An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 96

Clinton Howell Antiques - September 28, 2020 - Issue 96

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

An old friend of mine, Lark Mason, has begun creating webinars, essentially web based seminars, as the name implies. He is trying to put together a webinar that asks the question, are the decorative arts, art, cultural history or commercial goods? The obvious answer is yes to all three, but is it so obvious? If you are familiar with English antique furniture, you might say that a great deal of it is commercial, simply because there are plenty of examples of what appears to be the same thing. How many dining tables or chairs, or chests can actually be considered artistic after you have seen ten, twenty or more zipping through auction catalogs or dealer inventories? This is the crux of the matter as, without doubt, there is dross out there. At times, it seems like there is a good deal of it. This, however, belies the cultural value of these items and that is the aspect of a piece of furniture that is least understood--even by most dealers.

Every time that we go shopping, we are shopping in a unique moment. That moment encompasses many assumptions. For example, the fact that a product is ready for immediate purchase says something. I was listening to the radio the other day as to how there were supply shortages because of Covid 19--factories were shut and in this example, many types of refrigerator were unavailable. That is an historical marker. Payment methods, online buying, credit, where a product was made--these are all historical markers. And finally, the consumer is part of that model as well--what they feel they need or may want in a given moment, be it a vacuum cleaner or a new kind of nail polish. The truth of this is undeniable and it was all the more true in the 18th century as the middle class came into being.

There is a wonderful and interesting museum in London located in Shoreditch (the 19th century London home of the English furniture industry) which is called the Geffrye Museum that bills itself as "the museum of the home". Essentially, it is a series of room settings spanning hundreds of years. When I lived in London, the room settings were the essence of the collection, but reading the mission statement on line, the mission is now more about the stories associated with life in London from any era. This is social history in a really granular way--up close and personal and reflects what I am talking about in the previous chapter. Objects pave the way for that story. This is why, in my humble opinion, decorative arts are such important cultural markers. Since I happen to deal in the high end, I try to understand what I am selling not just as an art object or something I can make a profit on, but for what it means, why it came into being in the first place. Time changes things so subtly (and, with the internet, not so subtly) that we are unaware of change. But, as I have often pointed out, the difference between the making of furniture in 1700 to the making of furniture in 1800 is as different as a car is to a horse and buggy.

If this webinar comes to fruition, I will let you all know of the time and place. Below is a link to the information on the Geffrye Museum.