An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 248

Clinton Howell Antiques - August 28, 2023 - Issue 248

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

It is always a delight to partake of an art form that you aren't really all that familiar with as it requires close attention to be able to grasp not just what is happening, but whether it is working its allure on  you. I was taken to see "La Boheme" this summer at the Glimmerglass Opera in Springfield Center, New York, which sits above the much better known town of Cooperstown that lies at the south end of the Otsego Lake. The opera is tragic, of course, as, spoiler alert, Mimi dies. But I would say that her death was not in vain as the acting, in this case, was as far as I was concerned quite good. My guess is that in almost any opera, assuming that the singers are competent or better is not to be overly anything--overly dramatic, emotive, light hearted, serious and yet to amplify as necessary, hewing to a very fine line that allows the audience to believe just enough so that they can enjoy great singing, set design and music. Great art has a balance that reveals itself when it is good. This performance was quite wonderful, at least in my eyes.

Great furniture also has a balance although that balance can be affected by place. For example, John Linnell made an extraordinary pair of dolphin sofas for Kedleston Hall that would not work in my one bedroom apartment. They wouldn't really work in a room with a low ceiling and if you found them in such a situation, you might think that they were over the top. (The carved dolphins which serve as the legs also support the armrests that are mermaids--yes, they are over the top.) Foremost, they are great pieces of furniture that are designed to fit a specific room in a specific house and that is indisputable. Seeing them elsewhere would require as grand a stage as Kedleston, of which there may be many, but certainly not as many as there are one bedroom apartments or low ceilinged rooms. In a way, I might say that the actors in an opera will perform differently according to the stage that they are on--a more intimate stage requires, perhaps, a finer stroke, less of a broad brush as it were.

English antique furniture wasn't all made for a particular place nor is all of it artistic. The earliest pieces I bought were because I thought they were of the period of the style they were made in, or that they had good color. Good color is artistic in a way, although not created by any one hand, but by time and happenstance. Artistry on furniture, however, certainly does exist. Lacquered and japanned furniture can be absolutely sublime although japanning, at least in my eyes, often seems less artful than the lacquer it was imitating. Inlay which is a bit out of fashion these days can be extremely artistic. The furniture historian, Adam Bowett once told me that he had a class build two early Anglo-Dutch inlaid chest of drawers using the dyes that, to the best of their knowledge, were used in the original time period on the inlay. The look, he said, was completely different--more of a picture with the liveliness of colors--compared to what we see today as those colors muted very quickly (within six months, he told me) and now are not really relevant--sadly in my opinion. The second great period of inlaid furniture was during the neoclassical period and that, too, was far more colorful, both with dyes on the wood as well as colorful woods. Again, they have faded with time.

There is also great artistry in craft as some cabinetmakers are just so incredibly--artful. The "greatest cabinetmaker of all time", according to most connoisseurs in the field, is David Roentgen, a German who combined precision metal work with precision cabinetwork. I think his designs are often rather clunky, but they make you gasp when you see just how finely made they are. (I have posted the Metropolitan's video of the Roentgen desk in their collection before, but here it is again. Roentgen Please note the pinkish color of the tulipwood drawers hidden from daylight.) Carpenters are said to work within 1/16"-1/32nd" and joiners to within 1/32"-1/64th of an inch, Roentgen worked  even more finely to about 1/128th of an inch or better. His craftsmanship is mind bogglingly beautiful. Carving, of course, is a very artistic craft as well. As I said of the cabriole leg, when it is bad, it is terrible, when it's good, it gives a chair incredible presence. Occasionally, wood carvers were given their head as Luke Lightfoot was at Claydon House in Buckinghamshire. (Take a quick look. Claydon) The work is masterful and artistic. I will readily admit to not being a connoisseur of opera so my pleasure of La Boheme might have been on the level of my early attempts at buying antiques--ascertaining age and color. Only further interest can change that.