An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 8

Clinton Howell Antiques - September 25, 2017 - Issue 8
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts


My second year at the London College of Furniture was far different from the first. All of a sudden, I needed projects to work on. The best place to find projects was in junk shops of which London had quite a few. My local was not far from the Gospel Oak train station and was run by a fastidious hippie who I once found getting a perm in the local hairdressers. He complained that his strip tank (full of lye) was taking the curl out of his hair. My first purchase for repair was a Gustave Thonet bentwood rocker that was painted white and a real mess. I spent many hours stripping and repairing that chair and then paid thirty pounds to replace the caning. The problem, of course, is that rockers like that take up a lot of room. Much as I liked it, it was not practical. My second major project was a pembroke table that lacked one flap. How it  got lost was a mystery, but I have to say that by the time I was finished with it, you would have had a hard time knowing that there was a new flap. I sold it to a dealer on Westbourne Grove at a huge loss if you counted all the hours I had put into repairing it. 

The pleasure I got from trading things and improving my eye by visiting junk shops was another part of getting to know London better. Of course, I was learning more about the city every time I set off looking for things. But I was also learning about other parts of London. My membership in the Tatty Bogle drinking club in a basement not far from Golden Square was one of them. As pubs closed between 2:30-5:30 (I think those were the closing times, but the memory blurs) one always needed a place for a civilized third Guinness. My two closest friends at the College were Mark Dickinson and Richard Crux. Mark was an old Harrovian who had worked in a restoration shop for a year prior to entering the College. He knew more than most of us, so he essentially was taking time off. Richard was an emigre from South Africa. Six foot eight tall, his principle distinction was not his height, but that he owned the title to "World's Fastest Shaver". He had answered an ad to a "shave off", won it and then proceeded to beat all comers with shave offs around America, including at the Superdome in New Orleans and one on Johnny Carson. He was a very sweet man and the member of Tatty Bogle who sponsored me. Oddly, I ran into members of Tatty Bogle in all sorts of places, from country houses to the ferry going to the Isle of Lundy in the Bristol Channel. At times you felt as if, being in England, you were a member of one large club.

To all my subscribers, I would like to offer tickets to either the San Francisco Fall Art and Antiques Show being held at Fort Mason from Oct.26=29. I am also doing the AADLA Fair in Wallace Hall located at St. Ignatius Loyola, located between 83rd and 84th Streets on Park Avenue, running from Oct. 27-30. I will be taking the red eye back from San Francisco in order to be at the AADLA Fair final day. Both shows should be really superb.

Looking at Furniture

I have had more than a few people ask me what sapwood is? People who know woods are often amused by this, but it is a very fair question to ask about when reading descriptions of antiques showing sapwood.. Sapwood is, by definition, the part of the tree that is living and is always located on the outside radius of the tree trunk. This seems fairly obvious until you come across a tree like yew wood. Yew trees have those fleshy red berries that often fall and are caught in the bark of the tree where they proceed to root and grow--essentially creating a new tree. In time, the sapwood of the new and old tree may or may not grow together and the resulting color swirls can be fantastic. Not all trees have evident sapwood, but when they do, the woodworker will either try to take advantage of them or make sure that they are not a dominant aspect of what they are creating. The small patch of sapwood on the wassail bowl shown above and below is virtually incidental to the design, but what is interesting is that the tree was  clearly indented enough for the sapwood to lie within the radius where heartwood existed. Lignum is a wonderful wood for a number of reasons. It has a natural oil that makes it a wonderful turning wood. It is also very dense and does not float and so was obviously very good ballast for ships returning to the UK from the Caribbean basin. Lignum, and several other South American timbers such as kingwood and tulipwood, first show up in some preponderance in the last quarter of the 17th century. Wassail bowls were often pottery, but the lignum wassail bowl is still a fairly common sight. This one is reasonably large at roughly eight inches high and seven inches wide. The turning is clearly by an experienced technician as he has some very fine tapers and moulding conceits on this vase, but a masterpiece it is not. However, as an object, it is utterly delightful to touch and to heft in your hands. Fruit of any color looks spectacular in it.