An Antiquarian's Tale Issue 14

Clinton Howell Antiques - November 6, 2017 - Issue 14
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
The pleasures of London stem from many directions. The layers of history are the most obvious, but because London is as large as it is and frequented so often, you are bound to run into people you know at some point. I ran into people I knew in the heart of London, but when I ran into a friend from high school that I had not seen for seven years, painting the inside of a second hand machinery shop in Haringey (Tottenham) I was more than a little surprised. (It is the equivalent in New York of finding someone you know painting a warehouse in a remote part of Queens or Brooklyn.) London, and you could probably say this about all large metropolises, attracts the world, but when an event like this happens, it makes the town seem, somehow, more intimate.

My brother and I were at the machine shop to buy a drill press. He claimed he was buying it for my birthday, but our new workshop needed a drill press desperately and, frankly, you never need to buy brand new standard workshop tools in the UK. The second hand market is lively and far less expensive. In any case, my brother needed a drill press and convinced himself that he could spend the money if it was going to be my birthday present. The new workshop was located on Narrow St., near Limehouse, in East London. It was in the old lock keeper's house for the Regent's canal and boat basin, before the lock got moved about one hundred yards up the river. You entered the house off the road onto a quay that was quite large and where we worked when the weather was warm. Indeed, one morning was warm enough that we stripped down to our underwear--London on the river could be very humid--as there was absolutely no one to see us amid all the warehouses. The river was always busy with boats going by when I noticed that nothing was happening and, as I looked up the river, I could see two police launches flanking a larger boat. I called my brother over and he said, "it's the Queen, she's doing a walkabout in Greenwich this morning". Sure enough, a couple of minutes later, there she was, maybe 50 yards away, and as we waved to her in our underwear, she waved back.

Looking at Furniture

Our understanding of antique furniture is of the moment, something that doesn't mean much unless you realize that it often started out looking very differently to the way we see it now. The use of stains and dyes, not to mention chemicals which would enhance characteristics of color, was likely far more common than we know. We do know that sycamore was often dyed green and that the ensuing timber was called harewood. But, how much green do we see in antique furniture? Virtually none. That is because the green dye in use at the time does not last particularly well. The furniture historian, Adam Bowett, told me that he did a huge amount of research to figure out what the colors might be in early Anglo-Dutch inlaid furniture. He and his students then made two chests of drawers using these colors and the colors were staggeringly bright. That clearly did not last. Indeed, he told me the fading started almost immediately and so he has kept the second chest in absolute darkness to retain as a record of how colorful pieces of furniture were often meant to be.

The above Pembroke table top might not have been as colorful as Adam's chest of drawers, but it certainly wasn't as "tastefully"  color harmonic when it was made as it is now. The four corners, for example, were all died green as was the background to the patera. The mahogany veneers were almost certainly made to appear redder than they are with the satinwood ovals being a less red-toned yellow. The tulipwood banding around the center oval and around the edges would have been pink and the boxwood patera in the center would have been quite white. Notwithstanding all these colors, they have melded wonderfully to a warm and intriguingly beautiful surface that compels the eye to look at it. 

I might add that this is what wood does. It changes all the time. Will this top stay the same? That question is almost impossible to answer. How it is treated will determine what it will look like in the future. If it is left in bright sunshine, it will fade further. If, as Henry Franics Dupont was advised to do, it is treated with oil, it will darken. However, time is the ultimate arbiter on what wood looks like. If you leave any piece of wood outside, untreated, no matter what the color, it will always go a silvery gray. Finished wood will always get lighter--how light, and how quickly it will get lighter is a function of how the piece is looked after.