An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 240

Clinton Howell Antiques - July 3, 2023 - Issue 240

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

The artist is occasionally revered and sometimes maligned in literature. And they are often maligned in the press as I remember how Picasso was vilified for his arrogance when I was a teenager. Artists can make very good scape goats, particularly when they act imperious, as Picasso did, or seemingly impinge on everyone and never have commercial success with their art. I am reminded of the film, "The Horse's Mouth", released in 1958, the story of Gulley Jimson, an artist who has a compulsion to create. He also happens to be an ex-con and a swindler. The lengths that he goes in the film in order to paint are hilarious--in this case, of course, the artist is slightly devious and definitely mischievous and always willing to take (or steal) whatever he can get. It is but one portrait of an artist that reveals the societal tic towards what artists are really up to in their work--conning us with their paint (or bananas?) or their words. The film was adapted from Joyce Carey's book (1944) by the same name and is equally amusing and, as only words can, gives a slightly more complex version of the artist. Still, the artist, brilliant or merely brazenly self promoting, is presented as someone to inherently mistrust.

I certainly don't feel this way about artists so I am not endorsing this somewhat simplistic snapshot of what artists are and what they get up to. Like any craft, there is an idea and the desire to put the idea into form. That is where the compulsion lies, getting the idea out of your head and into a form of some sort. And that is why, when I see architect designed furniture, I don't laugh, I don't decry and I certainly don't get upset that they are messing around in the cabinetmaker or chairmaker's domain. On the contrary, some of the greatest contemporary furniture designs are by architects, the first person that comes to mind being Marcel Breuer whose iconic chair designs are comfortable, light and functional on lots of different levels. There are other good designs made by architects, although not all architect designed furniture is great. However, I truly appreciate the creative process that drives them to actually make what they have thought up. I might not want to sit in it, collect it or even like it, but the effort behind it is always praiseworthy.

As everyone knows, however, furniture is a decorative art. Does that make it less creative? I believe the incredible development of 18th century style on a large scale, is both artistic and, importantly, functional., which is really the first rule for all furniture. The 19th century had a difficult act to follow, but architects brought the aesthetic whole back into vogue in the fourth quarter of that century, particularly through the Scot, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the American, Frank Lloyd Wright and on a different level, the Spaniard, Antoni Gaudi. Furniture was an essential element of their rooms. (Not all of it is comfortable.) Their interiors are beautiful, as artistic as anything done in the 18th century. Their work was a conscious attempt to minimize the past of the gothic, baroque, rococo, and neoclassical styles--revivalist concepts from the 18th century and earlier styles, all of which were used heavily in the mainstream markets. Mackintosh, Wright, Gaudi and a large swath of their contemporaries offered an aesthetic alternative to this revivalism. The difference is that their beginnings were in architecture and not furniture design, whereas in the 18th century, the architects mostly left furniture design to the professional cabinetmakers.

Art is a reflection of us at all times. It can be predictive, it can be explanatory and it can be revelatory. This is almost always best understood after the fact, or more precisely, after the era and often in museums. This has led museums to re-thinking at how they can effectively exhibit and draw in patrons, one way being with blockbuster shows for example. What is more interesting and possibly surprising, or maybe not, is that it has led artists to use mass production==the art is less about their work or craft and more about the production of the artist's thought process. Others, however, have increased the scale of their work enormously, using miles of landscape to create their vision and the heavens as their guide. Some want to make art experiential, something that you either live through or walk into. All of this can sound like nonsense--Jimsonesque--but it isn't--artists are pushing out boundaries. And yet, in my domain, the furniture world, the aesthetic interior is pushing towards minimalism and the absence of color. It is almost surprising to me, or perhaps it shouldn't be? Respective of what I wrote about period rooms several weeks ago, what will a period room from 2023 look like? I can't answer that question, but it may still be a kitchen.