An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 55

Clinton Howell Antiques - Sept. 30, 2019 - Issue 55
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
I have had the great privilege of being able to drive around America in the last ten years. Sometimes my focus is on landscape, sometimes on just seeing things such as the Everglades, Yosemite, Glacier or Arches, and sometimes it is in doing things such as climbing a "fourteener" (14,000 foot high mountain of which there are 40 in Colorado) going to Burning Man or attending Mardi Gras. However, I always like to go to museums which is what I focused on in my latest journey, despite starting out with a looksee at Kitty Hawk and Cape Hatteras. The trip included the High Museum in Atlanta, the Birmingham Museum of Art, Faulkner's House in Oxford, MS, and the University of Mississippi's museum, a blues museum in Clarksdale, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Walker Art Museum, the University of Minnesota museum (the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum) and the Milwaukee Art Musuem. Although there was an extremely limited selection of English furniture on view (Minneapolis has a great pair of mahogany open armchairs which I illustrated in an "Art and Auction" article in the 1980's when the museum purchased them) the art and objects on view were, on the whole, extraordinary. And after the primary trip was over, I viewed two of NY State's somewhat hidden gems, the Arkell Museum in Canajoharie and the Munson Williams Proctor Museum in Utica. I say somewhat, because the Munson Williams Proctor Museum is very well known and aligned with Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. The Arkell is known for having twenty-three Winslow Homers. Unfortunately, only about five of them were on view this summer, but they did not disappoint. I will add that it isn't just the Homers that are worth looking at.

The concept of "museum" is interesting. It has become, in essence, an homage to man's ability to take an idea and put it into some kind of form. This may not sound like much, but if you look around your own home and think about the items that you feel should last for another one hundred years, there probably aren't that many--unless, of course, you are a collector. Even then, mankind is, as a rule, fairly cruel in its assessment of what should and should not last. When you think of all the wanton destruction that has taken place, it helps to understand why some people thought of creating a safe repository for exceptional objects. However, the first collections were less about man's creations and more about having collections of curiosities--often called a cabinet of curiosities--most of which came from nature. If you were a rich man at any point before the mid-20th century, you might want to have a collection of curiosities that you could show off to people not as sophisticated as yourself. By the 18th century, however, things changed and collections focused less on the weird and wonderful and more on the cataloguing of things from around the world. Indeed, the man credited with helping establish the British Museum, Hans Sloane, specifically wanted a place where people could learn about the natural world from his extensive plant collection. The evolution of the museum to a place where the work of man was looked at and admired, in and of itself, followed quickly thereafter as the arts and crafts proliferated with a booming middle class. Indeed, from the mid-18th century onwards, the natural world and the world of man were studied and admired to the extent that by the mid 19th century, museums became a sign of culture, something no cosmopolitan center could live without. I, for one, am thankful for that.