An Antiquarian's Tale Issue 9

Clinton Howell Antiques - October 2, 2017 - Issue 9
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
There are definitely cross purposes between what a restorer is doing and what a client needs to know. Restorers, by definition, do not wish for their work to be noticed. On the pembroke table I worked on (where I made a new flap) I worked as diligently getting the underside of the flap to look old and a match to the opposite flap as I did to matching the top. The morality of trying to fool people is contradictory in this case--you would not be doing a good job if your work wasn't invisible and yet you may be fooling someone into paying for something that they think they are getting but which they aren't.. I strongly believe that restoration is part of the life of a piece of furniture and that to imagine otherwise is willful ignorance. I also believe that major restorations should be made evident to the buyer. Further, however, I will say, almost categorically, that almost all restoration will reveal itself in time, particularly on the best made furniture of an era. Restorers may think their work is definitive, but I don't ascribe to that notion.

The ethics of restoration, a slightly different point than the one above, were often talked about in the London College of Furniture. The discussion was usually focused on two aspects of what we did. The first was in doing the least possible in order not to alter originality of the piece and the second was on what constituted an over restored piece? These are both tricky questions. What do you do with a chair that has worm eaten rails and will not support people sitting in it, for example? Or, should you patch original gilding that will continue to crumble or should you strip it  and re-gild? I can assure you that the questions never really stop even though, in this case, there are good answers to both.. (Call me if you are interested.) As the antiques market has cooled somewhat, the issue of value has somewhat subsided, but the moral dilemma of how much to restore will always plague all restorers.   

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
As I have already stated, mirrors and chairs are my most favorite pieces of furniture because they are the most sculptural of objects--mirrors more than chairs and the rococo style being the most sculptural of English styles. It has been noted by many writers and aesthetes that English rococo is, as a rule, not quite as mature as the French rococo style. There are some good reasons for this. Rococo came to fruition in France and was taken quite seriously as a style. (Anyone for Existentialism?) Some English designers approached the rococo with maturity, the most obvious being Thomas Johnston. (Two of his extraordinary pedestals can be seen, one in the V&A and the pair to it at the Philadelphia Art Museum.) Chippendale and Linnell made some good rococo frames, but they were clearly not the international rococo style, more English in feeling and more likely to be symmetrical. The frame pictured below falls into this category--it is a very good oval shape, and everything about the frame is good, but it is also what you would expect of English rococo. It doesn't visually shock you. (An interesting visit that will shock you is the rococo carving  at Claydon House in Buckinghamshire. The carver, Luke Lightfoot, allegedly worked with Johnston at one point. The Claydon carving is on a wonderful grand scale.) 

Despite what I say about English being somewhat timid, I am not being derogatory. English mirror frames are generally of a pretty high order both in how well they are carved and made as well as their overall aesthetic standard. The mirror pictured below has presence and looks very good on the wall. One has to understand that the original concept of rococo was to break the strait jacket of baroque grandeur. Not unlike mid 20th century furniture, there was re-purposing  of decoration to create a different sense of what objects were. As a style, at least in regards to furniture, it was relatively short lived and one presumes that the English version was created more in the spirit of light hearted decoration than anything else.