An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 227

Clinton Howell Antiques - April 3, 2023 - Issue 227

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

One of the most important lessons that the London College of Furniture didn't try to teach was how to determine what was good design, nor did they try to teach what passed as beautiful. We did learn the word ergonomics, but ergonomics neither implies good design or beauty. Just because a chair has a seat that is the right height for the sitter doesn't make it either good design or beautiful, it makes it functional. Function is, of course, important, but beauty can elide and often does elide function. Art Deco furniture is a superb example of this and, if you are a fan of Carlo Bugatti or Rennie Mackintosh or for that matter almost all architect/furniture designers, you might say their furniture is made to be seen, not used. In other words, trying to teach either what was beautiful or what was good design was not, nor ever will be, a possibility. There are too many choices out there and too many opinions and opinions will always vary. The marketplace for used furniture is a metric, although that metric isn't particularly accurate as money chases fads and fads are, well, momentary.

I separate good design and beauty for the simple reason that taste has many different palates. You may like Monet, but love Chagall--that is a matter of taste and no one is wrong even though there will inevitably be a consensus that places one artist above the other. That consensus isn't fixed, it's ongoing and even though the period of the Impressionists is long over, artists from that era will continue to rise and, possibly, fall in the public consensus. That is the nature of how we see good and/or beautiful, but not really the way you or I see beauty. This is equally true with furniture design. Bugatti, who I rather like as I owned an original desk and chair by Bugatti that was exhibited by him in an exposition in 1899, is someone who needs getting used to--he is an acquired taste. Mackintosh is also an acquired taste though somewhat slightly easier to digest than Bugatti. But what both these designers have, and what I would posit a vast majority of English 18th century furniture has, is a rhythm of some sort, be it in the craftsmanship, in the lines, or even the materials. Rhythm is not necessarily beauty or function though it can be. It is often good design coupled with good craftsmanship--Shaker furniture is a good example of this--but what it really has is a sense of flow and completeness. 

Rhythm in 18th century English (and most 18th century European furniture) is most powerful when it is in its intended environment--a quick visit to the Kirklington Park room at the Met enforces that. Even on its own, however, you can find rhythm, particularly in beautifully carved (and often gilded or painted) mirrors or wall ornaments.  The photo I use on this page exemplifies this rhythm as the ho-ho bird is modeled with the downswept tail acting as a counter balance to the c-scroll supports, and the rocks and wings counterbalancing the bird. But the carving also has a rhythmic quality and great beauty. Lastly, the negative space also adds to that rhythm. Interestingly, there were a pair of 18th century rectangular, rococo mirrors for sale recently at a sale in North Carolina that lacked this sense of rhythm (see here  ) that I am referring to--it isn't that they aren't well carved, it is that the carving feels disjointed--bunched-- with no real flow. And yet, the mirrors have a presence without a doubt and will look great in almost any decor--they just lack that essential rhythm and are thereby a tad awkward to my eyes. But contrast them with the pair of ovals in a sale in Chicago several weeks ago (see here) and you will see what collectors and connoisseurs are looking for--rhythm in both design and in craft. Oddly, the mirrors are not to my (personal) taste although I think they are objectively beautiful, if just for their rhythmic quality. Of course, what I am talking about is what makes a horse race. We all have our own preferences.