An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 181

Clinton Howell Antiques - May 16, 2022 - Issue 181

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

Learning about antiques is a process that is never over. Yes, You can read books that give you an idea of how style progresses from decade to decade, but that is useless for learning how to identify something that is made in the original period. Taking classes in antique restoration before learning about style, my particular path, Is another method, but it, too, lacks direction. This was not purposeful--I had no idea that I would end up being a dealer--but it worked, up to a point, for me. Other paths include working at an auction house where you get to see endless amounts of furniture and, sooner or later, you notice how an antique piece should look, not just on the front, but the back and underneath. There are also numerous side bars to learning about antiques. We had a wood technology class at the London College of Furniture, taught by an enthusiastic man we nicknamed. "Gribble" (a type of woodworm). Gribble taught us about the Anobium punctatum, or the common woodworm which plagues English antique furniture, particularly beechwood and walnut, as the larvae are hard to see and the problem is usually assessed after the damage has already been done. My favorite side bar on the road to learning about furniture, however, was learning about timber identification, something Gribble focused on for a class or two and that ultimately led me to Kew Gardens

Kew, now the Royal Botanic Garden, is one of the more extraordinary spots in London for a wide array of reasons. Eighteenth century England epitomizes the curiosity of the Age of Reason as men (and women although fewer of them are widely known)  were curious about the natural world in a scientific manner. This spirit of curiosity, the desire to assort and classify and to understand extended in all sorts of directions. Plants of all sorts were collected from around the world and brought back to the UK and, by the time Sir Joseph Banks was put in charge of Kew (1772) that is where those plants ended. Of course, trees are plants and so Kew has ended up with not only a wide variety of trees, but timber samples as well, a collection that was begun in the 1930's and which now includes over 50,000 samples. When I found this out, I went to visit Kew only to find few of the samples on display (I think you need to make an appointment to see a range of timber samples.) But Kew is not just about timber samples as the history of Kew is interesting as well. There is a pagoda at Kew, designed by Sir William Chambers (1723-96) better known for his neo-classical bona fides, as well as cast iron and glass hot houses designed in the 1840's, survivors from the age when glass and cast iron were the rage as epitomized by the structure designed by Joseph Paxton for the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851, an exhibition visited by Calvert Vaux and, I believe, Frederick Law Olmsted, the future designers of Central and Prospect Parks in New York City. I could go on--Kew is yet another site to visit in London, rich with history and rich with timber samples--if you can get to see them.

Timber identification by the naked eye is not easy, but it also isn't too hard depending on what you are identifying as the number of woods used in furniture are relatively limited. Even though Gribble taught us about growth patterns of wood pores (softwoods, by the way, don't have pores) which enables you to determine whether something is ring porous, semi-ring porous, diffuse porous or semi-diffuse porous. Complicated--not really--just a handy way of quick identification and usually somewhat accurate. For me, however, the best place to learn about timbers was Crispin's, the veneer merchants, who were located on the east side of the City of London in those days. (They have since moved to Beckton.) For me, their inventory was like a chocolate shop is to a child--there was so much to see  and so much to lust over. Veneer is a material that one can lust over, I have to say. Many people swoon over gold leaf and get a kick from seeing a burnished mirror before it is toned--I'd rather see piles of veneer with great exotics such as tulipwood, kingwood, satinwood, mahogany, etc., not to mention the stripey sycamores and maples, or yew and walnut burl. Crispin's also sold hand sawn veneers which were thicker than the veneers peeled off a log and more in keeping with antique sawn veneers. It was quite a wonderful place to visit, but did it ever help me in the world of buying and selling antiques? Yes and no--more on that later.