An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 262

Clinton Howell Antiques - Nov. 27, 2023 - Issue 262

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

Recently, I was asked by a friend how it is possible that so much English antique furniture could still exist given the predilection of mankind to destroy the past in most every way imaginable. (It's just how we are as a species.) I trotted out the statistic about how many people in London worked in the furniture trade in the 1690's, something I don't remember exactly anymore, but which was somewhere north of ninety percent. This statistic included not just woodworkers, however, as upholsterers (upholders, as they were called) glass plate makers, metal smiths, etc., could all be said to be working for the furniture industry. So it wasn't all sawing and chiseling that was going on, but it was all about making things that would make life more comfortable in the home--a winning formula that is true to this day.  

One impediment to the survival of furniture (and lots of things) is the riddance urge, the desire to throw out stuff when we are bored by it. You would think that, at the least, people would want to sell their old usable things, but I can't tell you how much perfectly good furniture I see on the sidewalks of New York City. Occasionally, those items are antique which reminds me of how a dealer I knew in London found a Chippendale cabinet in a garbage tip and quickly went home (it was long before cell phones) and dialed up a trucker he knew and convinced him to bring his van to the dumpster. The cabinet, when finally restored, is a very well known open fret Chippendale display case that Mallett sold, I was told, for close to seven figures--in the 1960's! 

This doesn't answer the question as to why so much furniture from the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries is still available and in fact, tends to indicate the unlikelihood of that fact. There are several conflicting aspects about the antique market that need to be explained. There is the proper market which sells items that are original to the period. There are not that many proper shops, at least as far as English antique furniture is concerned, still in existence. There are a lot of what I would call, suburban shops that call themselves antique stores, which may or may not be proper shops although most have a mix of items that includes some antiques, some reproductions and other stuff. Most of what I see on the streets are the reproductions and the other stuff.  

The person who asked me the question doesn't fully grasp the difference between period and style pieces. They see a lot of shops that sell style so they believe there is a huge amount of antiques (furniture, etc.) out there. That's true, but not in the way they believe. Their understanding is that all antique shops are the same and that what they are looking at in every "antique" shop is the real thing. It isn't and the best way to understand this is by reading the label on a piece. It should not consist of a short description and a date, the dealer should reveal on the label everything they know about it--the foremost being restorations and history, but also alterations. I recently saw a good English Regency octagonal satinwood drum table circa 1815 in a generalist shop that had alterations to the feet--not a word of that on the label. I will add, however, that the price reflected this as it was very inexpensive for what it (originally) was--but I don't think that is good enough as the person who will buy it should know exactly what they are getting.

There is plenty of antique furniture, but because the market is down, a lot of it will get tossed, some of it will get altered and a lot will be put into storage and will eventually come on the market, but someone has to know what it is and whether it is a bona fide piece that hasn't been messed with. It is a confusing for people like the friend who asked the question at the beginning of the article. It pays to remember just the same that England's cabinetmaking industry was like US Steel's position in the US in the 1950's--along with the textile industry it was a major economic driver (until industrialization got into full swing) and the English made a great deal of furniture. Our predilection for destruction hasn't yet defeated the utility of well made furniture even if it is old and out of fashion. The commodity that is missing are people that know what they are looking at.