An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 34

Clinton Howell Antiques - June 18, 2018 - Issue 34
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
The massive number of English country houses that were razed in the one hundred years from 1860-1960 (over 1,200) is one very good reason for the volume of great English furniture that was on the market in the 1980's and 90's. (This doesn't mean that there wasn't a lot of junk, fakes and poor quality pieces also available on the market then.) What most people don't understand about the English furniture market, and I would posit this is true for many high end markets, is that it is on a very elite level of product such as those items left over after the destruction of a country house. I used to go through my Avray Tipping set of "English Homes" (Nine volumes, but I only had eight of them) published in the 1920's which came from "Country Life" photos (the magazine)  looking for pieces that were either in my inventory or which were similar to pieces in my inventory. Many of the photos were from houses that were demolished and I often found pieces that I owned in them. Research like this is partly reliable as the photos are not always crystal clear, but that is why antique dealers rely so heavily on the experience of looking at the unseen surfaces of furniture. Untouched undersides reveal a great deal more than the style of a piece does and if your piece not only looks stylistically correct and old and untouched underneath (figuratively speaking) then you know you have something worth taking seriously--especially if it, or it's pair, is in Tipping. 

I had a client whose grandparents hired Carrere and Hastings, the noted New York architects, to build a house in Westchester and most of the furniture came through the American architectural firm who purchased it from an English decorating firm, White and Allom, who bought the contents of houses in demolition. (White and Allom still exist although this aspect of their business is long since dead. When I made this connection, I visited White and Allom in London, only to find that they had destroyed the archives of the business only six months prior to my visit.) What was so fascinating to me was that one of the pieces that my client's parents had was a lacquer bureau cabinet, which complements the one that is currently at the Metropolitan Museum on loan from the Frick Museum in Pittsburgh--they are made by the same hand and it is extremely rare to have, in essence, two pieces made en suite in the 18th century. Clearly, both items came from a house in demolition in the UK and, not surprisingly, both cabinets were restored identically--new feet, new mirrored glass doors, new silver gilt crests, new backboards, but, and this is what was so marvelous--original japanning. Indeed, I know of no other suite of japanned furniture in existence and the probability that the two cabinets came out of the same house, were restored and then shipped off without anyone noting where they came from, is a sad tale. But it is also the reason why English furniture, not just the stuff of middle markets, but great and rare pieces, can be found just about anywhere--even today.