An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 72

Clinton Howell Antiques - April 6, 2020 - Issue 72

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

The premiere art and antiques fair in the late 20th century, I almost feel like a fossil saying this, was the Grosvenor House Antiques Fair. It was held in the ballroom of the Grosvenor House Hotel on Park Lane in London and was considered the most prestigious fair of its type in the world, primarily because of "vetting". Vetting is the process of having a committee look at every item in a fair prior to the opening to determine the accuracy of a dealer's label. It was organized and run by the exhibitors, which you might think implies that the inmates were running the asylum, but the system generally worked. The vetters would insure the age of a piece, whether or not it was of the period or, perhaps, an intended deception (a fake) or whether the piece was "fair worthy", meaning either over or under restored. The process of vetting was always brutal, occasionally political, in that certain dealers were given greater latitude, simply because of who they were. Of course, the spirit of vetting is to protect the customer, but the reality is that vetting was never perfect.

The guide lines of vetting are what I want to focus on, not from the point of view of what is or isn't real, but from the point of view of what was decided regarding vetting guide lines in 1975. The most famous English cabinetmaker, Thomas Chippendale, has the honor of not only having had one of the top furniture making shops in London, but also of being the eponym for a style of furniture. This is credited to the fact that he published three editions of what is referred to as "The Director", which was, essentially a style book of furniture designs. "The Director" was the Sears Roebuck catalogue of its day and had three editions in 1754, 1755 and 1762. The book of designs are largely fanciful and designed to give clients ideas for a chest of drawers, looking glass or some other piece of furniture. Very few pieces of Chippendale furniture are documented that specifically align with any of his designs that can be directly attributed to his cabinet shop. This does not mean that none were made, it means that very few are documented. 

This is the point of this story and, to some extent, it harks back to the story of the japanned pieces I wrote about in the last two blogs. English furniture makers tended not to sign or label  their furniture. This, of course, is a gaping hole in the fabric of the history of English furniture. The late, great furniture historian, Christopher Gilbert, who wrote the book on Thomas Chippendale, chose to publish furniture in his book that had an ironclad provenance as being from Chippendale's shop. Hence, many pieces long held dear as, "by Thomas Chippendale", did not make the cut. Where this relates to the vetting guidelines is how the antiques trade viewed all those pieces that everyone understood as being by Chippendale, but which did not have a provenance as being from his workshop. Further complicating matters is how long Chippendale style furniture continued to be made (Chippendale died in 1779, but his son, Thomas Chippendale, Jr. continued working into the 1820's). What should then be the cut off date for when Chippendale furniture was no longer original and deemed to be in the style of Chippendale? Good question and a vexing one for any vetter. The Grosvenor House furniture vetting committee, in its wisdom in 1975, chose a date of, I believe, 1825 (it might have been 1830, but my memory is foggy on this point).

It is a well known fact that Chippendale furniture continued to be made throughout the 19th century. Indeed, when I was a student at the London College of Furniture, a mate of mine asked me to keep a book he found in a junk shop near Bath which had drawings from a 19th century cabinet shop near Bath that showed pieces of furniture designed for customers. I still have that book--it is a large and cumbersome thing and the designs are mostly in the Chippendale style. The antique style, particularly Georgian furniture from around 1720-1785, was very popular during the belle epoque or Gay Nineties. Furthermore, the furniture was being made in almost identical fashion to the way it would have been made in that time frame, save for the fact that two of the more tedious tasks, sawing and planing, were automated. However, all traces of machine work could be easily removed by hand planing after the machine work. This Chippendale furniture is among the most difficult to define--some of it is picture perfect to designs in "The Director". Where does it belong in the panoply of great furniture? It is not "reproduction" furniture in that someone was copying an existing piece (and possibly altering it) but it certainly isn't 18th or even early 19th century. (Some of this furniture is truly spectacular, I might add.) What should we call it today? Clearly, vetting is an exercise in the proximate on some pieces and the shifting sands of both understanding and opinion can overturn long held opinions at almost any moment. Absolutism, as you may now understand, should never be the stance of any vetter.