An Antiquarian''S Tale, Issue 246

Clinton Howell Antiques - August 14, 2023 - Issue 246

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

Opening up to an aesthetic that you may not understand at first glance is one method for educating an eye for details in things that you already like. It sounds contradictory, but it becomes a tutorial in how to look closely at something. When I was in my first year at the London College of Furniture, I assumed that everyone in my restoration class would be making an 18th century style piece of furniture for their year long, senior, project. Only one person did and it was a very difficult project, a walnut side chair with a veneered back splat, carved cabriole legs, with a drop in seat. He put himself into the hot seat, so to speak, in that he decided to make a pair. Not least among his worries was the cabriole legs which require artistic flair because when they aren't, they really aren't--they shout at you in a way that you cannot ignore. I was a lowly first year student watching my classmate labor mightily on those four front legs and I started to learn how hard a job it was. But his work with the legs was only one story among many others in the class.

As interesting as the walnut side chair was, and I was more interested in it because I thought the 18th century to be the most intriguing, style-wise in English furniture history, I probably learned more from the student that was copying a Charles Rennie Mackintosh chair, the one with the very high back and oval tablet crest rail--it has a stork-like quality. (See this. These are not made by hand--it's a big difference.) That crest rail was very interesting for several reasons. The foremost is that the tablet, the piece held between the two stiles that your head might rest on (if you have a long neck) is designed to fit through mortises in the stiles. In other words, the stiles, which were long--attenuated is the best description--had to have shaped rectangular cuts in them that allowed for the two directional curve of the oval tablet so that it would fit snugly. Words truly fail me for being able to describe the complexity of the various angles and sizes the through cuts (in the stile) could be. Suffice it to say that it was a joint that required great skill to execute properly. The walnut chair was straightforward by comparison. My appreciation for Mackintosh soared from seeing this particular detail of craftsmanship. 

The truth is, however, that if you pay close attention to how something is made, you will see more than just the object--you get a chance to understand the intent of the designer and their commitment to both quality and artistic integrity. For example, I think Mackintosh's contemporaries may have seen him as an amateur, at least regards furniture design, as his work was radically different. But when you actually make some of his designs, you will see just how subtle his pieces are vis-a-vis craftsmanship and construction--they are enormously sophisticated and great quality. Two years later and I was in the position to copy an historic design and I chose to copy a chair that I had bought for five pounds in Barnstaple, Devon over Easter vacation in 1974. The chair (I still have it) is made of oak and is clearly in the Arts and Crafts style with a flat U-shaped top rail. It seemed a fairly simple project to me--until I started. I still have the copies that I made, but I can hardly look at them for knowing all of the flaws that I created. Arts and Crafts furniture, all that I have encountered, is high on my list for its craftsmanship and as a decorative art. You appreciate something far more when you try to make it yourself--that is a fact. But you can only make it by looking very, very carefully, as well. It's a learning experience like no other.