An Antiquarian's Tale Issue 20

Clinton Howell Antiques - December 18, 2017 - Issue 20

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

One of the questions I had while I was in London (and to some extent still have) is why  certain woods became cabinetmaking standards and others were seemingly ignored. The answer to this question is both simple and complex. The simple answer relates to the turn from walnut to mahogany and is only simple because it has been investigated and concerns the (gradual) switch that took place when mahogany supplanted walnut as the primary high end furniture making timber. Thanks to Furniture History Society articles (one by John Cross and several by Adam Bowett) they explain that the reason mahogany gained such rapid acceptance was economic happenstance associated with the Naval Stores Act of 1721. (Furniture woods were considered next to irrelevant in comparison to the value of naval timbers.) Import taxes on walnut, particularly the lighter color walnut imported from the continent (Juglans regia), was a pound (sterling) per pound (weight). Timber imported from British colonies had a duty of a shilling per pound. Doubtless, there are other conditions such as aesthetics and workability, both of which mahogany excel in, but many questions still remain. Why, for example, was so much timber imported from Scandinavia--so much pine was imported through the port of Deal in Kent that pine, at least in the 1970's, was still referred to as deal. Were timber lands within the UK so coveted for both the navy and the building trade that the furniture trade did not get their hands on local woods and thereby had to import  woods? Also, what did shipping routes have to do with who used which timber? Almost everyone knows that mahogany shipped to Ireland and northern England was different to the mahogany shipped to London. So many questions.

The best place to see timber samples in London is Kew Gardens. That is where you will find a spectacular xylaria (the proper name for a collection of timber samples) where there are over 30,000 samples. Kew Gardens is one of the great botanical gardens (I have to say that there are a number of great botanical gardens, so this is not to slight any other garden). When you see the samples, it again makes you wonder what woods were passed over and for what reason? When (and if) you ever visit Kew Gardens, and I wholeheartedly recommend it, pull yourself away from the magnificent tree specimens and go look at the xylaria. You will see what I mean. 

Looking at Furniture

Console tables are the second most useful pieces of furniture (after chairs) that one can have. Some people may argue that a piece with drawers, such as a Welsh cupboard, might be more functional, but I beg to differ. Aside from the surface of the table (and the marble top to this table is original) it gives functional stability to the look of a room. Console tables invariably anchor a wall--some more than others simply because some tables have more going for them than others. This particular table has a number of aspects that make it interesting and, considering that it is only about 50" wide, it has remarkable presence. Indeed, Irish furniture enthusiasts will immediately second that notion as the table is Irish and Irish furniture can be a tad quirky, often in a positive fashion. This table is no exception as the shell carving flanked by delicate leaves, and the scrolled ears on the corner blocks are "look at me" kinds of embellishments. There is also a good tension to the table--it doesn't squat, it sits up, a tension caused by the cabriole legs that bend inwards rather than being either straight or oriented outwards. Having said this, I would not consider the table a great piece of furniture, but I would certainly recommend it for the right situation--it does what it is supposed to do, something that is not as easy to find as one might suspect.