An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 180

Clinton Howell Antiques - May 9, 2022 - Issue 180

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

When I bought the butler's tray that I referenced last week, my knowledge, if you can call it that, was largely about the way something should look if it is old. Not necessarily antique, just how it should look if it has some age. One clue I noticed was that the brass hardware didn't look at all modern. Also, the straps on the x-frame stand and the wear on the feet and legs from being carried around and set in place thousands of times were plain to see. However, I will say that, at that time, I had no idea how old the piece was. The worn look it had was something that you could possibly create, but why bother on an item worth so (relatively) little? But clearly, my knowledge was rudimentary at that point in time. My response to the piece was as an aesthetic object, the timber used on the bottom of the tray, along with the evident dovetails that were used to join the sides, and the worn baize on the bottom of the tray made it easy to relate to and, as I thought, easy for a shop owner or antiques dealer to move on to the right client--in this case, I was right.

I talked about the pitfalls of buying upholstered furniture, but that was my second major purchase, a pair of Hepplewhite side chairs with upholstered seats and backs. (By major purchase, I mean under ten pounds or about thirty dollars.) I bought them from an old man who was clearing out his apartment near our workshop. The chairs were a wreck and I ended up losing my shirt on them--well ten pounds wasn't my shirt, but I should have known better. The chairs were worn down on the legs so they needed tipping (to add to the overall height of the seat) and the frames needed re-gluing and when that is the case, you are going to end up re-upholstering as well. Finally, the chairs were very plain with square tapered legs, and H-stretcher and a squared back. There was absolutely nothing special about them except that they were old. But I learned a valuable lesson about upholstered furniture and how important something is to be stylish. There is a category that I would call, old and uninteresting as well as expensive to restore--a recipe for shirt losing.

The third thing I purchased in the UK while I still had a workshop was a Pembroke table that was missing a leaf. I wanted to see if I could match the missing leaf. This was not about buying and selling and more an exercise in restoration. To do this properly, I also needed to buy an old piece of timber to make the leaf which meant that I had to buy something that had no marks, but similar age to the other leaf on the underside. (The table was mahogany veneered on a mahogany base.) This took a little time, but I eventually found something suitable. As for the top, I needed to match the mahogany veneer--that was easier as Crispin's, the veneer merchants, helped me find what I thought was a suitable match. I spent a great many hours working to make it look like it was original--then I went to sell it. Virtually every dealer noticed that the leaf had new veneer on the top. (I thought the match was pretty good--not so.) I think they might have noticed the leaf as well had they bothered to look, but it wasn't a valuable item and so it passed muster as a useful table. And that is what I sold it as--not as an antique. Ultimately, it probably was labelled as such, but it wasn't going to fool anyone. And I lost another shirt. It was yet another lesson learned--knowledge is a work in progress.