An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 273

Clinton Howell Antiques - February 12, 2024 - Issue 273

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

I often think about my father's mother at this time of year as her birthday was February 14. She was a fierce woman, the only grandparent I remember clearly, who would have thought little of my occupation as an antiques dealer. If one is lucky, as I have been, however, you get to make choices and I chose an extraordinary business that covers a wide gamut of history with some extraordinarily beautiful items--something I would suggest my grandmother had little time for in her life. But she, and all my other grandparents have been taking on different casts as I age and I realize how much I would love to sit down with all of them and talk about the past. Anecdotal history is so much more fun than what we get in history books--my grandmother grew up in Brooklyn and likely walked over the bridge when it was completed in 1890. I walk over that bridge to visit my gilder at least ten times a year. What was it like when it was new?

This is also the question that I have about much of the furniture I have owned over the years. What was it like to order something from a great maker, what was the experience and how did it play out? The family that owned Erddig House in North Wales ordered some extraordinary furniture from some great London makers. One piece in the house, a table by John Belchier has a verre eglomise (painted glass) top that has the family crest. At one point, it cracked and they did not throw it away, but kept it on the table. In a way, it mirrored (no pun intended) the family fortunes as the good furniture kept getting moved to lower floors as the roof leaked more and more. But in the heyday of the house, what must it have been like to receive such an item all the way from London? 

Or what was it like for the Earl of Harewood to call in Robert Adam, Thomas Chippendale and Capability Brown, the landscaper, and just create a stage set of neoclassicism with a picturesque landscape? Harewood's money was from Jamaican sugar which has thrown some shade on the family in this era, but it does not diminish the sheer concupiscence of the project. It was an immense undertaking. Furthermore, you can find such undertakings happening around the British countryside in the 18th century. Did the Earl like what he was buying or was he buying according to how he thought he should buy? Getting an honest answer is beyond us, I fear. With the thought that everything was done by hand and took so much longer, I can imagine that he was, at times, hugely frustrated. But what a creation!

History is written from the author's point of view, of course, and that means that there is always a bias. The bias is less noticeable if it fits into what might be the current mold of writing histories. If you don't think there is one, just read a history book that is forty years old. Biographies and anecdotal histories offer an altogether different view of the past which is far more personal, not socially universal, but strongly evocative. I did not want to read biographies or books of letters when I was young and now I buy them when I see them, particularly if they are about people who lived in London in the 18th and early 19th centuries. My grandparents, too young to know this era would, however, have learned about it from their grandparents. This is why I would love to be able to sit with them, maybe not all together as I don't think there was any love lost between them, and learn a little anecdotal history. Happy Birthday, Grandma.