An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 263

Clinton Howell Antiques - Dec. 4, 2023 - Issue 263

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

I recently visited the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) which is located in Winston Salem, North Carolina. The museum is located in the old part of Winston Salem known as Salem and has a museum amidst a number of period houses that I didn't visit as I learned that most of the furniture, my prime passion, was in the museum. MESDA was established in 1965 and was the vision of an antique dealer, Frank L. Horton and his mother, who wanted to create a better understanding of material culture of the south. (There is silver and pottery and other decorative arts in the museum.) The furniture in the museum was very interesting as I attended a conference at Colonial Williamsburg in 1979 on Thomas Chippendale where I learned that one of Thomas Chippendale's, "Directors" (his design book) had come to Virginia in the 1760's or 70's.

Chippendale's influence was abundantly clear in what I considered to be one of the more unusual console tables in MESDA's collection, a marble topped table on open fret legs with a blind fret frieze. This description might leave most people cold, but the fact is that the table is quite sophisticated. In other words, colonial Americans in the south certainly had high standards for decoration in their houses, the furniture complementing the traditional southern antebellum mansion that are still extant in the south today. The table came from the dining room of John and Rebecca Tayloe at Mt. Airy Plantation in Richmond County, Virginia. Furthermore, it was known who designed the table (William Buckland) and who carved it (William Bernard Sears). Whether either William had access to Chippendale's "Director" is not known, but the design echoes his work to a tee.

MESDA had other furniture that was equally sophisticated such as what the museum called a "Lady's Closet"-terminology attributed by the museum to the Scots, but a term that I've never heard before. What it looked like to me was a secretaire with a cabinet having a mirrored door flanked by Doric columns and crested with a swan neck pediment. Be that as it may, it was also attributed to a maker, Robert Deans, with the carving done by Henry Burnett and since Burnett died in 1761, the piece dates between 1750-60. If the secondary wood wasn't cypress, it could easily pass as a London made piece of furniture--not quite on the level of Thomas Chippendale, but still an excellent piece.

American furniture is not my subject, but it is fascinating. It is quite obviously regional in design, but the south, having had access to the "Director", is home to furniture that was, in essence, as English as English furniture. At least thirty-five years ago, a walnut chest on chest was purchased at auction by a dealer of American furniture that most everyone in the sale was convinced was English--the design echoed a sophisticated English walnut chest on chest to a tee. The dealer, who most everyone in the sale thought had lost his marbles, was proven correct after he did wood sample analyses on the secondary woods used in the construction. There are other instances where American furniture was taken as English. The famous set of chairs made for General Cadwalader in Philadelphia by Benjamin Randolph (the MMA in NYC has one) one of which ended up in the UK and looked English to many English dealers until one auction house expert thought it might be worthwhile checking to see if it was American. A chair that might have sold for $5-10,000 made considerably more--in the hundreds of thousands. (One of the chairs in the set ended up making seven figures, I believe.) All of this is to say that American furniture may be thought of as provincial, but it isn't necessarily unsophisticated. You'll see what I mean when you visit MESDA.