An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 172

Clinton Howell Antiques - March 14, 2022 - Issue 172

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

I have talked extensively about finishes over the years and the role that a finish has in abetting great color. (It should be noted that the finish is not the color of the wood, but it can be either a detriment to or a positive for wood color.) To quickly reiterate, a finish needs to be able to be taken care of without the necessity of stripping it. In other words, virtually all polymers and oil based varnishes need to be stripped if there is severe damage to the surface. That damage is almost always a function of water getting onto the surface, but other things happen as well. Direct sunlight can destroy surfaces as can well-meaning attempts to maintain a surface. All of these factors may necessitate the drastic step of stripping a finish and the moment you do that, you are disturbing the aging process that has been developing through the years. What finishes can be maintained and in that process, improve both the finish and the wood color? The simpler the better--wax, oil finishes such as Tung Oil and shellac. Most oil finishes are not suitable for antique furniture, particularly if it is veneered as the oil will destroy the glue bond of the veneer eventually. Also, oil darkens timber so it is best on light colored woods such as maple, birch or cherry. Wax is a fine surface, but not a strong one and marks very easily with water. However, it is also easy to fix. But using wax as a finish is largely impractical particularly on writing surfaces, dining tables or even chairs that have so many angles and sides to wax. Finally, there is shellac which is a surface covering that sticks well to wood and dies from the top down, unlike oil varnish and polymers which die from the wood up. In other words, shellac never needs stripping. And, as it happens, shellac is the dominant surface used on antique furniture.

The aging that a piece of furniture undergoes varies for a wide range of reasons. I have referred to the dining chairs at Nostell Priory, a home where Thomas Chippendale supplied much of the furniture, and two of the dining chairs have been in window alcoves and are bleached to a light nut brown. The rest of the chairs around the table are a black brown. I have also referred to the furniture at Winterthur where Israel Sack, the eponym of the famous American furniture dealers, advised Mr. Dupont to slather a  turpentine/linseed oil mix on his furniture which turned it all quite dark. (This story was told to me by Albert Sack, the author of "Good, Better, Best", one of the best books ever written about antique furniture.) What therefore is the right way to keep your furniture? It is an excellent question and I would suggest that the maxim should be, do no harm. Translated, that means don't strip something unless you absolutely have to, if you have to re-polish, do it lightly and wax when you feel up to it. If you have a lot of dust, rinse the furniture with a damp cloth.

My friend and colleague, Simon Phillips of Ronald Phillips Antiques in London, recently sold a tripod table that he attributed to Frederick Hintz. (I have also written about this table before, but click the link and you can see it.) The table has great color, a unique design and is in superb condition. How did it get like this? That is the crux of the matter and no one really knows the answer. I have a similar table which I think is pretty wonderful and I would buy it again were it available. Interestingly, there are objective and subjective judgments that can be made about the two tables--both are Hintz, both are lobe tops, but the Phillips table has an aesthetic dimension that is worth a financial premium. (It was considerably more expensive than my table.) My table doesn't have that, but it is still a great table. I am also reminded of an Antiques Road Show that was shot in Seattle very early on in the life of the show. Someone brought a maple highboy to the show that dated circa 1760, that the owner had stripped, sanded and refinished. The piece was sparkling clean. The expert told the owner that he had pretty much erased the value of the piece until, of course, the aging process starts again. (It never stops, but it certainly doesn't happen while we are watching.) The lesson is that great color has value and this should tell us all that referring to "brown" is a comment by the unenlightened. Consider yourself enlightened from here on out.