An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 213

Clinton Howell Antiques - Dec. 26, 2022- Issue 213

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

I would like to offer tickets to The Winter Show (Jan. 20-29, 2023) which I will be happy to mail to you, or which can be picked up at the show (the "will call" desk) when you come. If you would like them mailed to you, please supply me with your address. Otherwise, I will leave them in an envelope with will call. I have a bunch of things that no one has seen before and as I write this, I am praying that my restorers get everything finished on time. In particular, I have a really good 1730's mirror with an antique plate--Greek key, shell and dart--no pediment, but a lovely item. Also a great mahogany bench dating around 1850 with great color, a very good tripod table with gallery and a rare occasional table that is Irish with four modified cabriole legs terminating with ball and claw feet--all with good color. There are more new items, but better to just come and see. 

Back in the 1990's, when I was in the International Fine Art and Antiques Show, I started to show mirrors that had been dry stripped. Dry stripping is the process of scraping off subsequent layers on top of the original gilding, layers that were applied by restorers in the past who wished to brighten up an old mirror. The process of dry stripping is labor intensive and yet highly rewarding most of the time as the crispness of the carving in particular is revealed in the process. In my opinion, the carving is what you want to see. I once bought a rococo mirror from an auction house in Detroit that had fourteen layers of gesso on it. In fact, my restorer called me and said he thought the mirror was molded composition or carton pierre, not wood. Upon investigation, he quickly determined that it wasn't. I was clued into the age of the frame by the fact that the glass in it was a beautiful deep gray tone and quite thin--definitely an 18th century mirror plate--but I also had qualms about the mirror being carved wood. When the subsequent layers of gesso were removed, the mirror became substantially lighter in weight. It really was beautiful as well, as the dry stripping has an aesthetic that is visually sensual--in this case, there was a fair amount of both the yellow and the plum colored clay colors (always used as base coats on gilding work) and little glints of gold. 

The aesthetic that I am talking about, however, was not highly admired in the 1990's. Most dealers at that time (specifically the London trade of the English furniture market) would either dunk the frame into a vat of lye to strip all the gold, clay and gesso off or they would dry strip, patch missing areas of gesso, re-gild  the entire mirror and lastly tone down the gold so that the mirror looked as if it had been hanging on a wall for several hundred years untouched, but essentially perfect. And, it might be argued, that is a good way of showing a period frame since it would reflect the maker's intentions. The caveat, however, is that most frames when delivered to their clients in the 18th century would likely have been burnished brightly--that look is not one that would work well in today's world of electric lighting. What that means is there really is no way of recapturing an "original" look that is also aesthetically appealing. The key word here is aesthetic and I felt, back in the 1990's, that a dry stripped mirror has an interesting aesthetic as well as a key to how the mirror might have looked when delivered to the client. There were a lot of restorers who agreed with me and more than a few dealers, but it took the iconic firm of Mallett to validate the dry stripped look. Mallett bought a number of looking glass frames from me over the years and I noticed that they hung them directly onto their gallery walls when back in London. And nowadays, I am happy to say, mirror frames that have been dry stripped and left that way are a far more common sight. 

My belief that dry stripping is the best way of showing old gilded mirrors, consoles, pedestals, etc., is not shared by conservationists--many of them being in the museum world. The museum world, if I understand their position correctly, wants to reflect the history of an object and that may include showing an item in its present state--cleaned perhaps but not dry stripped. This is, in my opinion, problematic from the point of view of both aesthetics and the complete history of an article. Cleaning the most recent iteration of a mirror, for example, doesn't really tell us much more than that this is how the most recent restorer saw fit to repair the gilding on this object. There might be some value in that aspect as gilding restoration has been through various iterations over the years. From 1950-1990, for example as I stated above, most of the London trade's gilded furniture was stripped completely and re-gilded. But we know that, for the most part, furniture prior to that was just re-gilded over the surface that needed brightening up, so why save the most recent surface? This is a question I would like to ask of the Metropolitan Museum of Art which has a pair of consoles in the Kirtlington Park room which are from a set of four, two of which are at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The Pair at the DIA have been dry stripped (see here) and the ones at the Met have not (see here). Photographs don't really show the contrast between the two tables as well as I'd like, but the ones at Detroit have a far greater aesthetic appeal in my opinion. And aesthetics are what always draw us in.