An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 178

Clinton Howell Antiques - April 25, 202 - Issue 178

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

Expertise is a very tricky notion--particularly in something as non-quantifiable as the arts. The art world is full of experts whose job it is to make correct attributions of authorship, so why does the ground on which scholarship and connoisseurship seem to shift from time to time? The answer is that we can't possibly know everything that happened in the past. When I read Walter Isaacson's biography of Leonardo, it was clearer than ever to me that expertise is about making the right assumption most of the time, not all of the time. The room for doubt is the area that I want to focus on simply because doubt is the possibility that needs to be acknowledged by any expert. But the buyers of art don't want doubt, they want fact and so expertise is often forced to be decisive and this is where hubris enters the picture. Hubris is the point at which all of us stumble from time to time, hopefully no more than once.

In the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, English furniture started to come to be seen as a significant tradition of the decorative arts. Collections started to be created and with them experts who knew what was and wasn't kosher. Inevitably, there were lawsuits and connoisseurship had to raise its game. R.W. Symonds (1889-1958) could be said to be the foremost connoisseur of his day as he got things right more often than not and he helped create several notable collections, several of which sold in the 1980's and 90's at Christie's and Sotheby's in London--auctions that I went to which, given the ardor for English furniture at that time, were record setters. The most famous client of Symonds was Percival Griffiths (1861-1937) a collector whose renown was a target for the cabinetmaking trade of the 1920's and 30's who wanted to make items that could fool the experts. I know this because of a group of cabinetmakers I met, all long retired, who talked about their singular desire to get a piece into the Percival Griffiths collection. That is, they made things on their own time to fool the expert, Robert Symonds, who was the gate keeper to Griffith's collection. 

Expertise is a matter of exposure to and the examination of countless pieces of furniture. It is a fairly straightforward concept in any field. However, the stumbling blocks to expertise are the anomalies. The anomalies I am referring to are things that were made or done that do not fit the norm of a time period. I referred to the solid kingwood table that I found in St. Louis in the 1990's--that is a great example of an anomaly--both the material and the form were not typically "English" and yet the piece felt English and, as it turned out, it was English. The writing table I have in my collection (here) is another anomaly--in a design sense. It has the hallmarks of English craftsmanship in the drawers, the moldings and even the leather covered top, but it doesn't say English right away--you have to grasp the full measure of the design and construction to figure out that it is English. I recently owned a Chippendale secretaire cupboard that a partner and I sold (back) to Paxton House, a house on the Scottish borders, whose records showed this piece to have been made for Paxton by Chippendale's workshop. One interesting feature that I don't remember ever seeing before was that the top section was beveled around the base and it fit snugly into the female beveled space on the bottom piece. Complicated, but a detail that you can't see until you take the top section, the cupboard, off--unseen but evocative of Chippendale's focus on singular craftsmanship. Or, take the time I first saw the gilded composition (a substance made of whiting, glue and linseed oil that could be molded and glued onto a surface) adornments on chairs at Shugborough House that dated around 1780. I was always told that composition wasn't used on furniture until after the turn of the 18th century, but that is quite obviously not the case. I can go on for a while about anomalies, or what were anomalies when I first saw them--they are now something else--maybe a warning system about hubris.