An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 190

Clinton Howell Antiques - July 18, 2022 - Issue 190

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

The Royal Academy is in the heart of London on Piccadilly St., located in Burlington House, the same Burlington who did so much to foster classicism in England in the first quarter of the eighteenth century. The Academy has an annual show for both professional and non-professional artists that is juried during the year, eventually to open to the public towards the end of June. Artworks are for sale and there is an exciting quality to the exhibition in its democratic exhibitor list and the possible chance of discovery of some new talent. I would suggest that the contemporary art world is complicated and designed to be that way by the leading dealers whose goal is to maximize the value of the art that they have under control. It is good business strategy from the point of view of capitalizing on an artist, but for the general public, it is bewildering and perhaps just a little off-putting. Having said that, the antidote has been outsider art fairs and venues designed where there is an upper limit, price-wise, for what someone can charge for an artwork in a given show. But the Royal Academy Show has no such limits and you get to see items that are hugely expensive and also quite inexpensive. This year's fair, I suspect because of Covid, was not as good as others I have attended, but still, there were lots of items that I liked and there is a lot of energy in the exhibition. It is a really fun exhibit to attend.

On my various park ramblings in London, I walked through Hyde and Regents Parks as well as Hampstead Heath several times and while on the Heath, I decided that I should re-visit Karl Marx's grave which is located in Highgate East Cemetery. I was last there about fifty years ago and the only thing that has changed, aside from the arrival of Douglas Adams, author of "A Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy", (he died  in 2001) as well as a host of lesser known people (to me at least) is that there is a charge to wander around the cemetery of four pounds fifty which can only be paid by card, not cash. I figure Karl is spinning in his grave at this essential capitalism, but it is keeping the place in trim and free of the apparent vandalism that occasionally took place prior to the fee. Mr. Marx still inspires reaction. Personally, my lunch at Groucho's (a club named after Groucho Marx famous for being quoted as saying I wouldn't want to be a member of any club that will accept me as a member.) was more fun than the visit to Highgate Cemetery. You need to know which Marx will inspire you in this world and I'm with Groucho.

The main event for me in London, however, was Masterpiece Fair, an annual fair that happens at the end of June and runs into the beginning of July and which is the successor of the Grosvenor House Antiques Fair which ended in 2009. The impetus behind the Grosvenor House closing was because the Grosvenor House Hotel didn't feel that it needed to rent out the ballroom in the basement any longer. Indeed, May through early July is a series of English traditional activities that draws tourists from around the world from the Epsom Derby in May and finishing with Henley Regatta with plenty of other events thrown in such as Wimbledon, polo matches, more horse races, usually cricket at Lords, etc. The Masterpiece Fair is designed to ride this hot tourist season and to lure their clients and customers from around the world to see one of the great shows of the annual season. This year, TEFAF (The European Fine Art Fair known also as Maastricht, the town in the Netherlands where it is held) clashed date wise with Masterpiece. Many of the usual dealers for Masterpiece had contracts for TEFAF which is normally held in early February but which was moved to late June. I suspect both shows suffered for the limited pool of top end dealers from which to draw. But as furniture goes, and I am an English furniture dealer, there were some sensational items at Masterpiece. I won't choose the best booth or the best display of English furniture, as I don't really think that any dealer doing Masterpiece is shorting the public with what they showed. What I will say is that Covid seems to have affected continued attendance as there was a noticeable fall off of attendance over the weekend. Suffice it to be said that although the top lots of English furniture were selling extremely well, or so I was told, it was also a tough time to do business. Is there an inherent contradiction here? I think there is, but damned if I know why it is.