An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 91

Clinton Howell Antiques - August 24, 2020 - Issue 91

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

I thought I would take a break from touring England for a week and discuss how antique furniture has affected on how I view the commercial world. I am interested in how objects represent history and I am interested in how we, the buyers, users and custodians of these items maintain them. There are a number of considerations to the stories of our purchases, some quite relevant and others not so. This is a familiar concept in the antiques world, but it was reinforced for me recently when I saw the house I grew up in. The landscaping of the house had changed dramatically from when I was young and the look to the property was entirely different. I found it hard not to be judgmental as the landscaping had, prior to my parents purchase and during our time there, been spectacular--you immediately understood what the landscaper was doing which was to define the boundaries, give rationale to the corners of the property, obscure the public areas from the street and to lightly camouflage the windows and much more. That plan has vanished. Today, there are plants, but they don't define anything. It isn't wrong and I am sure the property can look very nice, but without the "purpose" it once had, which seemed so appropriate for a one acre property, it will never be more than just pretty. 

As regards the history of what we own, we all get to do precisely what we wish with the things we buy. There is nothing stopping you from doing anything at all with your property or to a piece of furniture--it is yours after all. Of course, if you have spent a lot of money to buy something, it is, in a monetary sense, important to think about changing things. In an historical context, there will be an essential alteration, one that may be minor in your eyes. The early history is still there--but it is being superseded. And in that process, the historical assessment of the piece diminishes drastically, almost, at times, to a vanishing point. In a similar vein, there have been many pieces that have been made fancier, or what people thought was fancier. This, too, diminishes the real story of the piece which might have been far more interesting as it was. Of course, this is part of the sands of time or to put it more drastically, what humanity often does to its past. It is one reason we have museums and archaeologists.  

When seeking out the history of something, the array of questions I can muster about an object is long. Where was the piece made, why was it made in the wood it is in, what did the timber cost at the time of construction, what did the labor cost--these are just a sampling of questions that occur to me on looking at an item, but there are many more. I can't specifically answer a majority of these questions--I will roughly know what is going on, but it is educated guesswork. Things get interesting, however, when either the maker or the client chooses to put his or herself into the piece. The legendary dealer, Ronnie Lee, once showed me the molding on the top of a chest that was unusual and said he had owned a chest with the similar molding profile years earlier. Through tracking ownership of both items, he found that both families came from the same town at the time the chests were made. Ultimately, he found the cabinetmaker most likely to have made the chests. I think you can see the point as Mr. Lee was finding the needle in the haystack. Of course, history can be like that. It is pedantic.

The question remains as to how my interest in antique furniture affects the way I see things? The Upper East Side of New York, for example, is filled with people who look alike--not physically, of course, but in the way that they dress. (I always laugh when I see bikers who like to call themselves "outlaws" and then all dress the same.) Similarities correspond through various levels, be they economic, social or even political. For example, certain furniture is designed to be inexpensive, some medium range, etc. It isn't hard to identify the price range of most furniture by a value metric starting in 1770 (when lesser value furniture started to be made on speculation). with a quick examination, provided you have been exposed to the overall range of quality. This is not judgmental. Some people buy Yugos and some people buy more expensive cars, but all of those cars are not only a form of history, but part of a much larger statement as well, about a society that creates such a range of cars to buy. You can take this concept and apply it to just about anything. In the end, the questions are just that, endless. If you are intrigued by the process, it can be enlightening and also tedious. With luck, you will choose the ones that are enlightening.