An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 70

Clinton Howell Antiques - March 23, 2020 - Issue 70

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

When I first started to really focus on English furniture as being my career in the late 1970's, I wanted to visit all the places where the great furniture could be found. Most of those places were English country houses and in a period of about twenty years, I saw all the major houses in England, Scotland and Wales many times over. (There are a few I still haven't seen that are private and a few I would like to re-visit.) But great English furniture was exported in quantity to the United States beginning at the last quarter of the 19th century. It wasn't, however, strictly antique dealers that were exporting it, it was firms that would buy the interiors of houses that were either being hollowed out or torn down. The target was not just the furniture, it was the finished interior work, most notably paneling, floors and ceilings, not to mention stone work, stair cases and more. I don't know for certain, but I would guess that the furniture was occasionally thrown in on such deals. The largest buyers of rooms such as these were American architectural firms such as Carrere and Hastings and McKim, Mead and White. The building boom of the belle epoque era saw the erection of grand buildings throughout America, many of which used these materials extensively.

I particularly want to focus on the work that Carrere and Hastings did for Henry Clay Frick, not in New York City, but in Pittsburgh in what is now the Helen Clay Frick Museum. This small museum housed, according to a great friend of mine who had worked at the Metropolitan Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, what he called the finest English japanned piece in America, a bureau bookcase with mirrored doors and a silvered crest to go with the red japanning. I made a special visit to Pittsburgh in order to see it given this recommendation. (I also went to the Carnegie-Mellon Museum.) It certainly was imposing with a lovely faded exterior and, as you opened up the slant front of the bureau, the color was a little less faded and finally, when you opened the door to the little, not so secret compartment inside the bureau, you saw the original fire cracker red that the piece must have had when it was first made. In any case, imagine my surprise when, four or five years later, I was strolling through the Metropolitan Museum to see one particular piece to find that the bureau bookcase was now on "permanent loan" in the British Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum. I don't know what "permanent loan" means, has the Met had acquired the piece? I'm not certain as it is no longer on view and may have been shipped back to Pittsburgh for all I know.

In the interim, between seeing the bureau bookcase in Pittsburgh and before it came to New York City, I was asked to go to Harrison, NY to look at a wide variety of furniture that needed restoration. The house was, in fact, a limestone villa built by Carrere and Hastings around 1910, one of the few suburban private residences that they are known to have built. The house contained some very fine English furniture, not all of which I can remember, but there was one extraordinary item, a red lacquered secretaire bookcase with mirrored doors and a gilded crest, identical in every detail to the bureau bookcase in Pittsburgh. Naturally, I did a double take. At the time, circa 1995, a great slant front bureau was worth anywhere from $600,000 to $1,000,000--it was just a function of who might want such a piece the most. (I might add that great japanned furniture is still among the most costly items in the repertoire of English furniture.) The secretaire bookcase, which looked as if it were made for the spot it occupied in Harrison had me thinking, particularly since Frick used the same architects, that the architects had planned the layout of both rooms where both these japanned pieces were found, to the last detail.

This is, of course, where the story begins to get both more complicated, but also more interesting. The very first question one has to ask is why two such similar pieces exist in the first place? The date of the two pieces has to be circa 1710, plus or minus ten years. In those days, gilders were often japanners as well and the best known of them were John Belchier, James Moore and William Gumley. Gumley was the senior of this group, Moore joining his firm and Belchier working independently. There are, no doubt, others, but these are the names that spring to mind for great japanned work of this era. particularly when mirrored doors and carved crests are concerned. Having said all this, there is an essential question--did these makers ever make pieces en suite? Other than sets of chairs, pairs of mirrors, commodes, armchairs, etc., how often does one find virtually identically decorated pieces in slightly different forms? I would like to say I know the answer to this question and that answer would be, never, but it is not necessarily the correct answer. In English furniture, the exception is often the rule. So, it is possible that this happened, but it also would be a very rare example of this happening. Hence, there is cause for doubt. (To be cont'd.)