An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 230

Clinton Howell Antiques - April 24, 2023 - Issue 230

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

I was very lucky to have a father who could network in ways that few could surpass. He seemed to know everyone. He succeeded in getting me a job in Paris in the summer of 1969 with Chemical Bank, a career path that I opted not to pursue. It was a representative office, meaning that we performed no banking duties per se, but we facilitated contacts for both French and American companies to work together. Hence, it was a two person office with two secretaries and I was the fifth wheel with minimal duties although my boss started throwing me a few curves in the second half of my tenure which included talking to insurance companies to get their annual reports so that we knew all the players in the French insurance market--who the bigger fish were and the niche players in the market, for example. In the end, I felt no sense of accomplishment for having done the task as I felt it was make-work, not really contributing. But oh what an experience to be in Paris in 1969! That part was great fun. 

The Louvre Museum has been an iconic building since its construction as a royal palace but the role for the building changed in 1793 when it was decreed to become a museum. If anything defines my summer in Paris, it is how familiar I became with a bunch of rooms in the Louvre. The neo-classicists, David and Ingres in particular, could just reel you in, but then so did a Gericault horse in battle or the drama of "The Raft of the Medusa". The "Mona Lisa" was not on the top of my list and in those days, there was never a crowd around it. The Winged Victory of Samothrace was far more exciting to me, its positioning at the top of the stairs to the left as you walked into the museum was masterful. But what I really loved was in the basement where you could find a recreation of Brancusi's studio. It's hard to explain exactly why this was the case although I admit to loving sculpture from the beginning of my studies of art history (I discovered the Rodin Museum that summer, as well, which visited at least five times.) Sculpture, at that time in my life, was the art medium that I loved the most and Brancusi was the top sculptor on my list, even more than my other favorites such as Giacometti or Calder.

Seeing that workshop might have been the tipping point that led me to a career admiring wood in its many forms. I can't say that Brancusi, or Giacometti or Calder, excite me as much as they used to--Calder is slightly different in that I sense humor underlying his work, something I appreciate vastly. But I well remember the excitement of seeing the tools and the work in (never finished) progress in that studio. And when I got to the London College of Furniture three years later, I was able to immerse myself in just such an atmosphere. Working with wood has a viscerally satisfying quality, beginning with an understanding of the wood itself--the grain, the density, the color variations, etc. Wood can be played with in many ways--I suspect that had I visited the Thonet factory where wood bending was perfected, that I would have been almost as excited as I was by Brancusi's studio, simply because wood is such a versatile material. Wood just calls out to be used imaginatively. And there is the beauty of wood which, even on the plainest of pieces, can be coaxed along with chemicals or dyes and some kind of finish--although raw wood also has an  extraordinary power of attraction as well.

This power is something I doubt I will ever be released from. The pleasure I get from a piece having great timber has made me prone to buying pieces simply for their wood. This is a trap that all antique dealers have to navigate as I can certify that the power that wood has on people is not unique to me. And if the piece has significantly good color ,as you may find on an impossible to sell late 18th or early 19th century linen press, every atom in your body is saying to buy the damn thing because just looking at it day in and day out will make it worthwhile. Indeed, a fellow dealer and I bought a secretaire/linen press made by Thomas Chippendale for Paxton House in Scotland, and oh, was it beautifully crafted, with mahogany that just glowed. (We sold it back to Paxton House.) But there are woods that are luminous that just call out to you such as satinwood, particularly West Indian satinwood, that just glows--not an American taste and very hard to sell. There are many others and it is easy to get caught up in the passion for woods even when you are not a fan of the design. I am not, for example, a big fan of Nakashima and the way he uses planks of walnut for tables and combination chair/tables, but how can you dislike those planks--you can't, they are just too beautiful. No, Brancusi's studio might have been the start to my love affair for wood, but it has truly blossomed in the field of antique furniture.. And, I will add, the passion is ongoing.