An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 137

Clinton Howell Antiques - July 19, 2021 - Issue 137
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
One of the phrases I heard again and again when I went to antique shops beginning in the 1970's, particularly in the UK, was how an item had its original finish. This is one of the more obfuscatory statements that antique dealers use when pitching a piece of furniture to a prospective buyer. (i.e., there is no such thing) I would like to know what an original finish is--indeed, I have looked at many thousands of surfaces over the years and have yet to see one with an original surface. There was one particular dealer who used to glare at you if you questioned his judgments--once, when I questioned him about how he knew something had an original finish, he said, "It is because I say it is". Not much proof in that statement. As bad as the traders of English furniture on both sides of the Atlantic could be, the dealers in American furniture could be equally weird, but in a slightly different way. They would come across an item whose surface was possibly dirty, often slathered with shellac, or oil, which will corrupt a shellacked surface and in need, at the very least, of a clean, but also a polish--even if it is only a waxing. What the American dealers would tell me is that this was part of the history of the piece and that it should not be disturbed. I understood, but then I thought about the maker of the piece and how he would be appalled to see his furniture looking unrecognizable because of that "accumulated history" of poor maintenance. The tail was wagging the dog, in my opinion, and this was because no one had really spoken with any authority about what furniture finishing was like in 18th and early 19th century America. As it was, polishers were the unsung professionals in every cabinet shop and they kept their secrets to themselves, and that secrecy has clouded our understanding of finishing through the generations. Finishing and its methods continues to be misunderstood.

I left off talking about how shellac was such an easy finish to apply, which is important when positing which finishing material was used to complete the final stage of furniture making. Shellac (a general term for French polish which I get into below) dries very quickly. French polishing was simply an invention that allowed one to continue polishing so that you could build a substantial coat on a surface in a shorter time than brushing it on, coat by coat which would also require a fine sanding between each coat. (A good polisher also knows how to add pressure in the rubbing, thereby making the surface significantly harder than brushing does.) As a material, shellac also ages from the top down, meaning that you can fix it very easily by cleaning and polishing depending on how severe a damaged surface might be. Oil varnish has to be stripped as do all modern finishes. You may say that oil or waxed finishes don't have this bother which is true, but they offer very little protection. The best way to understand the value of a finish is to create a graph, one axis representing strength and durability (the protection of the surface) and the other axis representing the ease of fixing or repairing surfaces. Shellac fits in an advantageous position on both counts--not as high as oil varnish vis-a-vis protection, but much higher in ease of repair. Oil and wax are quick to repair, but offer little protection. So if you have a wax finished surface, the first wet glass set down on it will very quickly leave a ring. Eighteenth century furniture makers were businesses and they surely practiced the most economical finishing method available.

I have talked about why shellac is a good finish, but shellac and French polish differ slightly. (Shellac might be considered the work horse, and French polish a race horse.) Every finishing company has their own formula for making polish--some may throw additional resins into the lac, which is an excretion of the lac beetle, to add dimensions such as elasticity, to their polish. The essential element of a good polish is, however, the solvent used to create the polish. The ability to distill methylated spirits rose considerably in the 18th century as Londoners, in specific but urban areas in general, did not have safe drinking water--hence the distillation business boomed as drinking alcohol was safer than drinking water. In present day England, they use methylated spirits for making French polish, which we do not produce for public consumption in the US. We use denatured alcohol which has different properties, most specifically, the density of the material. Methylated spirits dries very quickly, denatured alcohol takes longer. Finally, to further define the difference between shellac and French polish, every shellac has a "cut" level--how much lac is used to a quart of solvent. As you might see by now, the language of finishing is complex. It isn't necessary to know all of it, but if you are a lover of antique furniture, it pays to know when someone is feeding you a line.

(Next week, I will talk about specific properties of shellac and re-visit the idea of both patina and original finish.)