An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 68

Clinton Howell Antiques - March 9, 2020 - Issue 68

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

The British Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of New York reopened to the general public last week. There was a big shindig with dinner the week earlier which had many of my colleagues in the trade in attendance as the ceremonial ribbon was cut and the galleries officially came out of purdah. It has been three years that the British galleries have been closed and I have had to make do by visiting other museums around the country, one of the finest being the Philadelphia Art Museum, and not just for English furniture, but lots more. Back to NYC and the new galleries--they are beautiful, there is no doubt about that whatsoever. Numerous changes have been made to get them that way which includes the re-design of the space in such a manner that you wend your way through exhibits that are in very close proximity. On opening night, there were bottle necks, which you would expect, but on my next two visits, there were also bottle necks, places were people parked themselves to either look or read a label, impeding the pathways to the next space. Will this be a major problem--on some days it will and on others, it won't. Museums are crowded these days and the Met is no exception to the rule. 

The big question, however, is whether the three year hiatus was worth the wait? This is a very tricky question that has a number of answers, most of them positive, but some which are yet to be answered. If we ask what the purpose of a museum is, that answer has been evolving from the very first days of museums. Hans Sloane, whose collection started the British Museum, the oldest of its type in the world, would be astounded by today's version. The science and study of the past through objects is extraordinary. I bring this up because I am not sure how I would like a museum of English furniture to be. And although not far off from what the Met has today, I would love to entwine money, power, politics and show how they affected furniture. There is mention of English society's desire to spend its new found wealth and the novel ways they did it--drinking tea and coffee, for example, or buying porcelain from the Far East or making ceremonial silver. All of these are covered in this new exhibition, but there is more, a lot more.

Every object tells a story--everyone has heard that line. My take is that an object is like a prism which, when held to the light, instead of separating light waves, separates the object into many, many stories. The most obvious story derives from the question, who made the object? This question is not always so easily answered in English furniture as the English did not sign their furniture, as a rule, but in silver and porcelain, it is more straightforward. You can learn a lot from asking it. But there are many more refractions to examine. Who was the piece made for? Was it custom made or was the object from a factory of some sort? Then one might ask why the object was made? After all, a teapot is a teapot is a teapot, isn't it? Another question is where was the object made? How did the object get to the original owner? How many other manufacturers of this object were there? I think you can see that the refractions are wide ranging and that the resultant story is almost limitless.

England in 1660 was a society that was recovering from the inward looking strictures of religious extremism. Perhaps because Charles I had been an outward looking monarch, there was an almost immediate re-calibration about how to move forward. Indeed, the plague, the great fire of London and the influx of skilled foreign (Protestant) laborers looking for work predicated a tabula rasa that enabled bold gestures such as the rebuilding of the English Navy which had been allowed to rot during the Cromwellian era, and which spurred on private trading companies. Also, the re-development of London, its buildings, specifically, was an opportunity for the capital base to expand. The immediate benefactors of this were the oligarchs who had maneuvered Charles II's return to the English throne. These oligarchs were keen on developing their estates to "control" their part of the world which led to building activity throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. These houses, country estates, needed to be filled. The stage was set and the English mercantile soul, the nation of shopkeepers started to become a reality by 1760. 

The story that covers the era from 1660-1830, the point at which a middle class was an irrefutable reality, soon to be depicted by 19th century novelists such as Dickens and Thackeray and so admirably in George Eliot's, "Middlemarch". It is covered politically, economically and sociologically, but seldom through the lens of specific objects. And yet, if you read Jenny Uglow's wonderful book, "The Lunar Men", you will see that the mercantile spirit drove Britain in the same fashion as Marx's, "Communist Manifesto" affected Lenin and Russia or the Declaration of Independence helped create the United States. (The book talks about the society that met on the full moon so that they could walk home in the light of the moon. It included a wide array of people, intellectuals and natural philosophers, some of whom were wholly focused on expanding British industry such as Wedgwood, Boulton and Watt.) The stories of these men and people like them, despite the efforts of writers such as Uglow, are largely unknown. Are such stories compatible for a museum? I'm not sure, but when I walk into the new British galleries, I want these stories to be part of the conversation.