An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 22

Clinton Howell Antiques - January 1, 2018 - Issue 22
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
It is the time for resolutions of some form or another. I don't have any so far, but I remember December of 1975 and thinking, "I have to get out of London". It was one of those moments when you make up your mind and know that you are not going to change it. The reason why I knew this was due to the weather. It rained every morning and evening for forty days and since it was close to the winter solstice, it was also dark. You should also understand that  our workshop was not heated and we often found ourselves going to the Chinese restaurant  (one of the many "Friends" Chinese restaurants that could be found in East London (Young, Old, Good, etc.) where I usually ordered "B" on the menu which was the sweet and sour pork. We would warm up there before plunging back into the damp cold of our Narrow St. workshop. It was great when the sun shone and we could work outside, but that does not happen in the late fall, winter or early spring months.

At that time, London was a little like a ripe fruit ready to be peeled. By this I mean that it was still a modest international town. There was plenty of money there, but it wasn't a hot place to be by any stretch. In those days, it was cooler to be in Rome or Paris or to be hanging out in some resort like St. Moritz or Monaco. The city's image was relatively drab in comparison to these other places even though I knew it as a place with infinite interest. Leaving it was not such a wrenching decision for me, but if I had thought harder about it, I might have realized that I was leaving an enormous opportunity. And as much as Margaret Thatcher is given the credit for the turnaround, there was really no place to go for London but up. That is what I missed. 

Looking at Furniture

Rococo furniture is always constrained by function, but rococo frames less so. They are the closest things to sculpture in the furniture canon notwithstanding torcheres. They can be carved quite flat or deeply, with every decorative device known to man--it really doesn't matter. The primary function is that the glass in the frame reflect light reasonably well which was the primary function of looking glasses. (We hardly think about this given electric light switches and instantaneous illumination.) In any case, frames needed to be decorative and the point of rococo decoration is to disguise the function of the frame to make it look like anything but a frame. This was, of course, an impossibility so we tend to see rococo as whimsical. That is well and good, but the real definition of how good a frame is in the carving. It isn't all that simple to define great carving, however. Boldness, for example, defines great carving--sometimes. Decoration can also define great carving--sometimes. Spatial awareness defines great carving--sometimes. I think you might get the idea. Not only does the carver need to wield a chisel with skill, something you will find is fairly consistent in 18th century furniture, but the carver needs to understand composition and, like the painter, what to leave out. The carver must also work to his or her strengths. 

The frame pictured above has several definitive strengths. The foremost is that the carver allows his style of carving room to breathe. The cut has a "spiky" feel to it and this plays particularly well in the open shell at the bottom of the frame. It works well throughout the frame, I might add, but the openness of the bottom part of the frame works in making it feel less like a frame for a looking glass. That is the point, after all, and it is very difficult to achieve. The superb scrolling is also a strong point of this frame as it pushes the eye to the pagoda-like roof over the balcony (where there probably should be some figures fishing, the glass being a visual metaphor for water). The whole is a sublime composition done with great skill. I would not say that it is a ten (on a scale of 1-10) but I would rate it a 9.8 or so.

I  just had to include a ten out of ten in this short foray into rococo carving. Below is a torchere at the Philadelphia Art Museum (its pair is at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London) attributed to Thomas Johnson (1714-1778) the carver considered the greatest English exponent of the rococo style. Even though this is a poor photograph taken at some distance, you can see that he had fun with the the style. Three intertwined dolphins wrap around the stem and they rest on a platform of c and s-scrolls that are vigorously carved. Visit them if you go to either London or Philadelphia (which has a superb collection of English furniture overall). They are eye candy for the rococo or carving enthusiast.