An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 189

Clinton Howell Antiques - July 11, 2022 - Issue 189

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

When I was growing up, American car companies had a period where the most exciting aspect of a new model car would be the tail fin. The influences behind the tail fin era (the late 1950's) were many, not least of which was to see the car as a personal statement and not merely a functional machine. It was also a marketing tool to key up new customers to wanting bigger and better and in retrospect that this meant bigger tail fins is astonishing. The tail fins also reflected the space race that had begun in the 1950's as satellite launches were in full swing so the (alleged) aerodynamic qualities of large tail fins were a reflection of rocket design. My favorite tail fin was a huge fin with a light that had a separate chrome ring around it--it was pure outer space inspired design. The tail fin did not last long, however, as it was frivolous and probably costly and I don't think they were all that popular. The transition away from fins was quick, particularly as the car became more of a necessary tool for the suburbs and practicality determined that a car that ran well was more important than big tail fins. (Cue the import market!). But it was a moment and when I see someone driving a late model 1950's car, I try to understand the forces and the artistry that caused a style to shift. Those forces are in constant motion and the changes can start small and end up being enormous. 

The Raphael exhibition at the National Gallery was one of my first visits in London. I am not an aficionado of late Renaissance art, but because the Italian masters of that era were constantly tinkering with the template of who and what to paint and how their subject should be portrayed, let alone what subjects to paint, I thought it might be interesting. The many renditions of the Madonna, for example, were steeped in tradition and any transition out of the standard pose would inevitably be rebellious. And yet, the acknowledged masters at the time were Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo and they were both breaking new ground with their own styles--Raphael saw this and was quick to adapt poses and expressions used by these masters in his own painting. As he was so prolific--he designed commemorative medals and tapestries--he had to have a fresh approach to appeal to his clients and adapting from the work of others was one way to do it. The exhibition details all of this and if you are in London, I can say that it is a thought provoking exhibition.

For lack of a better word and not being a scholar of either painting or furniture, I will call the moment(s) when style changed transitions, although the term is too broad as any transitions are for the most part a series of small changes that, taken over time, add up to an altogether new style--not unlike Raphael's adoption of ideas from his contemporaries. These small movements regarding style changes, in any of the arts. are what fascinate me. It is easier to see those small changes in Raphael's work than, for example, trying to understand the steps that were taken to move from English baroque furniture--just think about the cabriole leg with a ball and claw foot--to chinoiserie, rococo and "Gothick". The painting world lends itself to change--it is almost a mandate for any painter, but the furniture world is co-opted by function. Any changes must have required numerous consultations among designers, clients and cabinetmakers to determine what kind of leg would be suitable for a Chinese Chippendale style chair. It's a transition, but one that seeped rather than flowed.