An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 231

Clinton Howell Antiques - May 1, 2023 - Issue 231

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

Dealers of antiques always look for "smalls", items that sit on or around furniture that can captivate potential buyers for either the small itself or the furniture. Smalls have long been the sauce to the meat in the antiques trade and it is amazing how difficult it can be to find them. Why is this? Everyone likes them--you don't have to be a collector or even a buyer of antiques in general to buy a wine cooler or a wassail bowl or tantalus or a miniature chest or tea caddy. All of these items have decorative value that can be appreciated without having a great bookshelf or dining table to place them on. And there are endless uses for items--plate, peat and coal buckets have long outlived their original uses but serve well as kindling holders for fireplaces, for example. Smalls, in other words can have little to do with their intended purpose and yet add to any interior. The amount of paraphernalia that was produced, starting as early as 1660, makes you wonder, who was making all this stuff? 

In essence, it was the ceramics and pottery industries that most ably capitalized on the desire for smalls, particularly after tea gripped the English taste buds and the need for pots, cups, plates and mugs exploded. The demand was such that Josiah Wedgwood's partner, Thomas Bentley, moved to London in 1769 in order to start a showroom where people could see the latest Wedgwood wares and place orders. (Wedgwood was an extraordinary marketer for the 18th century and often worked at a loss if he thought he would gain in the long run.) The Metropolitan Museum, on the recent re-organization of the English rooms, has displayed a vast array of teapots that clearly emphasizes the rage for tea drinking and the ceramics that swept England in the 18th century. It turned out to be a bonanza for all potters, and the UK had a substantial number of pottery firms but also for caddy makers, silversmiths, etc. who all capitalized on the tea drinking craze. It even translated into new forms of furniture as people would sit and drink tea at a tea table, not a dining table, thereby requiring more furniture for the home.

Wooden items were not like pottery or porcelain, however, and those are what I like the most. They were not mass produced--indeed, mass production was almost discouraged in the UK as it was considered a threat to jobs and livelihoods. The work week that we have--Monday to Friday--did not exist in the 18th century as people worked when they felt like it--not all, of course, but consistent labor was one of Wedgwood's major problems and it is likely the same was true in the woodworking world, at least the woodworking world outside of the proper businesses such as Chippendale's workshop. Creating product of any sort was a challenge in the 18th century, so there must have been entrepreneurs attempting to capitalize on this void, the majority of which had to do with products used in the home. This partly explains why the smalls market is so rarefied up until around 1770-80, simply because no one was really focusing on smalls, save for kitchen paraphernalia, as a bona fide business. This changed dramatically over the ensuing years and by 1850, London's West End was filled with shops that sold all manner of small wooden (and ivory, horn, tortoise shell, etc.) objects designed to entice the buyer in one form or another. It is really quite remarkable how much was made and how little there is available now. I am both chagrinned and pleased when I haven't sold a small because I will be able to continue to use it as a prop. Good smalls never get old.