An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 193

Clinton Howell Antiques - August 8, 2022 - Issue 193

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

The taste for antique furniture is a passion that evolves by taking the time to look closely and to make judgments. That experience began for me by visiting the Victoria and Albert Museum in London--it is THE primary resource for learning about English furniture which you might well expect. And yet, it was visiting both antique shops and junk shops where I started to hone in on what great color meant in oak, walnut and mahogany, the three primary timbers used in English furniture, because it was in these places where you decided to buy or not to buy. The London College of Furniture, my alma mater, taught me what great quality was as I learned that the greatest craftsmen built their furniture consciously aware that wood never stopped moving and that a good craftsman could competently counter the tensions of seasonal expansion and contraction. They could also choose the flashy timber for the showiest part of a piece as, for example, on the front of a chest of drawers. And the stories behind furniture that entwine it with history were most clearly defined by visiting country houses. My career has been a learning process that has never really stopped.

This knowledge is, of course, what good antique dealers want to convey to prospective clients. Every piece needs explanation--it is the key to the lock on what makes it interesting. Because the design is the first impression of an item, its importance is paramount as great design jumps out at you. Great color also does that, but much less consciously than great design. Color preference is personal, but you will find that good dealers tend to agree on what great color is--it is so important to listen and perhaps even ask a dealer to rate the color of an item on a one to ten basis. With walnut, for example, there are very few tens (color wise) and lots of eights and nines. The reason for this has to do with the underlying grain--was it diverse and color variant to start with as that amplifies over time as the wood ages. These are the nuts and bolts of learning and looking closely at furniture. After awhile, it becomes second nature although people, some very knowledgable will disagree on what truly makes great color. 

The craftsmanship of a piece is pretty straightforward from one point of view, i.e. construction. The craftsman's choice and use of veneers is a more subtle knowledge that comes with time. It is true that there were great cabinetmakers all through the 19th and early 20th centuries turning out exceptional, 18th century style furniture so to deem something antique on craftsmanship alone can be misleading. The story of a piece, however, is probably the most fun and interesting aspect of furniture. As stated, country houses can get you started on understanding story--a visit to Houghton House in Norfolk where English baroque furniture finally wobbled into being in a melange of Italian, French and Dutch baroque stylistic details, is fascinating for so many reasons, mostly because of William Kent's distinct ability to design and the English craftsman's distinct ability to make those designs unique and English. But you can also learn a great deal by looking at a piece without provenance. A few elementary questions such as where does the wood come from, what design element is the most striking, how tight is the craftsmanship, where would the piece be used and was it made for the gentry or for the emerging middle class? This will, along with the design, color, timber and craftsmanship take you on a deeper dive--you will start to see things that cause you to ask questions. Then you know you are hooked. Fortunately, it isn't a bad habit to have.