An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 143

Clinton Howell Antiques - August 24, 2021-- Issue 143

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

The decorative arts don't quite follow the same trajectory as the fine arts when it comes to their significance as cultural markers after the start of the Renaissance. A piece of furniture is almost always defined by function, unless it is purely decorative as, for example, the carved Chinoiserie decoration (strictly speaking not a piece of furniture but definitely decorative art) in Claydon House. (If you don't remember it, there is a link below--it is always fun to look at.) Or for that matter, the really personal items such as the Walpole Cabinet at the Victoria and Albert. (See link below--a useless piece of furniture but a marvelous cabinetmaker/designer imaginative piece.) Furthermore, there is a lot of furniture that has a limited range, functionally, but which shows off the cabinetmakers singular brilliance. For example, the Roentgen Desk at the Metropolitan Museum was given a show a number of years ago (yes, the show was about this one desk and the link is below) that showed the brilliance of Roentgen's meshing of wood and metal with flawless mechanical execution. If you watch the video, which I recommend, you will see a work of art that is, in my mind, too complicated to be entirely functional. I'm not sure if that makes sense save for the fact that I forget which drawer I leave things in all the time and the desk just has too many drawers for me to keep abreast of wayward items. And yet Roentgen, who made items on spec, a very unusual arrangement in the 18th century, sold to such notables as Louis XVI, Catherine the Great, Voltaire and many others. His furniture was not particularly beautiful, but Roentgen's focus was highly commercial--he made furniture that was both fascinating and easily shipped to be assembled on site--not quite flat packing, but portable.

As much as the trajectories of art and the decorative arts varied, there was always the client that needed pleasing. In the exhibition of the Medici portraits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it is quite clear that the artists--the three primary artists of the exhibition being Salviati, Pontormo and Bronzino--were enjoined to demonstrate the most advantageous characteristic the sitter wanted displayed. More often than not, it is power, as the Medici family is at the center of Florence's early 16th century art scene because of its prominence, i.e. wealth. Of course, the artist reveals this prominence in numerous ways--jewelry, arms and armor, dress, background, color, etc. The mere concept of painting of numerous members of the Medici clan is, in and of itself, a suggestion of power. Finally, the painter had to carefully navigate the image itself--a wart here, an unattractive feature there--it was not a question of likeness in every case. The painter clearly was a political player when it came to portraits.

Having noted the obvious variations to do with these two branches of the arts, I often wonder which the world would miss most--if there was no furniture and no decoration--if we lived in a brutalist paradise of concrete walls inside and outside, but with paintings or vice versa where we might have baroque or rococo palaces but no art? I, of course, would want neither as humanity is defined by not just what we do, but what we leave for generations to come. It is what gets left behind that every future generation uses to understand not so much the history of a civilization, but the cultural identity and what it was trying to express. And even more interesting is what are we leaving for future generations to study and draw conclusions about? The cultural preference and prevalence seems to be the moving image and architecture and possibly music although the fine art world might have something to say about that. The written word has always been a cultural reference point and a direct reflection of moment as well. Technology, however, though not an art, may just be the ultimate definition of who we are. I am not so certain it is a good thing.  Claydon House interior  Walpole Cabinet at V & A.  The MMA roll top desk by David Roentgen--this is a fun video.