An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 187

Clinton Howell Antiques - June 27, 2022 - Issue 187

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

The size of the art and antiques trade has always amazed me. Specifically, the number of buyers and sellers has always has been rather small and yet the trade generates extraordinary amounts of money. Not so much, however, in the field of English furniture which could be either fortunate or unfortunate, depending on your point of view. Efforts to widen the audience could say to have begun with the Grosvenor House Antiques Fair which was started in 1934 to highlight furniture and the English decorative arts in general. If you wanted to see a wide array of dealers in English antique furniture prior to World War II, that was where you went. After the war, some English dealers came to deal in New York City such as Alastair Stair, J.J. Wolff, the Ackermans and Philip Colleck (some were there before and several English firms had opened prior to the war for a short time). There were always dealers in the suburbs of New York as well, but if you wanted to deep dive into the English furniture market, you would go to London and, as stated, attend the Grosvenor House Fair. Essentially, the ballroom in the basement sufficed, once a year, as the primary venue for the gathering of and the showing off the best of English furniture.

The market had a super expansion beginning in the 1980's. There were numerous factors that contributed to it, notably the CINO:A exhibition held at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 1974-5, and in the 1980's, the Treasure Houses of Britain exhibition held at the National Gallery in the Mall. Because all of this happened in my lifetime, I have to remind myself that English furniture has had other boomlets over the years. Neo-classicism was all the rage in the beginning of the 20th century, for example, and there was a lot of furniture brought to the United States at that point in time--and then it subsided. And, as I have mentioned, large scale architectural firms helped decorate interiors with furniture taken from country houses being demolished. The love affair has been an on again off again kind of relationship for the last 140 odd years.

All of this is to say that just because "brown" furniture is "out" does not mean that great furniture is also out. In fact, great furniture is really "in" with prices for it quickly rising. Why is this happening and is it yet another boomlet? The why is something I can only surmise about--great furniture is a delight, pure and simple, and that people are interested in it again is no surprise--there is so much to it, from the history to the design aesthetic to craftsmanship and color. And as for whether it is a boomlet, I can't really say and furthermore, I don't really care. Once you have fallen, at least in the manner in which I have fallen, you don't really want to be resurrected. In a way, there is a moment of epiphany--not one that strikes you as it did Saul on the road to Damascus--but one that sneaks up on you about just how wonderful it is to be in, and to know, this field. Best of all, there is always more to learn.