An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 171

Clinton Howell Antiques - March 7, 2022 - Issue 171

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

Color. Who ever thought that color would be a touchy subject for an antiques dealer? It is, and the trade partly has itself to blame for it. Long before the dreaded phrase, "brown furniture", often shortened to  "brown", was coined for describing antique furniture, dealers would derisively refer to rivals who sold "brown furniture". Fulham Road, a venerable antiques area in London, was dubbed the brown mile by, of course, antiques dealers. Yes, there are dealers who have no sense of color whatsoever and you might wish that they sold something altogether different, such as cars or real estate, but the fact remains that good antique dealers sell anything but brown furniture. The problem really is in trying to get others to see that high quality antiques are, from one point of view, all about color. And yet it is something that a great many people just don't see--for many people it is like the test for color blindness except that the majority of people are color blind when it comes to seeing color in old furniture.

I first learned about color in furniture in polishing class. There are numerous methods for making color on a piece on wood--stains--but not all stains are created equally. Water stains of any color are absorbed into the wood grain, for example. Chemical stains react to chemicals within the wood. For example, picric acid which is a sort of neon acid yellow, kills the red in mahogany. Bleaches are chemical agents. Lye, the first part of the powerful two part bleach kits, turns mahogany purple, after which you wash it with peroxide and it fades that violet red to brown. These are all water based materials and they are clear--there is nothing between the finish and the wood. Oil stains , however, the second method for coloring wood, suspends color particles in "oil" based solvent and these, if they are mixed well, will allow wood grain to show. Too many applications of oil stain, however, can act like paint. Alcohol based stains are similar and are applied with a little shellac to help bind them to the wood. They, too, with numerous applications will become like paint. Finally, there are stains that can be added to a finish, whether the finish is varnish, shellac, or any of the modern polymers. Again, they become like paint with numerous applications. All of these coloring agents are useful for a person wanting to create a look--office furniture made en masse could be ordered in a wood color--mahogany, walnut, ebony, cherry, etc., but that furniture is essentially painted. Some antique furniture was stained when it was made--sycamore was stained for example, and was transformed into what the cabinetmaking trade calls harewood. Early marquetry was stained as well. But stained marquetry, or even harewood, is about as far from brown as you can get. 

Natural wood color,  the color of walnut, oak and mahogany, the three most commonly used timbers in both country and high style furniture, can be sublime. Black walnut ,over time, colors to a red shade, almost like mahogany and was mislabeled "red walnut" by early furniture historians. It is quite spectacular. Mahogany and oak both have very broad spectrums of color which reflect their usage and care over centuries. Walnut from Europe can fade to extraordinary tones of yellow, gray-brown with high lights of yellowy orange. There are many other timbers with wonderful color--sycamore, rosewood, satinwood, cherry, elm, ash--the list is quite long, but suffice it to say that old wood runs the color spectrum of warm tones from black brown to a warm beige. But naming the colors doesn't really describe what color is in antique furniture. It is a bit like trying to describe the ocean from what you see on the surface-a well looked after piece of furniture has a color that defies an absolute definition. If it was just brown, as in the derisive "brown", then I might never have become a dealer. Finding and recognizing great color is not unlike the experience of recognizing and drinking a fine wine, except that you get to savor it over and over again. How and why it gets this way I will discuss next week.