An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 237

Clinton Howell Antiques - June 12, 2023 - Issue 237

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

I have often wondered if it is possible to measure aesthetic pleasure. One way a lot of us try to do it, for example, is to go to a museum, like something and then ask yourself whether you really would want to live with that object? That is one test of whether something truly strikes a chord. Liking something for its artistry, craft or design is one thing, living with it, if you can imagine it, is something different. For example, I visited the Met's exhibition of Cecily Brown the other day. She is an English painter who lives and works in the U.S. Her work is quite abstract, at least her oils are, and they really push the viewer to like or not like her work--there is little room to be wishy-washy as her color palate is quite bold. I liked one of her oils, but I wouldn't have wanted to live with any of them. Her drawings, on the other hand, I liked a lot. I could live with most of them. But this isn't all there is, of course. There is a lot more to how we learn to like what we like, and separately, to live with what we live with.

We are creatures of our own aesthetic educational system. We train our eye, whether we know it or not, and that determines what we like. But what we live with may have some element of compromise. To begin with, we don't all have unlimited budgets and many of the things we live with are personal, possibly family heirlooms or some such emotionally charged objects--these can be beautiful or not, it doesn't really matter. I have a gold coin that I have no aesthetic interest in, but it was given to me by my godparents, and so it sits in a drawer. I hardly ever look at it. Why do I keep it? When I do look at it, it reminds me of an altogether different era of my life, partly associated with my godparents and partly associated with what I was like when I received the coin. That Proustian-type moment, the involuntary recalling of the past, is tangible and though it may affect how we see other things, it really has little to do with how we develop our aesthetic judgment. 

A great many people I know are delighted when they make the decision, sometimes alone and sometimes with someone else, to actually purchase something that they like. This moment is both about the object and the decision.thing, aesthetic development in other words. Certainly, as I have matured as a dealer, my understanding of the objects that I buy has grown tremendously. When I look back at some of the items I bought forty years ago, I am not embarrassed, but I am amused at the significance I gave to those items. (And of some of the rarer items I sold unaware of how rare they were.) Those pieces were not worse than what I have in my inventory now, they represent a young dealer's eye--19th century library steps, for example, or a good but very plain walnut Gainsborough open armchair. They were, however, important in the development of my eye. And at this stage of my career, I get insight on where people are in the development of their aesthetic, at least as regards to English furniture, by what they ask me for and by telling me what they like. When I talk to them, my goal is to teach, to make them stretch just a bit. That's the road to collecting and it's extremely satisfying. 

At the same time that I saw the Cecily Brown exhibition, I wandered through a bunch of other galleries. Two things stood out to me at the time. One was a marble version of "Bird in Space", Brancusi's well known sculpture--something I don't ever remember seeing in marble--it is the bronze model that I have in my memory. The use of marble is, of course, a good joke on the concept of space and flight--I still like the sculpture a great deal (although the glue stain on the example at the Met between the base and the body needs to be cleaned). The second thing that stood out was the mural, "America", by Thomas Hart Benton which is just fabulous. Could I live with these two things? (I mean art, but they become things when you own them.) This is a fanciful and unrealistic question, obviously, but no, I don't think I could. "Bird in Space" needs distance and greater space than I currently have and for some reason, I wonder if it would end up boring me--it really works well in the museum environment, however. I could use a small section of Benton's mural, but it should be seen as a whole, not in parts so, no, I could not live with just a part of it. It does not diminish the measure of my pleasure, however. it just means I have to remain a member of the Met.