An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 65

Clinton Howell Antiques - February 17, 2020 - Issue 65
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
What exactly causes one to fall in love with a city? It is difficult question as all of us start from unique reference points, to wit, our own experience. What do people like and why do they like it? The question is no different, in my opinion, than how we approach almost everything in our lives that requires a commitment. Initially, form grabs our attention. I talked about falling in love with London and certainly, the form of London is stupendous. Beginning at the City of London, which is where Tower Bridge and the Tower of London are, the city developed by growing outwards, but not always to the circumference, but by new proximate villages that were separate entities. Hence, in many cases, there were interstices that remained green between these villages. It is the reason for the plenitude of parks in London. Furthermore, villages would develop that focused on an industry. By the early 17th century, England, and London in particular, made furniture for most of Europe, exporting more to every nation on the continent than they imported, save for France. Consequently, areas developed for tanners, glass makers, cloth makers, weavers, etc. And since London had to eat, there were numerous markets--fish, meat, vegetables, etc. Each district that was known for one particular product took on a distinct character.

All cities develop this way, of course, but London had other inputs to its infrastructure. The English have been fighting wars almost non-stop since the 1740's. Hence there are monuments everywhere and eventually museums that examined those periods of English history. Nelson sits atop Trafalgar Square, Wellington owned Apsley House at Hyde Park Corner and the Cenotaph commemorates the unknown soldier on Fleet St., for example. The list is very long of war memorials and successful commanders and these memorials are everywhere in London. They landmark the city, in a similar way that Holden Caulfield's clock at the Plaza was a landmark for people needing a place to meet. You will be surprised how much the average Londoner is aware of these monuments. There are other aspects to this form, however, most glaringly, transportation centers. London has a plethora of train stations--train stations require overland bridges that provide nooks and crannies for storage, businesses. etc. There was also the Regent's canal that winds through the city and is a lovely walk, at least part of the way. And London's roads, developed over hundreds of years are often twisty and windy creating interesting neighborhoods in the  most unlikely of places as for example, Little Venice just by St. John's Wood.

The picture is pretty clear that if you have an interest in a city, which I quickly found for London in the fall of 1971, there are endless spots to be discovered, best done by walking everywhere. What you quickly realize is that neighborhoods often retain traces of their past--not forever, but for a while. For example, the second major furniture making neighborhood after the West End--the area from St. Martins-in-the-Fields westward, was Holborn, which, curiously, was eastwards. When I started going to the London College of Furniture,  it had just moved out of Holborn to Commercial Road near Aldgate East, east of the City of London and well east of Holborn. The district of Holborn, however, remained filled with furniture related suppliers--leather, glass, veneer, polishing supplies, etc., and many of these were Victorian era shops. You felt you were walking back in time when you entered some of these premises. And I haven't mentioned the buildings--they are monuments to bygone eras as well and create extraordinary.cityscapes that go back over a thousand years. I might add that you can take a tour of Roman London and see even older building sites. 

London, like all big cities has a plenitude of markets. The most famous of these from an antiques standpoint, was on Portobello Rd. The community of Portobello was singular, astounding in its collegiality, not that everyone got along--there were intense dislikes that could be felt--but it was like a living entity that emerged every Saturday morning with all kinds of people from all over England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. And the buyers were from far and wide, as well. The Japanese were easily the most noticeable as they usually traveled in large groups and would pick over one case for hours. I eventually had a stall for about three weeks, not on a Saturday as there was no room, but I remember a Japanese couple arrive in a white Rolls Royce, both of them dressed in white, elegantly, and looking fabulous. (They bought a bunch of things from us, but I can't remember what.) These markets occurred throughout London and were the places where you could buy inexpensively, always  wondering if the items had "come off the back of a lorry", the English euphemism for the five fingered discount. They always gave life to an area and you would find in these places animated conversation, a lot of laughing and the occasional bust up. Nothing, however, got out of hand.

It would be remiss not to mention the people of London. Imagine a bus ride where you are sitting among a group of old people, often women but men as well, all talking about the weather. If it's sunny, they will be saying "lovely" often, but the cautionary subtext is always rain. The weather is the English go-to introduction among travelers of public transport, not just in London, but throughout the country. When I first arrived in London, there were about 30,000 Americans living there and we were vaguely exotic, just as we saw the Brits as being vaguely exotic. Hence, conversations about our respective countries began easily and were light hearted, as a rule. And as I ended up in the East End of London, certainly not chic at that time, I was even more exotic. It is as if I had a passport to go anywhere and be welcomed, if not with open arms, a respect for having found a place that most Londoners seldom went.

There are endless aspects to the form and context of a city and many cities, particularly European cities, have this rich layered history that was made, not begotten. Ask the typical tourist what they know about a city and it is usually limited to the most obvious places that can be found in most guide books. And this is how it should be. But when you move to that city, a whole different complexion can surface that includes necessities like where you buy groceries, your commute, your interaction with bureaucracy and how you wish to spend your free time. I was lucky in going to the London College of Furniture as I became an insider to British life, which is what I wanted. It fascinated, even thrilled me. I almost stayed forever--but for the weather.