An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 73

Clinton Howell Antiques - April 13, 2020 - Issue 73
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
One might think that the ergonomics of furniture would be constant, despite the fact that we are slightly taller than we were three centuries ago. In point of fact, if you take today's airplane seat (in coach) you quickly realize how the airline industry has altered the landscape of what a person actually needs as regards overall space in which to sit for (many) hours on end. The fact that these spaces are uncomfortable to the vast majority of Americans over a certain size and weight has everything to do with what the engineers determine as being a legitimate amount of space for the average human being. A similar sense of understanding pervades contemporary design as well. However, it is a tad more sophisticated in concept. The furniture industry that tries to design "new" furniture, both to replace the old as well as be more cutting edge, style-wise, plays a great deal with heights of items such as desks and chairs. It is an ongoing assumption that the new will be better than the old, an assumption that car makers have broadcast for decades. You would think this might just be an affliction of the 20th and 21st centuries, but the wrangles with scale have never been straightforward in any era. It is often, I have to admit, usually a matter of a half inch here or a quarter inch there and in the world of comfort and style, that could be the difference.

I learned at the London College of Furniture (in the manufacturing and design section of the college) that designing something new was, for the student, a reason for justifying all of the specifics--materials, upholstery, measurements, method of manufacture, etc. What was the article being used for, why should it be precisely 16.5" inches high, how was it going to be upholstered and could the upholstery affect in some way this slightly lower height? The questions were seemingly endless. Interestingly, these questions presented themselves to the antique restoration class, as well. The final project to get your certificate was to make a copy of some piece of (old) furniture. Most people chose chairs to copy and, most of the times, from illustrations in books. Those illustrations would not have precise measurements for all the parts of the chair so the student either had to find a chair or re-invent how such a chair may have been constructed.

Why is this interesting since almost anyone knows that you have to have specific measurements for anything you make? If, however, you remember back to the last blog, I said that Chippendale furniture never stopped being made. It was made extensively in the last quarter of the 19th century and lo and behold, it was made larger than it was in the 18th century. In other words, scale is the most obvious giveaway as to when a piece is made, at least for that era. I have other examples of this. I owned a walnut veneered chest with what is called a caddy top, a moulding typically used on tea caddies, which is an inset bead on the top edge. The piece was walnut burl with herring bone inlay and walnut banding. But it was over scaled. Unlike the Chippendale pieces from the end of the 19th century, however, this chest was likely made circa 1755, an era when walnut was out of fashion. But the reason for its being out of fashion was not taste, but cost. An import duty on walnut had shot up the price of walnut furniture in 1745, thereby giving added incentive to move towards mahogany as the main furniture timber. But taste-wise, walnut was still admired. I believe that my chest was made for someone who loved walnut, but who wanted a slightly bigger chest than one that might have been made in 1725. The joinery of the interior corroborates this time period.

Understanding scale, what works, is not so simple. That furniture made pre 1775 was largely made to order, meaning that many pieces are likely to be slightly idiosyncratic simply because people were trying to make their furniture work best for their lives. There are odd furniture designs such as library chairs that you lean into with a book rest in front so that you can read. There are all sorts of adjustable standing desks. You should not be surprised to find, for example, dining chairs that have just one armchair that is scaled larger than the sides. Occasionally, you will find two overscaled armchairs in a set. (More often than not, these get separated from their sets because of inheritance.) The idiosyncracies are many and not just limited to scale, but also to function. The most expensive piece of furniture ever sold is the Badminton Cabinet (36.7 million dollars) made in Florence with pietra dura veneered drawers, bronze gilded mounts and ebony and it is, I believe, close to twelve and a half feet tall--and utterly useless. It took six years to make and was made for the 19 year old Duke of Beaufort. Did he know how big 12.5 feet is? The subject of scale has many stories attached to it and they echo through history, probably in the chair you are sitting in, or bed you are lying on at this very moment.