An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 17

Clinton Howell Antiques - November 27, 2017 - Issue 17
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
With all the tools, timber, and workshop paraphernalia we collected, we always had a space problem. When a new market opened on Camden Lock, i was among the first to sign up for a stall. I seem to remember that was sometime in the fall of 1975, possibly the first week in October. There is no greater joy than selling things that you have too many of and creating space, but of course, the temptation is to always buy more. There was seldom furniture at the market, but I had a love affair for elm seat country chairs. Ergo, I would find myself on Saturday mornings first looking at everyone else's stalls and then trying to sell the stuff on mine. Usually, I went away with about the same amount of things that I started with, plus a pair of very cold hands and feet. London weather post September is usually wet and cold and when you are on a stall all day trying to sell stuff, your hands and feet suffered. I don't look back wistfully on that stall, although I do remember lunch breaks listening to music in Dingwall's, a warehouse turned bar, that was home to itinerant musicians wanting to jam. That and a sausage sandwich from the Suffolk farm stall were as good a respite as you could want. There was always another song.

I went back to Camden Lock several years ago. It had been in operation for over 40 years by then and it was not remotely recognizable to what I knew. Furthermore, there were no antique stalls to speak of. This isn't a complaint, merely an observation in regards to the world of antiques. Westbourne Grove, where I sold my restored pembroke table, is now mostly clothes and high end grocery outlets selling farm fresh products. Bond Street and the Fulham Road are similarly denuded although two of England's better furniture dealers still trade there. Pimlico and Kensington Church Street are probably the most reminiscent of how prominent the antiques trade was on the high street, both boasting a number of good galleries. The saddest change in my mind, however, is Portobello Road. There are a few hold out dealers there, but at one point, it was an important center for antique dealing. I had a stall there on Wednesday's for a few weeks, way down at the bottom of the road, not to far from the elevated highway. I well remember the Japanese couple that showed up in a white Bentley, both dressed in white, she with a fluffy white boa, both of them looking ready for a ball. I seem to remember that they bought boxes and boxes of steel screws that we were trying to get rid of. How cosmopolitan of them. 

Looking at Furniture

The insecurity many people have about buying furniture often stems from wanting to buy "classic" English furniture. By this, I mean, buying items that most resemble the museum pieces we associate with a style. For example, when buying a walnut card table, should you buy one with walnut burl or straight grain? Should the outset corners be rounded or square? Should the legs be straight or cabriole, and should the two back legs swing out (known as a butterfly action) or is it okay to have one swing leg? These are all reasonable questions, but they don't have one answer strictly speaking. There are always considerations of budget, how the table is going to be used and finally, the most important, whether you like it or not, which, in my opinion is what most matters.

The photo below shows a close up of the carved moulding under the frieze of the table above that I own. It is obvious that it is not a classic moulding such as a gadroon, or even a plain quarter round. It is what I would call a "mannerist" style moulding, one that came out of the carver's imagination, maybe something he had encountered in his experience that he liked. It could also have been requested by the person who commissioned the table in order to match something he already owned. It is, quite simply, unique. And it is one of the reasons I like this table so much. Indeed, not that many tables of this sort have a carved moulding at all let alone one that is so distinct. If you are looking for the classic table, this isn't the one, but, if you are like me, you will see that there is a whole lot more to this table than meets the eye.