can be called crotch mahogany, which describes where the grain of the wood comes from, i.e., the crotch of the branch and the trunk. The crotch can also be referenced as a flitch--I don't know the origin of the word and the definition I have found online refers to a slab of timber. I know that veneer merchants reference a series of cuts made in succession as a flitch. There is also plum pudding mahogany which describes mahogany that has whorls of grain as if it had been diseased and healed itself as it was growing. In maple, this actually happens and it is referred to as birds eye maple. Couple this with terms such as plank versus quarter sawn, book matched or straight grained, bias cut  and oysters and the language of wood gets more and more complex. But, as complex as wood can be, I want to focus on the field of furniture finishing which is particularly rife with misunderstanding.

When I first started in business, I learned that Winterthur Museum had symposia on antique furniture, primarily aimed at collectors of American furniture. The field of collecting in the 1970's and 80's was heating up and many of the older collectors were realizing that their furniture was starting to have significant value. Winterthur chose to inform this group of collectors on the dos and don'ts of antique maintenance. As it happened, some of their information was not quite correct, notably in the field of finishing. My particular expertise is (I should say was, as I haven't done it in some time) in polishing. Winterthur advised their collectors not to French polish their furniture and this was based on the English assumption that French polishing, a method developed by the French that allowed for a continual application of French polish (shellac) was not done on 18th century furniture. There is no evidence that this is true and furthermore the precise method of polishing is one thing, but the material being used to finish a piece of furniture is another and I would suggest that a substantial majority--say 90-95%, in my opinion, was finished with shellac. To complicate matters further, we will never truly know how the shellac was applied. To warn people about French polishing was the wrong end of the stick. What Winterthur should have concentrated on teaching was the value of not stripping furniture--I will write more on this later.

This snafu, the dual inability to separate the material from the method and the noun from the verb has led to an amazing pile of misinformation, both within the field of experts as well as the general public that might own an antique or two. As a material, shellac is easily the safest and best furniture finish from the point of view of protection as well as allowing a piece to establish a patina. There are myriad other finishes for furniture and some are more suitable for certain purposes--oil varnishes are great for ships or bar counters--any place that might get wet, oil finishes are terrific for tool handles and some counter tops (if you like the maintenance), wax finishes (without shellac undercoats) are great for oak furniture, particularly chairs, etc. Contemporary furniture made of wood is spray finished with hard wearing compounds that last, but which need stripping when damage occurs--they are very hard to fix. Back to antiques, however, shellac was useful to the furniture makers of the 18th and 19th centuries because it dried so quickly and you could add successive coats in a day, rather than waiting a day or two for hardening. And when French polishing became popular in England, likely in the 1760's and 70's, it proved revolutionary for building reasonably hard surfaces that could sustain considerable wear. Also and importantly, the enemy of all finishes, moisture, could be easily repaired. (I am going to continue this subject in my next blog and focus on the concept of "original" finish and the perils of refinishing.)