An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 206

Clinton Howell Antiques - Nov. 7, 2022 - Issue 206

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.

Craftsmanship is an aspect of furniture that can be elusive to understand. It isn't just about dovetails although they can be revealing. Part of understanding construction is in knowing how furniture is best constructed. It doesn't mean that it always has to be constructed in one fashion, but there are best practices that make for a longer lasting, better quality item. Caveats abound, however, as the different ways of doing things can be equal, particularly when you think of how certain pieces were meant to be used. The hall chair that has a wooden back and seat, for example, is not for leaning back in as a rule and I can't tell you how many hall chairs I have seen that have had broken backs. That isn't because they were poorly made--they could have been, but it is far more likely that someone leaned back in them and they broke.

I sold a saloon chair a number of years ago that was meant for perching on, not for leaning back in. In any case, this chair had unusual construction in how the legs attached to the rails that make the seat. The role of the front legs is to solidify the seat. The front legs whether cabriole, turned, or squared have mortises in what I will call the business end of the leg, the part that meets the rails. This is standard practice. The chair I sold had a smaller stump  that sat behind the rail and the side and front rails were glued to it--there were also support blocks for further stabilization. The rails met at the (front) corners and were mitered. I haven't seen that kind of construction since, but it worked as the chair, which was walnut and parcel gilt to a design by Mayhew and Ince, recently sold in the Getty sale at Christie's for over $60,000. Good craftsmen can figure out ways of doing things that do not conform to the rules. 

One of those craftsmen who made furniture that was exceptional was the German cabinetmaker, David Roentgen. I urge anyone that wants to know just how miraculous his work was, to watch the videos made by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (see here) that show just how clever he was. His capability at melding wood with metal mechanisms is nonpareil. His furniture is a playground of discovery with secret drawers hidden by the slightest touch or pull on something--he was amazing. Interestingly, Roentgen made furniture on spec for the supra-wealthy such as Catherine the Great and Louis XV and even for the not so wealthy such as Francois Arouet, better known as Voltaire. If all furniture had to be measured against Roentgen's work, IKEA would never have become a reality. Chippendale, certainly among the greats in the panoply of English furniture making, can occasionally look amateurish next to Roentgen, that's how good his work was. The chair I referred to in the previous paragraph demonstrates that kind of thinking (it pre-dates Roentgen's work). 

It would be unfair to measure all furniture against the man who is considered the greatest cabinetmaker ever, but there are obvious markers of good craftsmanship. One of the markers I've already mentioned is the condition of a piece. Lots of repairs, bad warping, splitting at any joints, veneer bubbles, new hardware, broken feet--these are all signs of craftsmanship that may not have been up to par. They may also have been caused by abuse. It is worthwhile determining which is which, as a well made piece of furniture has a much better chance of being put right than a poorly made one. Other things to notice are whether the joints move on a piece--if they do, it is a possibility that the mortises and tenons were not tightly cut and have loosened even further with age. And never forget to look at the dovetails--they should be tight with no gaps and, if you are looking at a high quality 18th century piece, the drawer linings are more than likely to be oak. The idea is to always keep looking--construction is the thinking part of a craftsman's work and it always reveals itself.