An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 259

Clinton Howell Antiques - Nov. 6, 2023 - Issue 259

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

Unicorns are those pieces--furniture, porcelain, silver and other objects--that defy the norm or simple identification in a number of ways--there are no design precedents and neither the material or the construction don't necessarily tell us when the piece was made. This is frustrating for the furniture expert. A piece that you might normally see made in mahogany that shows up made out of satinwood can pose a lot of questions--sometimes they are easily answered, but occasionally, they aren't, particularly if it happens before satinwood became hugely popular in the 1770's. Construction, also is seldom unique, although furniture enthusiasts like to believe that a dovetail, in and of itself, bespeaks a date of manufacture. That isn't necessarily true--I'm reminded of Marisa Tomei in "My Cousin Vinnie" when she dates the year of a tire mark by the tortion control in a certain automobile. That doesn't happen in furniture as workshops were places of tradition that followed a pattern set years earlier. Traditional construction can be a fickle marker, but non-traditional style is beyond fickle. But how do you date something that is a unicorn, style-wise, unlike anything else in the canon of furniture? 

Unicorns are by definition, rare, but they aren't so rare that, in English furniture at least, you never see them. I would suggest that on each booth at the Winter Show (I will have tickets, by the way for people that want them) you may see, if not a unicorn, some design quirk you've never seen before. Some designs may have a usual form with something added to it as, for example, you can see by the bun feet on my two plate buckets. Plate buckets aren't unicorns, but you don't see them with bun feet very often--that still doesn't qualify them as a unicorn, but it sets them apart. The writing table that I am taking to the Winter Show, however, is a proper unicorn. I have yet to find out who made the table, but I do know that the handles are after a design by Thomas Hope (1769-1831). I have dated the table to circa 1810-15 which I believe to be legitimate but as stated, it is very difficult to hit on a precise year of manufacture. I just don't know enough yet. I might add that the construction is, if not unique, highly unusual adding to its luster as a unicorn. The top is a box that rests on the legs which are attached by through-tenons coming into the underside of the frame of the box. Sounds complicated, but it is just a frame resting on a box, something that the English rarely did, because it is not as stable as using the legs in the construction of the box.

Unicorns can be overlooked in auctions simply because they can be so different. And they often get vetted off in fairs unless the dealer can dig up a provenance or design that helps to prove their age. I once had a pair of what I thought were unique Italian chairs--I didn't know how unique until I started to research them as I was unable to find anything out about them--and they were gilded and made of walnut, as a lot of Italian furniture is. The restorer, prior to my purchase, had stripped them in a tank of caustic. When walnut gets stripped, it loses its patina of age and so the inside of the chair rails, though not looking brand new, certainly didn't look like they dated to 1790, the date of manufacture. I took them to a vetted show and the vetters did not know how to date them, partly because of the clean walnut and partly because they had never seen the design before. Interestingly, one of the vetters found a design for the chair in a design book from the 18th century and the chairs ended up in the show. (A good vetter, in my opinion, always gives the dealer the opportunity to explain why they think a piece is old, a great vetter tries to satisfy their curiosity about an item which can mean doing a little homework.) And yet, it is often the unicorns that retain their value once they are properly identified--until they are forgotten and once again consigned to anonymity.

There is one other type of unicorn in the business and those are the pieces that are completely untouched since the date of their manufacture. I have mentioned that almost all furniture has been messed with in some way or other, but there are exceptions. I owned a mirror in the 1990's that I sold to Mallett, the legendary English furniture dealership that folded seven or eight years ago. The mirror was neoclassical having an oval with a shell on top retaining its original glass plate. It was large, a 60" plate at least, and with the shell, an overall height of over six feet. When I took it to the workshop, I realized that there was a very thin layer of new clay that was the wrong color for the period of manufacture with the wrong tone of gold over the original surface that dulled the overall look to a metallic blandness. In other words, someone re-gilded straight onto the original gold--no additional layers of gesso. I tried to scrape it off, but I didn't have the light touch required to clean the later clay and gold off. But, I had sent photos of the frame to my English carver and he wanted to work on it, so I sent it to him. When I saw it in his workshop, I nearly fell over--the delicacy of the original gold with the proper clay color underneath created a glow of warmth that was overwhelmingly beautiful. When the Mallett dealers saw it on my booth, they bought it and then asked the price. That was a unicorn of a different sort.