An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 222

Clinton Howell Antiques - February 27, 2023 - Issue 222

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

Running around London in the 1970's and 80's to look at English antique furniture was so very interesting because the market was in flux from what had been a somewhat sleepy, hide bound market to one that was super charged and rising steadily. There was genuine excitement about the English decorative arts. It is hard to imagine now that you could go to the Olympia Fair, held each June, buy something on a stand, have the dealer then offer to buy the piece back half an hour later at a profit without ever having to lay out a dime.. I was not an exhibitor nor much of a buyer in those days, but it was a bonanza for some of the dealers with pieces ricocheting and gaining value on each bounce. It wasn't Tulipmania which must have been kind of fun in 17th century Holland--until, of course, the market crashed and crashing is what markets do when they overheat. Oddly, the English furniture market hasn't ever really crashed, but it has cooled--a bit on the top end, fallen flat in the middle and is strong at the bottom where you can find good, well made furniture, for very little money. But no one was thinking that the end would come back in those days--the euphoria of a rising market is a narcotic that is hard to shake once you've taken a sip.

I would visit the top dealers for a reason in those early days. Their eye was honed and they knew their product very well because, of course, they could sell it. They knew what people wanted and they could pitch it well, often with elegance as Robin and Brian Kern used to do at Hotspur Antiques in Lowndes Square. The quality of their product was above reproach and their sales ability was both low key and extraordinarily persuasive. Speaking of narcotics, the subtle sibilance, cordiality and inevitable bonhomie of the Kerns could melt the tightest grip on any wallet. But, they were equally nice to me, an obvious non-buyer, who would be invited to join them in a cup of tea on the second floor. If the doorbell rang, Brian would fly down the stairs and, if it was a known customer, would have them come upstairs and introduce me. Every visit was a seminar in how to make your customer feel important. Furthermore, there were always stories about the English furniture business--none of which I remember. What I do remember, however, is Robin Kern telling me that I should go to Norman Adams Antiques which was located on Hans Rd., on the west side of Harrods in Knightsbridge to see a great piece of furniture by John Channon. 

John Channon stands alone for a number of reasons among the panoply of English furniture makers. The piece that Robin Kern suggested I go see was a mahogany writing cabinet (see here) with a pull out section in the top drawer of the base that was encrusted in ormolu mounts and which is now in Temple Newsam Museum near Leeds, in Yorkshire. It is a complex, beautifully constructed item and yet not particularly beautiful. Channon, along with other immigrant cabinetmakers (though not an immigrant) made furniture more closely related to continental furniture than English, and the cabinet at Norman Adams was no exception. The clearest parallel, design-wise, is to the complex furniture of David Roentgen, a maker from Germany whose father, Abraham, Channon is said to have worked with. My visit to Norman Adams resulted in a friendship with Stewart Whittington, one of the two managers of the company which had been started by the eponym of the company in 1923 in Boston, Massachusetts and later in 1928 in Hans Rd. Norman Adams was known for his love of great color in antiques, regardless of which wood a piece was made of and to that end, Stewart and Christopher Claxton-Stevens, the other manager, held one of the better dealer exhibitions on color I've ever seen despite the fact that the exhibition included only ten or twelve objects. I would not hesitate to say that if everyone who wanted to buy great English furniture had seen this display, they would never have to ask what good color is--it was an exhibition and lesson I have never forgotten.