An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 44

Clinton Howell Antiques - December 10, 2018 - Issue 44
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
I believe that one of the greatest attractions of antique furniture and, in particular, English antique furniture, is how it reflects on the changing nature of English society through the 17th-20th centuries. Every moment had a movement, of sorts, with the 19th century (and the 21st) being times of stylistic mold breaking as markets multiplied and individual tastes demanded cabinetmakers to respond to these tastes. The result is at times beautiful and at times headshakingly bizarre. Eighteenth century furniture is, however, the most baldly responsive to what was happening in society as Britain went from a minor player on the world stage in 1700 to a world power that only continued growing into the 19th century. This incredible century for Britain marks, in a very broad sense this leap from a provincial society to the foremost power on the planet, from a world without much of a middle class to one where trade and, ultimately, the middle class became of prime importance to the British way of life. The creation of this, essentially, mercantile empire is to a great extent reflected in the British furniture business although not always in an obvious fashion.

The picture I would paint of how furniture design was reflected by this evolution has to be "broad brush" although, at times, you can see it in small details here and there. If you can imagine the oligarchy that was essentially in charge from 1700-1765, you can see a society where the rich dominated taste and, thereby, design. Furniture made in this period was largely bespoke, made to order not only in how it looked, but also in scale as it would be made to fit a specific space in a room. You can see, therefore, as the middle class expands, standardization of size taking place and, as living space in cities becomes more valuable, smaller scale furniture being produced. Finer elements of distinction might be found in how, for example, a Chinoiserie style bedroom might be appointed. In the 1750's it would likely include japanned (the word used to denote painted furniture designed to look like lacquer) furniture and Chinese wallpaper with elaborate carved and gilded "Chinese" style mirrors. The cost of something on this scale was out of reach to the new middle class and the style faded away by 1765. 

Ergo, whenever I look at a piece of English furniture, I try to couple it with the era from which it was originally made. It is not a matter of style alone as styles, as mentioned above, were copied and re-invented again and again. When the English antique furniture market was hot in the 1990's, there was, at times among dealers, a conscious sublimation of fact in the hope of finding, or rediscovering that great item which they could advertise and sell that both raised their profile as a dealer of high quality things and which would attract the top collector/clients. Indeed, yours truly was caught up in this as much as anyone else and in the next issue, my last until either late January or early February, I will tell you about a piece of furniture that swept me up and which I now have doubts about. Furthermore, the piece that I am referring to also sows doubt about a piece at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.