An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 71

Clinton Howell Antiques - March 30, 2020 - Issue 71
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
A quick recap of the tale of the secretaire and slant front bureau to remind my readers about the rarity of two pieces of furniture, allegedly dating to circa 1710, that may have been made en suite. It is unknown to me whether this has ever happened and I have researched it thoroughly. Again, I stress that the exception proves the rule, and that it is not a good enough reason, by itself, for us to question the authenticity of either piece. Furthermore, if you were able to look at the two pieces as I have, you would not question the cabinetwork--it is most definitely of the period 1710. The handles, I seem to remember, are original as well. However, and this is a very big deal, both pieces are extensively and identically restored with new (non-period of manufacture) backboards of both the bottom and top sections, new carved and gilded crests, new bun feet, and the mirrored doors are also new. (I learned about the restoration of the slant front bookcase from the man who was in charge of restoration at the Helen Clay Frick Museum--we compared notes on the two pieces.) This is not only a lot of information, it is a lot of restoration, and one might think it immediately disqualifies the pieces as being of the period and that might be a fair assessment. You cannot, however, fault the japanning and the aging of the surface. They are perfectly faded and the details of the japanning are almost directly out of a book that was written in 1688 by Stalker and Parker on japanning with drawings of "typical" japan style decoration.

The pluses and minuses of trying to determine age are certainly conflicting and therefore open up the pieces to even closer examination which could be done by a laboratory. This would involve taking paint chips and identifying the pigments available circa 1710 versus what might be used in 1900. I didn't have that luxury and I never made those tests so on that point, my argument about the japanning was subjective. The restoration of both pieces are fact and therefore objective. Therefore, I was stymied. I wanted to believe, but facts are facts. And yet, as I was shortly to discover (this was my thinking when I first looked at the japanned secretaire) the Met obtained the bureau bookcase from the Helen Clay Frick Museum leading me to believe that they felt the bureau bookcase and its japanning was original. This is where I have to say that the plot thickens (or it was thickening then and stll is a little thick) and I think that there must be another angle to try to solve the mystery.

The next point of entry in the investigation is, where were the items purchased? It wasn't difficult to discover that Carrere and Hastings not only designed the residences for these two homes, but that they also furnished them. Where did they get the furnishings? This is the question du jour and I don't remember exactly how I found the answer, but I did find that there was a decorating firm in London, by the name of White and Allom, who specialized in buying the contents of country houses that were either being torn down or re-purposed. Furthermore, they also manufactured furniture. Along around 1995, I went to visit the offices of White and Allom in London in Mayfair,  where I was graciously received and informed that all the White and Allom records had, a mere six months prior, been scrapped or burnt or whatever happens to old records in London. This knowledge ended this part of my investigation, as you might imagine, but the fact that the company had manufactured furniture and yet billed themselves as antique dealers as well, further aroused my suspicions.

What possible explanations exist for these two items? The restoration is overt, easily detected and way over done compared to the way items of this nature are "conserved" today. But that was the style in those days. Authenticity, circa 1910, was less of an issue as compared to the look of a piece. Both these pieces have a wow factor and their carcases are of the period. The question is best answered, at this point, as I suggested above, in a chemical analysis of the japanning. Japanning has been in vogue in the UK for as long as items from the near and far east have been imported, beginning with Marco Polo's return from China in the fourteenth century. There have been, over the years--throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries--vogues for japanned furniture. Is it possible that White and Allom took two early 18th century oak pieces and gussied them up with a red japan? That is a distinct possibility. The fact that all the mirror plates are replacements suggests to me that they did not have mirrors in the doors in the first place. Finally, are the carved crests replacements or inspired decoration? None of this is clear until an analysis is made of the japan work. However, I will add that the British Galleries that were just re-opened no longer have the bureau bookcase on display. Instead there is a red japanned secretaire cabinet with original mirror plates (I think) as the one example of English japanning. The plot still has a little juice in it which is scientific analysis of paint chips, but it looks to me as if the Met has or will say goodbye to the bureau bookcase. I wish they would let us know why it is no longer on show.