An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 207

Clinton Howell Antiques - Nov. 14, 2022 - Issue 207

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.

The history of a piece of furniture, particularly 18th century English furniture, is often too opaque to follow back to the original owner and/or maker. Hence, a great deal of furniture is attributed to, or in the manner of, a some firm from the 18th century that made similar items. Sometimes, there are attributions based on craftsmanship alone as certain craftsmen had minor conceits that will reveal themselves in construction--the way a chair handle might be carved, for example, or the blocking on the inside of a bracket foot, the use of certain moldings--all of these are valid assessments about the way a piece is made, but they do not identify a precise maker. In other words, they are interesting and relevant facts, but they do not reveal anything about who, why or where or for whom a piece was made. It may reveal when it was made--everything else regarding its history is conjecture.

This is the rub as regards English furniture. Few things were signed or labelled.  (Export furniture was often labelled which is one reason why the top quality maker, Giles Grendey, is so well known. Not only did he label his pieces for export, but his craftsmen often stamped their initials on various parts of an item.) The bespoke furniture business, however, was not a minor business and many purchasers of furniture for their London homes or country houses kept records of their transactions--this, too, is history if the piece is well defined and it is even better history if the cabinetmaker's records confirm the contract. It is rare for this kind of thing to happen. Even rarer is for pieces to show up in paintings or sketches, but that can happen and lastly, there is the infamous and specious attribution known as, "by repute" that was very common in the English furniture trade, particularly in auction catalogues, for a long time, but it has been retired by most dealers as too specious a generalization.

Provenance, at least as far as English furniture is concerned, is these days, largely about previous owners and previous dealers. The photographs taken for "Country Life" magazine over the last 150 years have proven invaluable to researchers, but so have advertisements (primarily for auctions as well as the catalogues of a sale) and articles written in magazines over the last 150 years. It is worth noting that there have always been dealers whose inventory was seen as a cut above the rest of the trade. Certain former dealers ownership will instantly make a piece worthwhile to go see and hence, this kind of provenance has taken on significant importance.

The exciting part about the world of English antique furniture is in finding something that clicks all the boxes that I have been writing about--this is what some might call a pipe dream. However, the Ann and Gordon Getty sale at Christie's a month or so ago had, in my opinion, a couple of items that ticked those boxes, to wit a William Vile breakfront cabinet that was made for George III's wife, Charlotte, the St. Giles House (Dorset) chandelier, a set of ten walnut chairs, the design of which was attributed to William Kent, and a lacquer chest of drawers attributed to Giles Grendey. I would be quite happy to own, or have to sell, any of these items. There was more, but these were my choices, I just didn't have the six or seven million dollars on hand to buy them.