An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 236

Clinton Howell Antiques - June 5, 2023 - Issue 236

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

About 45-50 years ago, I attended a fund raiser at a private home in New Canaan, Ct., for a school in Namibia. The school was started by a British husband and wife in the 1950's. When I met the couple after a short slide presentation, the wife told me that in order for them to get their cash out of the UK, which had restrictions on how much money could be taken out of the country, a law which lasted well into the 1960's, they bought antique furniture. I was a little shocked thinking that either gold or diamonds might have been a better choice and much easier to transport, but that is what they did and so the furniture was shipped to Namibia where it still is, for all I know. Whether they bought high quality items or country pieces, I have no idea, but it is intriguing that it might still be there.

English antique furniture is found all over the world. I imagine French furniture is also fairly well strewn around the globe, but because of the British Empire and how Britons lived and worked in foreign countries similar to the teachers I met, I would suggest that English furniture is scattered to a much greater degree. I have talked about this before, but it is rather extraordinary that you can be in Hobart, Tasmania, more or less the other side of the world from where I am now, and come across a rather good English antique furniture dealer, Warwick Oakman. I know, because I have purchased things from him and I still see his posts on Instagram. The fact is that the former British colonies all have pieces awaiting re-discovery.

The British populace, however, is divided between those people who traveled and those who did not. Hence, when I discussed an unusual molding on a piece of mahogany furniture with the late Ronald Lee, he told me a story about how he had seen two pieces with the exact same (quite unusual) molding and that he had pinpointed the town where the pieces were made because of the ancestry of the owners, both of whose ancestors lived within 10-20 miles of where, he ultimately determined, the pieces were made two hundred years earlier. (And one of the families was still there which is how he knew where to start his search.) With that knowledge, he figured out who the maker was. But often, as highlighted above, it is the furniture that has made the journey and it is impossible to figure out just how it got to where it was found.

One example of an unusual find was the breakfront bookcase that was made for Queen Charlotte that sold in the Getty sale at Christie's last fall. It was found in Wales and no one knows why it was there. For such an important piece of furniture, and it is a hugely important Chippendale commission, that is very strange. It is exactly the same model as the breakfront at Dumfries House that is in Scotland, but that isn't particularly enlightening as to why it ended up in Wales. There are some great antique furniture caches (country houses) on the Welsh/English border, notably Chirk Castle, Erdigg and Powys Castle, but that doesn't tell us much, either. I can't say I know precisely where in Wales the piece was found and that might offer some clues, but as far as I know no one knows how it got there. There is a story there, but it is currently, and maybe permanently, under wraps.

A second example was also in the Getty sale and I am much more familiar with it as it came from me and I know where I purchased it and the condition it was in. It was a side chair, made of walnut with parcel gilding to a design by Mayhew and Ince which is somewhat unusual, as finding exact replicas of designs of any piece of furniture from any design book is rare. In any case, I was in Brighton, Sussex, with a friend and we purchased this chair at the shop of Michael Norman. It was, oddly, painted black. It has been said that when Queen Victoria died, some people went to extremes to mourn her, painting everything black--that may have happened, but.., furniture? But what was the chair doing in Brighton--how did it get there? I don't know and I can't imagine why it was there. Interestingly, Christie's catalogued my former chair in the Getty sale as being Irish. Just as interesting, Christie's had the identical model about 15-20 years ago, in horrific condition as I looked at it and chose not to bid on it, and it was described as English--how did that chair get to America? How did mine end up in Brighton? The mysteries still abound and logical guesses are still just guesses.