An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 175

Clinton Howell Antiques - April 4, 2022 - Issue 175

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

There were no summers, or summers as I knew them which meant temperatures between 70-90 degrees Fahrenheit, the first three years I lived in the UK. The very first summer I experienced was interrupted by a trip that took me down through the continent, the most notable stop en route being Alhambra, to Morocco and then across to Algiers, and then a return by ship across the Mediterranean. In essence, I was able to absorb some heat into my body, enough to sustain through a wet and rainy fall and winter in London. The next summer, however, I stayed in the UK and although this may be inaccurate, I don't remember the thermometer getting above 75 more than s couple of times. In the end, despite two very good summers in 1975 and a really hot 1976, I could not take the wet and the cold for another year. Sadly, I decided to return to the US. Those winter days where I would get into my car, turn the key to the ignition, turn on the lights and then turn on the windshield wipers, both in the morning and in the evening were soon to be over. I might add that the unheated workshop, which was a pleasure in the summer, particularly when we could work outside, felt like an icebox through the winter. I was not going to miss that.

I did, however, miss London almost immediately. I was also unclear about what I would do with my future. One of the things that my brother and I built was a wine bar in Eton. We supplied a lot of the interior fitments--the bar, seating, tables, etc. The four people who started the wine bar were  brothers and their wives from the Gilbey family--known for their gin, but also wine importers, I believe. In any case, they were a delight to work for and we fitted out their bar with paneling we sourced from a pub that was being torn down in the East End. My brother saw it being demolished and offered to buy the paneling--I think they ended up giving it to us. It was late 18th, early 19th century pine paneling and I took it to my local junk shop where the owner had a strip tank and he cleaned off many layers of old paint- I seem to remember that the panels were "fielded", meaning that the edges of the panels in the frames were beveled on four sides--some times they are called raised panels. It solved a big problem at the wine bar and the Gilbeys quickly made the bar a success with their dedication and hard work. And it gave me the idea that the United States might be ready for a similar concept. And, as I thought about it, I thought that Washington, D.C., might be the best place to have such a wine bar.

The move to Washington was not hard, but I almost knew right away that my idea was destined for failure. The costs of renting in Georgetown had accelerated starting around 1970 as people anticipated the bicentennial would be great for business. Apparently, it wasn't, but the ensuing affects on real estate were still significant. I got to know one or two of the restaurateurs as well and they described a life style that just wasn't for me. Hence, I decided to do what I had trained to do in London. I also knew that the best place to start such a business was close to family who could, potentially, recommend me which meant a move to Bedford, NY. By 1979, I realized that restoring was great, but that dealing was much more fun--the buzz that you get when you find something that others have overlooked is always a small adrenaline rush, even today. But that wasn't the only reason for being a dealer. Restoration is a thankless task in many ways. It was always fun making white marks disappear (a sign of moisture under the surface) because that was quick and easy. (An elderly couple called me to save them from a "catastrophe" of white marks on a sideboard belonging to the husband's sister--while they were blaming each other for the catastrophe, I fixed it. For a brief second, I was somebody's god.) In any case, the restoration world has many facets from conservation, where you do minimal work to preserve what is at a given moment recording every step as you go along, restoration, which can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people from close to conservation to dipping and stripping and everything in between. Dealers, on the other hand, bought something, restored it to their taste and then sold it--the formula seemed so simple. Little did I know.