An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 182

Clinton Howell Antiques - May 23, 2022 - Issue 182

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

My time in London was, quite obviously, formative to my career even though I did not know what my career was going to be. In high school and college, I took a slew of studio art courses and was uniquely untalented. Painting was okay as I sort of felt that I could fake a lot of things by playing with color, which I enjoyed a great deal.. What I didn't understand was that making art, like most of the arts, is a function of creating your vision and, if you are lucky, creating an audience for your work. I remember going to the Tate in the winter of 1971 to see an exhibition of Mark Rothko--huge canvases painted a very dark maroon red. I did not become a fan at that point--I preferred to walk through to the galleries where I could see a bunch of J.M.W. Turner seascapes that made me feel like I was in an extraordinary ocean setting, privy to a scene that was almost beyond imagination. For me, at that time, Turner excited me more, but this was not a competition in my mind, it was how something affected me in the moment. The best thing about looking at art, however, is that you get to change your mind--paintings you may have ignored for years all of a sudden grab you. That is both wonderful and wondrous. 

So why did I choose the decorative arts to fool around in? (For a lifetime, no less.) I think it comes down to, as with flat art or any other artistic endeavor, wanting to understand the veil of pretense that style is. All art relies on pretense--offhand I am reminded of Ivan's scene with the devil in the "Brothers Karamazov" or of many of Haruki Murakami's characters who find different dimensions--and this is just literature. There are endless examples in dance, music, theater and naturally painting. The decorative arts are artisan made--an interpreter whose primary goal is function. Whether that artisan is working from his own imagination or from some designer's drawing, the pretense is different--dictated by style--and so the boundaries are necessarily tighter. And in the world of antique furniture, there is an added dimension in which style reflects history, something that, for me at least, is reflected in the nuance of style shifts--it is a fascinating field. 

Line is the artistry of furniture (or silver and porcelain or objets) particularly in a room setting. Catching a glimpse of the profile of a great chair or a pair of wall brackets or torcheres can be just breath taking. And, of course, these pieces, along with looking glasses have sculptural qualities all their own, regardless of the style they are in. And when they are made by someone of superb ability, you can begin to understand that high style furniture is not just about being grand, but it is about artistry that is executed on a singular, very high level that is reflecting a moment This is precisely why visiting country houses is so important for developing an understanding of great furniture. There is no need to recreate that environment for yourself, but there is a kind of, "now I get it" moment that can happen when you see furniture in context. One house where I felt that was Houghton in Norfolk, which I have written about, but which also could be considered the cradle of the English baroque style, where William Kent designed furniture for England's first Prime Minister, Robert Walpole. The confluence of the historical backdrop, Kent's singular ability and the great craftsmanship have a harmony for me. I wouldn't mind being able to draw, but feeling, seeing, that harmony is pretty special.