An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 252

Clinton Howell Antiques - Sept. 18, 2023 - Issue 252

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

The art of decoration is one that most people feel that they can do until they start to do it. It is an art and a craft and it requires a good deal of knowledge. Just from the furniture perspective, you have to know three hundred years of style--more, in fact, but who is actually counting? And then there are paint colors, lighting, fabrics, and yet the most essential aspect of decorating is taking the psychological temperature of your client. Do they have what it takes to really go for what they want or will they chicken out and compromise? Thierry Despont, an extraordinarily talented decorator who died this August, said it best, that it was the great client who was the silent partner in any decorator's success. (This is not a direct quote and I have heard the line from numerous decorators over the years.) Great clients are as rare as hen's teeth, because when they are told to stretch, and this usually means the budget but it also can mean being open to an unfamiliar concept, they do. I've had a few clients go with me as regards advice on furniture and it is a singular pleasure to know that they understand just what I am pitching.

Decorators are usually given a budget, but are occasionally asked to give a budget to the client. Either case is wrong as the need for doing something can emerge with a decor that just needs that extra touch. Years ago, a decorator came in with a client to look at some mirrors to place on a chimney breast. The chimney breast was brick that had been exposed and the brick was old with a good red--not violet based, but a warm orange based red. The mirror was a Chippendale frame that I bought at DuMouchelles Auction in Detroit. I'd made the trip to Detroit to look at something else in the sale only to walk up the stairs and see this mirror hanging on the wall. The plate glass was period--I could tell from the stairs that it was. But the mirror looked like it was either made of plaster or molded compo (a material made from whiting, glue and linseed oil that could be molded and when heated could be attached to wire or bent any which way you wanted). There was very little detail visible, but the plate glass and back of the mirror convinced me that it was of the original rococo period.

I bought the mirror and sent it to England to be restored and the wood carver called and said you've bought a molded compo mirror. I replied that the mirror had a perfect period glass (18th century mirror plate is much lighter than Victorian plate which is the date the carver was implying was the period of the mirror) and that he should keep digging, meaning dry stripping the surface with carving tools. Two days later he called and said, yes, the mirror was carved wood. He'd counted fourteen successive layers of gesso put on the mirror counting out from the original gesso. Eventually, when the mirror was fully dry stripped to the original layer of gesso, I insisted that no new clay or gold be put on the frame because I now had a frame that looked unique, almost like an archaeological relic, a rococo frame that looked like an exercise in pointillism with areas of original gold, some with original clay and lots of white where the gesso was the only thing left. To my eyes, it looked wonderful. Lo and behold, with all the successive layers of gesso stripped off, the mirror was quite light and easy to handle despite being 75" tall and three feet wide.

The decorator brought her client to my shop hoping to sell her one of my mirrors with her eyes specifically on a smaller, less expensive rococo frame. The client, however, suggested we try the big, dry stripped rococo mirror that I purchased from DuMouchelles, which the decorator was afraid of offering as she feared it might be too expensive. When it was placed on the brick chimney breast, you could see that it was just the perfect mirror for the perfect spot. The scale was perfect, there was a tall ceiling, and the spottiness of the dry stripped surface went perfectly with the exposed brick, also dry stripped, both in terms of the dry stripping and the color matching. It called to mind an ad I'd seen in the NY Times in one of their style section magazines years earlier where a rococo mirror was shown against a faded white washed interior of a dilapidated beach shack--it was an aesthetic symbiosis that most often comes about when you actually put the two things together in situ. The decorator, not a major name but someone with very good taste, had really hit a home run and so had the client. There was never a question about the cost of the mirror once it was hung--it was perfect. This is what a good decorator and a good client can do together.