An Antiquarian's Tale Issue 5

Clinton Howell Antiques - September 5, 2017 - Issue 5

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

There were three seminal moments for me in the first year of College that made me see furniture as more than just a sum of its parts. The first was an exhibition at the Bethnal Green Museum of the Bugatti clan, father and sons. Carlo Bugatti's rather intense insect like inlaid decoration and his geometrical projections, often decorated with moorish fringes with columnar  supports was so antithetical to the English tradition of the 18th century, which I was spending all my time reading about. Second, there was a Chinese altar table at the V&A made of a wonderfully faded timber called huang-hua-li, that was essentially a simplistic architectural construction but with such sublime respect for proportion and the aesthetic of space. Made without glue originally, the table stood so powerfully but was, if I remember correctly, less than four feet wideand 18" deep. The last was the final project by one of the third year students in the class. Every student had to make a piece for the final exhibition and her choice was one of the iconic Rennie Mackintosh chairs with the high back and oval tablet held by the elongated stiles. Julia struggled with that chair, if I remember correctly, as it required surprisingly serious craftsmanship to copy, particularly for a student. But the result was beautiful. These three representatives of the historical world of furniture made me realize that furniture was as much a reflector of society as anything else. Although my choice of interest was furniture made between 1660 and 1830, I have never stopped appreciating great design. The first serious antique I bought dates circa 1890 (I made two copies of it), I owned a Carlo Bugatti desk and chair (used by the Cleveland Museum of Art in their Bugatti exhibition) and I have underbid more than a few, expensive, Chinese altar tables in huang-hua-li.

Another important influence on me was a dealer on the Fulham Rd, David Kenrick. David was a dealer's dealer and, in fact, a connoisseur. Color, form and condition were David's mantra, but in fact, that was not all I learned. As interesting as Chinese, Bugatti and Arts and Crafts furniture were, the palate of great English furniture began circa 1700 (with some exceptions) and started to winnow down in the beginning of the 19th century (again with many more exceptions). That is a solid one hundred years of the development of furniture. Clearly, it was not dissimilar in economic importance to the steel industry in America in the 1950's, only considerably longer lasting. The fun part was just beginning. 

Looking at Furniture

I wanted to show two views of the same cabriole leg to examine. Part of the genius of the oval stool that I featured last week was that the legs are largely seen from the front. Unlike a cabriole leg on a chair, the awkward angle created by the trapezoidal chair seat doesn't exist. As you can see the cabriole shape of the leg on the left looks sedate, almost restrained. The other leg looks curvier, more exaggerated. There is nothing wrong, far from it, but many reproductions have a hard time with the cabriole shape, opting to give it more curve. It is one reason why many non-period chairs can be seen from miles away. 

This is a set of eight chairs that I own with another dealer. They date circa 1745 and you can see a touch of the rococo in the carving of the stiles with the c-scrolls of acanthus. One might even add three to five years to the date because of that detail. The mahogany of the chairs is dense, what many like to call Cuban but probably Santo Domingan. This denser mahogany entered the UK through northern ports such as Liverpool and indicates that the chairs were probably made in the north. The chairs are remarkably original with only one missing corner block on all eight chairs. They are beautifully made and, I believe, rather exquisite. One of them has a name written on the inside rail, a reference to an owner in the 1840's. It turns out that he had seven wives and that the chairs could have come to his household from any of the seven. Clearly, eight chairs was enough for him.