An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 204

Clinton Howell Antiques - October 24, 2022 - Issue 204

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

There are five aspects regarding a piece of furniture that are worth noting--design, color, condition, craftsmanship and history. I am going to explore each aspect for the next five blogs.

Color is a subject that is close to every English antique furniture dealer's heart, at least dealers in pre-20th century furniture. It adds an ephemeral dimension to what might just be a fine piece of furniture and turns it into an aesthetic gem. And although patina is part of what I am talking about, I am also talking about the choice of timbers and how they affect us. For example, a satinwood Pembroke table made from straight grained satinwood versus one made with interlocking grain has a very different look and often, quite a different color. Having said this, patina is the primary determinant of color and a good definition of patina is difficult--wear, dirt, maintenance, exposure to sunlight and the finish are all part of this indefinable word--all of it relates to the color that a piece of furniture will have. 

Take that imaginary satinwood Pembroke table and place it in a window where it will get sun and regular care for 200 years and a good surface with deep color will be created. This may sound obvious, but that is what dealers look for when buying a piece of furniture--the patina and the color and warmth that ensue are what makes English antique furniture eminently desirable. We learn what is a good surface and then we yearn for it and go gaga when we find it. Oddly, French antiquarians are not so interested in patina and will often strip and re-polish a piece. If you are near a museum that has both French and English 18th century furniture, you can see the difference straightaway. Yet even the French furniture that gets stripped and polished has a color and warmth that modern furniture does not have. The aging of timber, even if it has minimal exposure to sunlight and is stripped every now and then, has an affect on color. 

I should mention that I am not dismissive of 20th century furniture--a lot of it is quite spectacular in design but color aspect is not highly valued. It may become so--I have seen the teak used in Danish modern furniture in a faded state which I rather like, but because it has a finish of oil, which is absorbed into the grain and darkens furniture, it doesn't stay that way when the piece gets re-oiled. Although I will say that wood is a remarkable material and will likely have people assessing even 20th century furniture for its color at some point in the future. At the moment, however,  color is not valued across the board among antiquarians--it is primarily those of us selling 17th, 18th and 19th century furniture that don't just care about color but assess value according to color. (American furniture antiquarians notwithstanding.) Great color on a mundane piece of furniture can make it worth buying and conversely a lack of color on something can kill interest altogether.