An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 239

Clinton Howell Antiques - June 26,, 2023 - Issue 239

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

Humanity's interest in itself, the historyits possessions, the successes and failures--teaching tools, really--are one reason why museums exist. Museums are developed and run and subsidized by all of us in some form, leaving them wide open to criticism about what is put in and what is left out. Even though it was well over a century ago, why is it that Vincent Van Gogh never sold a painting, at the very least, to a museum--surely someone must have seen his genius? Wasn't there someone at some museum who saw the validity of his work? What was going on with the art buying world that it could be so blind to this master painter? It is an enigma to us after the fact, but does that enigma continue--is it happening today that we are missing masters of the art of painting, sculpture, etc.? Are we blinded by the strictures of our time from not seeing what is actually quite good? This is the kind of question that has so very many responses and probably no concise answers, simply because art, or aesthetics in general, are a personal preference. We are allowed, encouraged even, to love or hate Van Gogh, or anyone else, according to our own feelings.

This is also quite true in the world of antique furniture. I hear people talk about not liking their grandmother's furniture which is absolutely fine. If it is because their grandparents were bad memories, that is one thing and if it is the style of furniture they owned, that is another. (I would love to be able to have conversations with both of my grandmothers--they were tough, interesting, Victorian women and didn't brook contradiction--they scared the bejesus out of me.) Either reason is perfectly acceptable, but I would like to add that just as I have few fond memories of my grandmothers, I am now in the way they lived and saw the world. One of my grandmothers, I learned in my thirties from an aunt, liked to buy old furniture--and ended up with some rather nice Boston block front chests. The other grandmother didn't believe in owning things and yet she had a house on a lake in upstate New York that she held onto all her life despite having little money to live on.

I have to admit that there is a lot of awkward, not very useful antique (and modern) furniture in the world--much of it owned by grandmothers--a judgment I should probably not admit to, but which I fear is the reality. I have purchased some of it, particularly early on in my career. Among the first antiques I bought in London was a pair of Hepplewhite chairs that had upholstered seats and backs, simple straight tapered legs with an H-stretcher that connected the four legs. The chairs had evidently been used on (dragged over) concrete and at least three quarters to possibly a full inch of the legs had worn down. Furthermore, I will add that they were not high end chairs--they were, however, circa 1780--there was no doubting their age. I spent many hours lengthening the legs with a complex joint that was far too complex and, in turn, wasted my time re-upholstering them and then trying to sell them. My rate of return on investment was steeply negative. I suspect my grandmother who collected block fronts did a thousand times better than I did on her purchases, even though she didn't buy them to re-sell.

Our paths to comprehending what (the world) thinks is beautiful is one thing, but what about our own taste?. Returning to Van Gogh, would I have seen the beauty of his work had I been alive when he painted? The encumbrances we carry, knowingly or not, regarding how we see something are hard to dispel. Or, we have chosen a path that doesn't allow us to see. For example, people who don't play golf don't necessarily see beauty in a golf course and people who do, don't necessarily see the beauty of undeveloped land, particularly if that is the wilderness the makers of the golf course developed. I know that when I lived in London, I found the West End of London more exciting--much hipper and zingier, but the East End was freighted with history and people with amazing stories such as that of the old man I met in an East End pub who told me about seeing Kitchener's troops disembarking by the Houses of Parliament--which happened after successful military campaigns as losing campaigns disembarked in the East End. In other words, there is always more ways to see something than how we are seeing them right now. And given that is the case, I might suggest that it might be worthwhile to pay attention to your grandmother's..., point of view. She may have had good reasons for seeing things the way she did. And her furniture might just be more interesting than you think.