An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 174

Clinton Howell Antiques - March 28, 2022 - Issue 174

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

One of the fun aspects of building out the exhibitions that we occasionally did in London in the early 1970's was in being able to go behind the scenes, in a sense, at the sort of places I might never visit, but which everyone knows. To wit, our designer friend, Richard Holley, a man who paid his tailor before he paid us, was given the task of designing an exhibition of Baccarat Crystal at Asprey's on Old Bond St. The idea was to create a circular tent within this square room so that all of the glass cabinets would be hidden by the walls of the tent which were to be covered in ruched white linen. Apart from learning the word, ruche, I was very excited about spending time in Asprey's after hours as we worked from 10 PM to 3AM for four nights in order to create the frame that would hold the fabric. The night watchman watched us the first night and thereafter pursued his hobby which we found out was drinking gin--he readily admitted it. England in the early 1970's was not the England of today.

We almost always lost money when we did jobs for Richard simply because we always felt we could find cheap materials, but of course, we never did. Until the Asprey's job that is, when my brother took to using a grappling hook to haul timber floating by our workshop on the Thames in his spare moments. It was waterlogged and smelled a little, but we ripped most of it lengthwise and discarded the outer skin of the wood if it smelled too badly. Virtually every member of the tent frame--a kind of shell--was from the river and the only thing we had to pay for were the screws and brackets that we used to connect the various sections we made. I remember sniffing the room to see if the timber retained any of its odor and thought I could detect something, but no one else seemed to notice anything.

There was almost always an element of," is this going to hold?", once we finished a job. I remember watching Richard's crew attaching the ruched fabric and wondering what all that fabric weighed. Some nabob was opening the exhibit and I could see ruching, crystal, nabobs  with champagne, all trying to escape the yards and yards of material that would fall on them if it came crashing down--a Marx brothers comedy to be sure. I had similar thoughts on a job we did in making an obelisk that Richard covered in various different kinds of nuts laid--chestnuts, filberts, walnuts, pecans, almonds--in patterns on the surfaces of the parts of the center piece--it was eighteen feet tall. The obelisk stood on a two foot plinth which stood on a four foot cube which stood on another two foot plinth that was on a base that was another two feet high. The structure had a nice sway to it as it was resting on a dance floor in the Orangery in Holland Park. And Richard then ran a garland of oranges down around the obelisk, adding considerable weight. The relief I felt on seeing it still standing when we picked it up at 3AM, was palpable. But the Asprey's tent also held. I'm thinking we had pretty good luck in those days.

There is one commercial announcement I would like to make. The Winter Antiques Show was postponed from January of this year to this coming Friday, April 1--this is not an April Fools joke, although I sort of wish it was as the show is, for this one year, at the old Barney's on 660 Madison Avenue at 61st Street. I say I wish it was because I knew a lot of people that were coming to the January show, but Omicron snuffed out that eventuality and so I am feeling some trepidation at the new dates and the new venue. Please come and see me on the fourth floor--I am between the two escalators and the two elevator banks. I have new inventory with some great colored walnut, a wonderful small Chippendale mahogany breakfront bookcase, some superb George I-II mirrors and a lot more. Please come.