An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 93

Clinton Howell Antiques - September 7, 2020 - Issue 93
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
I receive questions from time to time about the vocabulary used in the world of furniture. The term, Georgian is a typical example and is widely misunderstood. The Georgian period, strictly speaking, runs from 1714-1837 and includes the four Georges, the Regency and William IV. (Brother to George IV.) Defining something as Georgian does not define a style. A quick sketch of the stylistic range of the Georgian period starts in 1714 with a foreign influenced baroque, which then shifts to a purer English baroque in 1730-40, and then shifts through a melange of rococo, Gothick and chinoiserie from 1740-1770, often layered onto the English baroque, which leads to neo-classicism that has numerous iterations from 1760-1840. So a Georgian piece of furniture is NOT a stylistic attribution. In fact, it is a meaningless term for the decorative arts--it is essentially an historical/political term. However, and this caveat will leave you shaking your head in both wonder and disgust, you will hear dealers talk about "great Georgian furniture", their reference usually being to the furniture made from 1740-1770. Please note, I qualified this with usually, because I can't vouch for every dealer speaking the same language, even though they are all, ostensibly, speaking English.

Another clarification I would like to make is the use of softwood and hardwood when talking about timber identification. These terms are biologically based--they do not refer to the adjectives, soft or hard. All softwoods are conifers and all hardwood trees are from broadleaf trees. (There are broadleaf conifers from the southern hemisphere such as the monkey puzzle tree and the kauri from Australia and New Zealand, both from the genus, Araucaria, but I am ignoring that exception.) The density of the woods is not referenced in their names, soft or hard. There are many softwoods that are denser than hardwoods. Balsa wood used in model airplanes is from a hardwood tree. The true cedars can be dense as are yew and juniper, but because softwoods tend to grow more quickly, they can be less dense than hardwoods. (Although I suspect the bristlecone pine, often considered one of the oldest trees on the planet, might have particularly dense timber.) All of this is confusing so it is best, at least when discussing furniture, to stay away from the terms, softwood and hardwood, and try to be specific as to whether you are looking at pine, yew, cedar (although most "cedars" in furniture are juniper wood as used in Bermuda furniture) or redwood.

If you think I have thrown up a cloud of dust in these explanations, I don't blame you. The lines blur so easily. In furniture, the inaccuracies arise from the borrowing of terms from other disciplines, as noted above, that the term Georgian is an historical/political term. Woods are and always will be confusing to people as botanists used, quite logically, words that made sense to botanists, but not necessarily to people in other disciplines who transposed those definitions to suit their own discipline. Softwood, as a term, is not used straightaway in many furniture definitions, but is useful at times in wood identification, simply because softwoods do not have pores. Most of the case pieces in 18th century English furniture will have some softwood--backboards, drawer liners or carcasses--that was imported from Norway through the port of Deal, in Kent. Indeed, so much softwood came through Deal that all softwoods started to be referred to in England, as deal. (This was true when I lived in England.) Most of the 18th century mirrors were carved of softwood, as well. More confused? I don't blame you. The jungle of furniture terms has not been edited and even if it were, there would still be believers in "the way things used to be".  I will be back on the country house tour next week as this is even confusing to write about.