An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 244

Clinton Howell Antiques - July 31, 2023 - Issue 244

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

The ability, or even the desire, to see the other side of a story--it's actually not a binary choice as there are many sides to most stories--is part of the what creates a depth of understanding. This is as true of history as it is of the human character and it is also true of the things that we create. One of my favorite historical novelists, Pat Barker, likes to explore such stories as she did in "Regeneration",(1991)  her first novel in a trilogy about PTSD and WWI. In a similar vein, her novel, "The Silence of the Girls", (2018) explores the siege of Troy through the eyes of Briseis, wife of a Trojan ally, King Mynes, but childless and therefore relegated to secondary status. She is captured and given to the Greek, Achilles, and later on, further emphasizing her position as chattel, Agamemnon, the commander of the Greeks who demands her as tribute from Achilles, thereby causing a rift so that Achilles sits in his tent sulking, causing the siege to lose momentum. It is a fascinating take on what might have been an entirely plausible situation, with a nice jab and hook at the end as Briseis ends up pregnant by Achilles. 

On the surface, inanimate objects wouldn't seem to have a story worthy of Briseis, let alone a story at all. A chair is a chair is a chair to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, but Stein's repetition reveals that a rose is a rose and all that it implies--there are symbols galore in the flower. The reality is that we read things into objects on a regular basis as we often apply gender pronouns to inanimate objects, the most obvious being sea vessels, but car buffs might also have similar predilections. And even if we don't genderize our objects, it doesn't preclude a story. For example, my grandfather had to buy a car in 1931 in order to join his family in upstate New York. My father and his brothers did not know what car he was going to buy--they wanted a roadster or a coupe, but he bought a Model A Ford pickup truck. As it happens, that truck became my father's second car which he used to drive to the train station every morning for a good fifteen years. He also used it to take things to the dump--in fact, we all drove the pickup--my mother, sister and two brothers. In eight years it will have been in the family for a century--and it still runs. It is replete with memories for us aside from the fact that it is a relatively rare survivor. It isn't just a Model A, after all.

Furniture may seem the least likely of things in a household to engender stories. But, in fact, my mother had a story about how, when I was accidentally hit with a baseball bat, I bled on her newly upholstered, circa 1810 Sheraton settee, a story that I heard a number of times over the years. That settee belonged to a great uncle of hers who was an eye, ear and throat doctor in New York City who had some very good furniture--the settee is Federal with turned legs and brass enrichments and now sits in my brothers' house in upstate New York. (I re-upholstered it before it went up there--I didn't see any blood stains.) This story is obviously personal and not apparent to anyone who might look at or sit on the settee now, but lore is lore and my children know the story--it will probably get passed on, a contemporary oral tradition, so to speak. Of course, the better quality and the more character a piece of furniture like that settee has, the longer the settee will last as well as any story behind it, possibly along with some new ones.

It is the hidden stories that give dimension to things that we may look at every day and not think much about. The websites that reveal our genetic history have revealed all sorts of things about ancestry, for example, casting the entire human experience in a new light--nationalism as an ideology should wither with what we know as few people on this planet are pure anything. The complexity of our genetic makeup mirrors a complexity in all things that are created or built. For example, architecture almost invariably reveals the era of its origin, no matter what style it may be--simply because it is very difficult to disengage from contemporary influence. This is true of almost every article in our lives and most certainly in the fine and decorative arts. Yes, there are products that remain unchanged for a long while and some that are good enough to get made again and again, but there will always be subtle differences. For example, a Breuer chair that is original will have a different chrome finish than a reproduction and there will be manufacturing differences as well. Therein lies a story about how times have changed. This adaptation is ongoing and so subtle we hardly see it, but yes, yet again, it is a story about us.