An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 64

Clinton Howell Antiques - February 3, 2020 - Issue 64
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
John Keats, the poet, wrote the line, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty", in what is likely his best known poem, "Ode on a Grecian Urn". It is the kind of line that makes you lapse into philosophical musings about the transience of beauty. As someone dealing in the arts (not Grecian urns) beauty is a constant subtext of everything I sell. Of course, we want to live with beautiful things, but what exactly is beauty--what makes one piece more beautiful than the next? This is what Shakespeare would call, the rub, because there is no precise definition of what makes something beautiful and as the ancient Greeks opined, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Our preoccupation with beauty, what it is, its true meaning and how it relates to our lives is something that we return to again and again. Curiously, our understanding of beauty will differ culture to culture, but it will also be constantly redefined within our own culture. In a way, it is all rather curious

Close on to fifty years ago when I first moved to London, I can't say I ever thought much about beauty. I hadn't planned to stay in London, but I found out very quickly that I thought London to be beautiful, and there is no question that it moved me enough to want to stay, enroll in the London College of Furniture and delve into the English way of being--not to be English, but to understand why it was and how it came to be--the people, the city and the country. By, or somehow during, this process, it changed the way in which I looked at things. That change was all about understanding WHY something was done. This is a dramatic departure from merely looking at something. It forces you to make judgments, to delve more deeply into how things either detract or create a synergy with one another. Further, I learned, you won't always be right about anything to do with aesthetics, that there is a constant trial and error.

Outside of the natural world, which I would call the ne plus ultra of beauty and, by the way, includes humanity (not necessarily its character), all other beauty is created by man. This is where things really get complicated, particularly when talking about endeavors such as interior decoration. I referenced the beige on beige look of Restoration Hardware the other day. There is no denying the appeal of a non-dramatic interior. Airports work to do just that and a vast majority of hotel lobbies do the same. But I liken their interiors to the concept of seeing a Steinway grand piano on a stage, shiny and beautiful, majestic even. After a while, no matter how beautiful the image, it begins to lose the hold it may have on you until, eventually, you want something more. Enter the concert pianist and a whole new world of beauty unravels. What I am saying is that there are dimensions to beauty, often unseen and often not tapped, simply because no one knows to open the keyboard and call in the pianist. The search for beauty will always require more than we know what to give to it, but it is enormously satisfying when we get something to work.