An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 229

Clinton Howell Antiques - April 17, 2023 - Issue 229

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

The news I hear from the UK about English antique furniture sales by the trade is very positive, meaning that the US is lagging in its appreciation of English antiques. It has happened many times in the past and will likely happen again (and again) as time wears on presuming, of course, that it picks up. What's interesting is that our information about 18th century furniture is increasing as new books are being published and more information is available than ever before. I know that when I started to read the canon on 18th century furniture--MacQuoid, Edwards, Cescinsky and R. W. Symonds--the information was limited and the illustrations often quite poor. Fifty years later, there are some extraordinary tomes on the tradesman, designers and collectors. There are more academicians than ever before and if you don't think this is the case, just look at the Furniture History Society rostrum for their recent event on the rococo design movement. Why is there such a robust desire to understand what went on in the 18th century design world and what can it tell us about our own world that might be marginally relevant?

Foremost, of course, is that the 18th century is the age of reason. This era is a beacon in the history of western civilization, not so much for what they learned at the time, but for the attitude that has largely sustained itself for 300 plus years. That is the element of curiosity--to never be satisfied by an answer if you still have questions, or even if you don't but want to dig deeper. That we continue today to search for what many might consider impossible to answer questions such as, for example, the age of the universe, we are following the spirit of inquiry begun with groups such as the Royal Society, chartered by Charles II in 1661. The unanswered question remains a constant for humanity--we all have them and, if you're like me, when you get the answer, you forget it and then have to start all over again--particularly if it is science-related. But one of my unanswered questions is quite simple, mundane even, as it relates to what I do. Why has the dining room disappeared from modern life? The dining room became a norm in houses by around 1780 and it has started to disappear 250 years later--why?

I know this is not an earth shattering question, but it is pertinent, one that is fundamental to family and, ergo, to society. The answer, unless the architect of your space didn't believe in the dining room and you therefore don't have one, relates to how we allot our time. Part and parcel with my observation about rhythm in furniture, there is either a rhythm in family life, or not, and I would suggest a part of it comes from sharing food and talking. Of course, you don't have to be in a dining room to do this, but it is much easier if you are. When you ask a question of someone sitting at a table across from you that is sharing food, there is a covenant of politesse that exists--you don't have to answer the question, but you are expected to respond in some way. This creates dialogue which can lead to curiosity. If you have children, there can be the daunting time where they are ornery--mine were and so was I with my parents--but you get through it with both curiosity and dialogue. The dining room is, in essence, the mediation room and the media room, particularly if it is free of electronic devices.

I can sound like a fuddy-duddy quite easily in covering this topic--it has the paw prints of a traditionalist all over it. I concede to it, but I would suggest that, even though the lack of a dining room will not necessarily lead to the dawn of the age of the misanthrope, it has changed the way we communicate. The telephone has exacerbated this. A visit to a cafe or even a high end restaurant will have most patrons with a phone on the table--me included. (And electronics have largely become either a bona fide time waster or an echo chamber of what you want to hear which blunts all real curiosity.) Think about why it should not just be holidays and high holy days that require attention, both given and received. The spirit of curiosity pulls us out of ourselves. Good discussions motivate us to think and possibly ask more questions and seek more answers--the brain gets a workout, in other words. It sounds pollyanna-ish, but I would posit that the dining room is among the most important of any room in the house--if it gets used. On a much lighter note, I can say that one good thing now is that English antique dining furniture, at least in this country, is less expensive than ever so, should you decide on using your dining room, English antique furniture might be the perfect answer for furnishing it.