An Antiquarian's Tale Issue 15

Clinton Howell Antiques - November 13, 2017 - Issue 15
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
My last year at the London College of Furniture was without many of the buddies of the previous two years. My days at the Tatty Bogle drinking club waned, although I still found myself driving all over the place to find weird and wonderful timber. I was long past my term as Student Union President and as I now had a workshop, I used the College for its large machinery which could plane and trim wood in a fraction of the time that I could. Frank, the technician who ran the machine shop, a die hard Communist who would not accept any cash for doing small jobs (a five pack of cigars was his preferred tip) used to say that I should remember, as a budding capitalist, just where I got my help. (Duly noted, Frank!) At one point we brought him enough timber to make about sixty chopping blocks, which we sold to kitchen shops. (We gave Frank about five of these so he could gift them during Christmas--a holiday he purported not to believe in.) How we acquired this timber was entirely a function of the river Thames. (The exotics I searched out were too expensive to use.) We weren't far from the Isle of Dogs where a number of timber driers (kilners) were located--that is close to the docks where timber shipments arrived. They always had to test the moisture content on a piece of timber and these test pieces were usually discarded. We offered to purchase this wood but, like Frank, cigars or Christmas puddings were all they would accept. These were always short planks which made excellent chopping boards. We also retrieved timber from the river. My brother bought a grappling hook and would fish out boards from the river, most of it unusable, but occasionally retrieved a plank that was quite dramatic in grain. While I was in London, I might add, an entrepreneur decided to dig up old pilings from the river which had been in Thames mud for anywhere from one hundred to a thousand years. The wood sold like hotcakes. 

The East End of London was, in the 1970's, not an easy place to make a living. The large open air markets at places like Bermondsey or Brick Lane, where you could buy for far less than in retail stores, were a necessity for making ends meet. If you kept your eyes open, you could always find people selling something for less. For example, when we were shipping stained glass to North Carolina, we found a fellow re-conditioning tea chests who sold us his containers for far less than any other shipping container we could have found. I was driving by an open yard one day when I saw a sign saying, "Teak for Sale". I went in and purchased enough timber for my final project at the London College of Furniture. Two days later, the sign was gone and the yard was empty. 

Looking at Furniture 

This is the chair that I purchased in Barnstaple, Devon, in my second year at the London College of Furniture. The chair dates circa 1890 and is in the Arts and Crafts style. Arts and Crafts designers seemed to have a love affair for geometry, which I might add makes the cabinetmaker's job slightly easier for the most part. I remember that one of the legs was broken, although I can't remember which one it was. (I could tell if I had it in front of me, but I don't.) I spent swaths of time in the library trying to find the design or a photo of the  chair, eventually getting to the London library in Islington to go further still, but to no avail. C.F.A. Voysey (1857-1941) is my preferred culprit as the designer, but the piece could just as easily be a one off by a talented designer/woodworker. 

The photo below shows one of the two chairs that I made in our workshop on Narrow St., in Limehouse, East London. The chairs I made were of teakwood, not really the right sort of timber for an Arts and Crafts style piece as the concept behind much of the Arts and Crafts designers was to use materials that were at hand (i.e. native woods, primarily). However, since the chairs are ring porous, I have seen a few people identify the wood as stained chestnut. In any case, the chairs, by design, are not that sturdy, my craftsmanship notwithstanding, and are largely ornamental.