An Antiquarian's Tale Issue 6

Clinton Howell Antiques - September 11, 2017 - Issue 6

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

The England, or more specifically London, of 1972 bears little to no resemblance to the London of today. Despite miners strikes and gas shortages, the mood was not depressive, just very measured. My experience was affected by this mood in an unusual manner. Everyone had the time to talk, the open-ness of all the people was extraordinary. For example, I went to fill up a two liter jug of special pale polish at a polishing shop in East London where I met an old polisher who was also waiting for the shop to re-open after lunch. I asked him when he started polishing and he said at the age of 14, exactly 65 years earlier--he knew because it was his 79th birthday. (It also happened to be my birthday, but I was in my twenties..) He told me of his first job polishing pianos where three boys would cut back (essentially smooth the surface) for two hours and then polish for one and then go on to another piano. They would do this for a month, Saturdays included. That is how a piano finish used to be created in 1910. But imagine for a second how unusual this moment was. Re-filling a jug, rather than buying a new one, and waiting for shop to open from lunch--this doesn't happen today. I could offer up any number of similar stories such as the time that I ran into Lady Curzon in a small garden of Kedleston Hall. She started a conversation with me and was surprised that I had come to see the house from America. (In those days it was open for just a limited number of hours on the first Sunday of the month, though not in the dead of winter.)  I had loads of conversations with all sorts of Brits, upper class, lower class--no one seemed reluctant to share their experience or their points of view, which were generally very positive. 

This open-ness lent itself to my quest to learn about the English decorative arts, because you had people wanting to tell you things, wanting to get you interested. Indeed, the iconic exhibition, "Treasure Houses of Britain" held at the National Gallery on the mall in Washington, D.C., seemed an extension of this. It was an amazing act of generosity by all involved, most notably the late Gervase Jackson-Stops, and one that I could not see being repeated in this day and age. So, too, London has changed. 


Looking at Furniture

Mirrors and chairs have always been my favorite forms of furniture, because they lend themselves to being sculptural objects. This is a little less true of Palladian style mirrors such as the one I am featuring. It is German and dates circa 1755--it would date earlier if it was English since, by 1755, the Palladian style was out of fashion. The close up is not as good as I would like, but it shows a craftsman who knew how to draw the best out of his detailing. To begin with, scale is as important as anything else on a piece of furniture. Getting all the decorative concepts to mesh and not fight each other is the hallmark of a sophisticated craftsman. The most important statement of the frame is the shell and that is beautifully presented in the negative space of the pediment. Furthermore, the diapered background (the crosshatching with the small flowers in the open spaces) only adds to the grandeur of the shell. The entire pediment of this frame is a masterpiece of design and craftsmanship in my opinion, the rest of the mirror being a solid supporting cast. And the plate is original and in excellent condition. Not quite a masterpiece, but still extremely special.