An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 60

Clinton Howell Antiques - November 18, 2019 - Issue 60
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
 The art and antiques world has a wide array of expertise in lots of fields. You can find people who know about the decorative arts of New Guinea or about wood carving in Germany in the 15th and 16th centuries, or you can find an expert on individual painters from almost any period--the number of niche areas of expertise is almost unlimited. This is the nature of passion. Something gets tripped inside and an interest is sparked. My own interest was sparked at the Victoria and Albert Museum when I realized that expertise was partly a function of visual memory. Furniture caught my eye more than anything else, probably because of form, color and craftsmanship. Chinese furniture held a huge allure, but I remember seeing a grand rococo mirror in the 18th century galleries attributed to Thomas Johnson, one of England's greatest rococo designers, that is about eight and a half feet tall that just breaks all the rules of proportion and either seduces or repulses you. I was seduced. (There is another mirror attributed to Johnson at Corsham Court in Wiltshire which is equally wonderful.) The funny thing is that once you gain a foothold in learning about the decorative arts in one area, it bleeds into another and then another and yet another area, never really stopping save for not having enough time to absorb everything.

Because I was learning restoration at the London College of Furniture, my interest was dominated by the craft of furniture making. My attraction to English furniture was due partly to being in England, but also due to the universality of it. Something I learned years later in an English Furniture History Society article is that England took to furniture making like a duck takes to water. After the tumultuous 1680's which included plague, the great fire of London (that Samuel Pepys wrote about so vividly) and the infusion of Protestants escaping persecution on the continent, English society jumped into producing furniture on an epic scale, exporting furniture across the continent. France was the only country that did not import more furniture than it exported to England (strongly affecting design of furniture in English colonies around the globe). There were of course ancillary reasons for this furniture making explosion. Ship making, spurred by the aforementioned Samuel Pepys who did not fail to note the abysmal state of the English navy and who, in his role as an administrator in the Admiralty, encouraged the building of new ships. The crafts or ship building and furniture making are different, the abilities not so different. In an article I read recently about fractals (a snowflake is a fractal that repeats itself with each additional ice crystal) you can see the working of wood as an initial shape, a fractal, that replicates itself almost endlessly following slightly different routes that could range the gamut of wooden based necessities from ships to houses to furniture to musical instruments to tools and on and on. I would suggest that the art and antiques trade is focused on defining these many singular fractals that make up the grand pattern of art and antiques and, yes, of societies throughout the world, both those that exist and those that live only in history. It  is an awesome thought.