An Antiquarian's Tale Issue 19

Clinton Howell Antiques - December 11, 2017 - Issue 19

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

My time spent in London, despite the fact that I visited country houses and museums on a regular basis, did not lead me to believe that I would, some day, become a dealer. By my third year at the London College of Furniture, I knew a great many people in the restoration business, many of whom worked in some capacity with the top end of the trade. Restorers in those days did not hold the trade in high esteem because, or so they believed, they knew that the trade was not revealing all that they either could or should about the furniture they were selling. The converse to this argument, however, is that the trade did not know what was being told to customers. This was also, to a degree, a class thing, something very evident to me as a foreigner who was not restricted about where I could comfortably go nor be judged by my accent. (The role of class has diminished in current day London, but it has not altogether died away--things may be less exclusive, but the concept of class still has a firm grip on UK society.) I met old restorers whose fondest memories were of getting pieces into collections of star collectors like Percival Griffiths. The joke was to show him up for not being as smart as they were. I don't know if their stories were larded just a bit or whether Grifftiths (or his adviser, R.W. Symonds) ever knew the extent of the restoration trade's resentment towards what was perceived as elitism--as if only an educated man could understand that a piece was "right" or "fake". 

The fact that I was ignorant of just what I wanted to do in regards to antique furniture limited the education I could have had by going to auction sales. I did go to penny ante sales which you could find everywhere in London in those days. The number of sales taking place that included something antique was mind boggling--there must have been 3-5 per week. There might have only been four lots in a sale, but one of them might be extraordinary. I will readily admit, however, that I would not have recognized an extraordinary lot of English furniture at that time, unless it was the pair to something in the V & A or a country house that I had visited. Furthermore, this was the bonanza time for English furniture when great English furniture was still fairly affordable. My ambivalence truncated the otherwise excellent education that I received from all the contacts that I had within the antiques world. If I have any regret about my time in London, it is my lack of curiosity about the sales going on in London at Bonhams, Phillips, Sotheby's and Christie's. 

Looking at Furniture 

The greatest allure of antique furniture besides design is often in the patina. Patina is a difficult term to define to everyone's satisfaction. Is it the finish, is it a function of wear and maintenance, is it what sunlight and human handling has done or is it a combination of all these things? It is most definitely a combination of all these things, but I will add that it pays to start with a great piece of timber if you want the surface (dealers tend to talk about surface rather than patina) to ever look great. And when it is great, there is no dispute. The serpentine chest of drawers shown above qualifies for having a spectacular surface and it is due to both the timber and treatment it has received over the years. The mahogany has faded to the point where it is translucent in spots and because the grain is so wild, it just lights up the front of the chest. The top, pictured below, is just wonderful.

Dealers often shy away from three drawer chests, mostly because of the visual impact--more drawers tend to make something look more interesting. However, three drawer chests are just as functional and that prejudice was begun simply as a sales gimmick for putting down one chest over another. (Just like brushing slides are supposed to add value--whoever uses brushing slides these days? Distinctions of this sort are absurd.) The only distinction that I would make about this piece is that it dates circa 1785-90, an era when the overall quality of furniture, particularly things like chests of drawers, started to decline. As true as this may be, it does not mean that every chest made in this time period was of lesser quality--some were and some weren't. (There is a wonderful article published by the Furniture History Society about the "honorable" and "dishonorable" cabinet trade in London in this era that explains the breaking down of traditional rules of the trade under the pressure of a growing middle class that needed furniture.) No, as far as I am concerned, this is a really fine and lovely chest of drawers that has only gotten better with age. Would love to be able to say that of myself.