An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 238

Clinton Howell Antiques - June 19, 2023 - Issue 238

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

I was chatting about the English rooms at the Met with a friend recently and I was going on about how middle class England slowly developed through the 18th century and the affect that it had on design when I realized that most of the objects on display in the English rooms were made for the ultra rich of their day. I knew this, of course, but what was rather startling was how, on the re-design of the English rooms, there was a conscious choice to have a display of teapots, the kind of teapots that probably did not cost an arm and a leg. In other words, they were middle class, or possibly upper middle class goods. It was kind of shocking to think of the financial disparity that existed between the owners of the teapots and the owners of the furniture, silver, candelabra, mirrors, etc. It actually got me to thinking about how difficult it is to create an exhibition that actually details life of a period across multiple class lines because, inevitably, you are going to leave large groups of people out of the mix--usually the middle to lower classes.

The one museum that tried to show middle class life that I have visited (there may be many, I just haven't been to them) at least in a major urban setting, is the Geffrye Museum in Shoreditch in London, which is now called the Museum of the Home. As I remember, the museum was set up as a series of rooms from different eras in a chronological sequence. I haven't been there for 40-45 years so it might be different now, but it is the only museum I can think of that tries to show a middle class setting, but even then, I remember there was some rather fine furniture in the 18th century section. Capturing snapshots of a moment of history in a given time period with objects is an elusive goal. After all, no one really cares about the have-nots, because, materially speaking, they didn't have anything. I am not being facetious, but material history is about things--the making, the selling, the customers, the using of items. It is not about the fact that many people didn't have a chair to sit on or even a bed to sleep in.

It is interesting, however, that when I ask docents, or attendants at country houses (in England) which is the most popular room of a house, it is almost always the kitchen that is mentioned first. There is good reason for this as, for example, the kitchen at Brighton Pavilion almost looks like a rather charming factory--Willie Wonka's chocolate manufactory--the parties that the Prince Regent must have had, given the size and scope of the utensils in the kitchen is extraordinary. But you would not necessarily expect this to be true at Harewood House in Yorkshire, a Chippendale/Robert Adam collaboration with a Capability Brown garden and landscape behind it--all of it pretty intact to how it was two hundred and forty years ago when it was created. I mean the furniture is exceptional, the house interesting, the garden is beautiful and the landscape to die for and it is still the kitchen that people most enjoy. 

As I said, this is the hard part for museums. How can you give people kitchens in a museum, unless of course, the museum is just about kitchens? The past is so difficult to paint when your focus is on the highest end of the social scale. The teapots at the Met might be a start, but expanding on them could be complicated. Indeed, in almost any museum, the focus of the decorative arts tends to be on an ultra-thin, quite well off, sliver of society. In a way, material culture is not the best representative of a way of life, at least among the people who had very little. I would suggest that literature, possibly starting with Dickens and Balzac, reveals a broad sociological spectrum better than any object could. I remember reading Willa Cather's description of her sod home in Nebraska--it was as good as any period room in getting across the reality of how someone lived in Nebraska at the end of the 19th century. Photography has done much the same as I can see the (in)famous photo of the Dust Bowl migrants in my mind as I write this. Painting, too, as early as Caravaggio, laid claim to representing a broader view of the human condition than just men and women of social distinction. The teapots at the Met are, I might suggest, just the tip of the spear, at least when it comes to a more rounded, no pun intended, view of history.