An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 249

Clinton Howell Antiques - Sept. 4, 2023 - Issue 249

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

The desire to look more deeply into any subject is not for everyone. Understanding and appreciating are two different things and you would think that the desire to understand would lead to greater appreciation and vice-versa. It can, but I'm not certain that it does all the time. I really enjoyed my visit to Barcelona this summer and I appreciated it immensely, but as I also said, it really isn't my aesthetic. Perhaps, if I dug a little deeper and learned how that aesthetic had come to be, I might learn to like it more. What I did like was how the city had evolved around that aesthetic--indeed one of the pleasures of many European cities is the consistency of an aesthetic, usually architectural, but not always. For that reason, the grand boulevards of Paris with the great sight lines, not to mention the intriguing alleys that pop up around the city, make it a marvelous visit. But there is much more to Paris than inspiring sight lines or forgotten alleyways. For example, I have never visited the Parisian sewers, but I would love to do so one of these days as they are integral to Parisian history. In other words, I appreciate Paris, but I don't fully know or understand Paris.

Appreciation, in other words, is a little like a college introductory course. I am not being dismissive in saying this--of all the courses one takes, it is the introductory course that can either enchant or do the opposite. Furthermore, you don't have to take any subsequent courses if you find that the subject is amply covered for you in the first course. Some people visit Paris, for example, for the restaurants and some for the museums and others to go shopping. Even if you do all three and more, there is no reason that your experience is any more limited than the person who takes a tour of the sewers, knows the height of the Eiffel Tower and the names of Napoleon's generals. This is not about oneupmanship, this is about levels of enjoyment and what you find that might make your appreciation fuller in some way--if that is something you wish to do. Not everyone does.

The most difficult part about selling English antique furniture, is conveying the appreciation, understanding and pleasure that I get from the items that I sell. For me, they are history writ large, but that clearly is not the case for everyone. Nor should it be. This furniture is functional, after all, and appreciation for how well it works and looks is half the battle and why one buys it versus some other stylistic movement. And yet, on another level, I think that if I explain the origins of why this chair is called a Gainsborough chair or why the shell is such a standard motif or that the ho-ho bird is a mythical Chinese creature and the wyvern a mythical Welsh creature and that you can sometimes see them both in one mirror, that the listener will get as swept up as I do. But there is a level of absurdity to it as well as I'm sure that I would skedaddle if some salesman wanted to go deep on the origins of, say, the Birkin bag or the Harley-Davidson motorcycle. You can't know everything.

You arrive at your own level of enjoyment for reasons that are specific to you. Some people might get a kick out of knowing that their furniture came from Chippendale's workshop--full stop, no more information necessary. That person does not have to hear or know that the German novelist, Sophie La Roche visited his workshops and wrote about them. They do not have to hear that Chippendale was a marketing genius for having published three versions of the "Director" ("The Gentleman and Cabinetmaker's Director") to get his designs known. Nor do they need to know that Chippendale furniture in the early George III style (the 1760's) was being made as late as 1820 and is still permitted to be ascribed to his workshop even though Chippendale died in 1779. The appreciation is for the piece that is in front of them, that you have ascribed to Chippendale and all that may mean--they don't need to know any more than that. The appropriate phrase is, I believe, each to his own taste from the Latin maxim, degustibus et coloribus non est disputandem.