An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 168

Clinton Howell Antiques - February 14, 2022 - Issue 168

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

(This tale begins with Issue 167.) English furniture makers were, without doubt, an independent lot. At the beginning of the 18th century, English makers could come up with a design and see it through to the end. In France, another fount of great cabinetmaking (even though many of its great cabinetmakers were not French) there was a much tighter design window--a fashion selected by the King would become THE fashion. Not so in the UK where the oligarchs would happily listen to suggestions from all and sundry regarding a design. In other words, despite the fact that many designs had similarities, makers individualized their work through subtle and not so subtle details. What they did not do was sign their work (unless it was to be exported) and so there are thousands of pieces that are not identified as the work of a particular maker. (French furniture makers signed their work.) As a result, there are a great many pieces where the experts, people who look at furniture and examine its construction and style, are at a loss to say definitively whether a piece is from the date when the style was first popular. In other words, a Queen Anne walnut chest of drawers made in 1710 might have had a copy made in 1760 or even 1840 and no one would know the difference between the two today. Multiply that concept by the revivals all through the 19th century using the same cabinetmaking techniques as the originals, and you begin to understand just how difficult it is to date a piece of English antique furniture.

This takes me back to the japanned bureau bookcase that was on display at the Met on permanent loan from the Helen Clay Frick Museum in  Pittsburgh. As I mentioned, the leading academics of the 1960's (through the start of the 21st century) believed in the piece. And when I found the secretaire bookcase in the villa in the New York suburbs that was en  suite in all the salient details, I felt as if I had found a key to an interesting puzzle and, in a way, I had. Clearly, the restoration of both pieces was undertaken simultaneously and prior to being purchased by Carrere and Hastings,. Who did that restoration and was I looking at one period piece that was original and a second made en suite? Was I looking at two old oak pieces that were later decorated with japanned chinoiserie and then tarted up to be even more glamorous with mirrored doors and silver gilding on the feet, moldings and carved crests? There was, there still is, a story here, but it has been made more opaque for a number of reasons.

As previously mentioned, White and Allom, the English firm that supplied panelling to Carrere and Hastings also supplied furniture. Back in the 1990's, White and Allom were still in business and so I visited them on one of my trips to London only to find that they had destroyed their records going back to the earliest days of the firm just a few months before my visit. My question was where did these two pieces come from and who restored them? If I could find that out, I would probably have a chance of determining when they were made, but with White and Allom's records no longer in existence, it has put into limbo two pieces of furniture that may be the best of their kind. They could also not be, but there is no definitive proof one way or another that the two pieces were made in 1690 or some time thereafter simply because their restoration, as opposed to conserving what was in bad shape, had been so very thorough. The bureau bookcase at the Met is no longer on display--a clear vote of no confidence, I believe. And yet nothing is definite, as far as I know, regarding the piece's authenticity. And if the piece does date to 1690 and if the japanning is original, then we have consigned a piece to purgatory that may deserve a better fate.