An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 279

Clinton Howell Antiques - March 25, 2024 - Issue 279

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

Stripping away layers of misunderstanding about the decorative arts--becoming expert, that is--requires, as I said last week, a certain amount of failure. It is hard to get away from the style books that offer hints about a period, but little else. Indeed, the hardest thing to overcome is believing that you can determine the age of something based on style--it can help, but it isn't defining. Hepplewhite shield back chairs, for example, date to the last twenty years of the 18th century, but that isn't revelatory in any way. It was, and still is, a hugely popular style and ergo there are many revivals of the shield back chair. The question of when something was made, particularly in the world of furniture, can be very tricky.

Abandoning all that you think you know is one way to start learning. The form (style) will certainly affect the way you judge the piece, but that has to be side tracked--it cannot sway your examination. So what should one look at if you aren't looking at the style? That is a more slippery question and one that is answered by the piece itself. Herewith, my thought process I went through before purchasing a pair of brackets that I took to this year's Winter Show.

If you follow the link, you will see the brackets. I asked myself the following questions about them. 1. Circular tops, the shelf that is--no one has seen that before as the shelves always have one edge that lies flat against the wall. In addition, the top itself is flat without a lip--did they have circular marble tops? 2. The turned circular top sits on a piece that transitions that circular piece to the squarish head of the carved lion. This sandwiched piece is hexagonal with a soft molded edge--is that normal?. 3. The shell at the bottom of the bracket is slightly hollowed out on the back--the photo doesn't show it, but it is unusual. Period? Non-period? Fake? Where do the brackets lie? (The back sides of them, usually a fair way to judge age, were copacetic with being old.)

I can't fully answer the questions I posed, because no one can know what guided the maker. But the gilding, uniform throughout including the (sandwiched) hexagonal pieces ,the circular tops (the visible underside) and the lions is typical of the time period (1820-35) as is the form of the carved lions. These are not fakes as fakers made things to fall within acceptable lines of being different. Some non-period pieces are wrong for the proportions or carving style--this pair does not have that problem. The construction--specifically the hexagonal piece--is awkward because they are both slightly warped and stand out, but as a transition from the round top to the lion's squarish head, they work well. Finally, the slight hollowing out of the back of the shell is unusual. There is no rationale for that. Lastly, and in their favor, they are gorgeous objects  due to the dry stripped gilding that is the right clay colors for 1820-35. Hence, my expertise has led me to call these period. Do I know this? No, but I believe them as being that age. As I said, It's complicated.

One final note--if they had been chemically stripped, I would not have bought them.