An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 164

Clinton Howell Antiques - January 17, 2022 - Issue 164
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
The London College of Furniture in the early 1970's moved from Shoreditch to a brand new white brick building on the Commercial Road, just east of the tube stop, Aldgate East. (The College has since moved back to Shoreditch, apparently.) Commercial Rd. was one of two east bound roads that started at Aldgate East, the other being the Whitechapel Rd. The Whitechapel Gallery, founded in 1901 and famed for numerous exhibitions of artists from Picasso, Pollock and Hockney (and many more) is quite near to Aldgate East. The infamous Kray brothers, known for their murderous brutality were said to eat lunch at a pub on the Whitechapel Rd. that was not to far from the college. I am reminded of all this because East London is a place I remember with fondness though I think it is completely different now. (I haven't visited for at least a decade.) But, as I went to school there in the early 1970's and later opened a workshop with my brother on the Thames about three miles east of the College, in the Limehouse district, I got to know the area reasonably well.  

A part of East London, Bethnal Green, was quite beautiful and the Bethnal Green Museum had a ground breaking exhibition on the Bugatti family in the early 1970's that I visited--I remember the exhibition well learning that the father of the Bugatti clan, Carlo, created extraordinary furniture that was completely different--there is no other way to describe it. (His son Enzo made the cars which is why I knew the Bugatti name.) That didn't stop the furniture from being popular and the firm licensed reproductions to be made from his designs. Most of the Bugatti furniture that you see on the market today are those licensed pieces. My friend, Colin Streeter, purchased an original signed Bugatti fall front desk with chair when he lived in London in the 1960's. Colin sold it to me and I eventually sold it, but not before lending it to Henry Hawley, the esteemed curator of decorative arts at the Cleveland Museum for an exhibition on the Bugatti family. I am not a huge fan of Bugatti furniture, despite having owned one of the pieces that he made and signed--it was and is an art piece and not a functional piece of furniture. Having said that, I am always in favor of those creators who move the boundary lines of what can be done and Carlo Bugatti was one of those people. He had a vision and he made it happen and today, his reproductions sell for quite hefty sums.

East London was a surprising area in lots of ways. I remember going to the steam baths in Bethnal Green, something that helped with the damp cold that our workshop on the river could intensify to the point where you wanted to look up the definition of chilblains several times a day. The baths were, I believe, built either in the late 19th or early 20th century and looked a bit like what you might imagine a tuberculosis sanatorium would look like--white tiles everywhere and high ceilings with lots of large scale chrome fixtures that were worn enough to show the brass underneath the chrome. However, you could get warm there and you could also get a massage. It was a terrific amenity that I am not certain all of London's districts offered. But East London was also a place where you found people making a living in surprising ways. I remember buying tea chests from a man who rehabilitated them for a living. There was the trucker I met who brought a load of teak back from eastern Europe hoping he could sell it back in England--it was really inexpensive. There was a ship's chandlers near our workshop that had been in the same spot for over a hundred years. And there were the kilners, guys who oven dried imported timber, on the Isle of Dogs. I think the 1970's were the last vestige of an era that echoed back to a much earlier time. It was really quite a remarkable place. I suspect little of what I knew remains.