Antiquarian's Tale Issue 2

Thursday, August 14, 2017 - Issue 2

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

The London College of Furniture is a nondescript seven story white brick building about a quarter mile from the Aldgate East tube station. The neighborhood, at least in 1972, was mainly two to three story buildings so from the fifth floor up on the stair well in the College, you had a bird’s eye view of everything to the east. The most interesting thing was a building almost next door that was, essentially, two buildings at a right angle to one another joined by a curve-not just a curve, a ravishing curve that the roofline elegantly revealed. I understand that it was torn down. Alas, alack!

 The restoration class was located on the fourth floor and most people would start to arrive by 8, even though classes officially started at 9. The restoration class was composed of older, more mature students who clearly wanted to get their work done and move on. Before I knew it, I was learning how to sharpen tools and cut joints—mortise and tenon, dovetail, lapped, finger, etc. I was not that adept with a chisel and, frankly, the very first thing you need to learn is to not fight with the material you are working with as it just makes everything that much more difficult. Repetition teaches you this, but in a way, it is not much different from learning any skill—practice, practice, practice. 

The most distinct memory that I have of that room is the overwhelming odor of hide glue, the essential glue of mankind since the dawn of civilization. Made from the bones of animals (there are other less glutinous glues made from rabbit skins and fish bones, but hide is THE furniture glue) it is heated in a double boiler and applied hot. It is an amazing adhesive, but like all glues, it relies most on the quality of the items being glued. For example, a rub joint is made between two flat surfaces. All you really have to do is apply glue to both surfaces and rub the pieces together—no clamp is required. If however, they aren’t flat, they will not glue properly. Elementary logic, but not one easily grasped by amateur woodworkers who insist on using epoxies or casein (milk based) glues. Furthermore, those glues always need clamping.

Looking at Furniture

The detail of the top of this Regency center table (c. 1815) does, I believe, reveal the power of porphyry. It is porphyry mined in the Sinai Peninsula and was the marble of choice for the grandest of items. The Vatican Museum has an enormous tazza of porphyry, rather ill-proportioned in my opinion, but enormously wide (ten feet at least, if I remember correctly. I also well remember visiting the Archaeology Museum of Istanbul and seeing three wonderfully carved, porphyry sarcophagi, slightly damaged, sitting outside in the rain. These would be major exhibits in London, New York, Beijing or Paris. Without doubt, there are more examples of this splendid marble scattered throughout the Mediterranean area. Porphyry is extraordinarily rare now. 

What I love about this table is the scale of it. It is 34”  high and I can see it being used in a sculpture gallery that is painted in grey and white so that the only color would be found in either the sculptures themselves or on the table top. The frame around the top has a delicate gilded bead that has lost most of its gilding. Other bronze on the table includes the feet and open fret gallery on the base, a very unusual feature. The strongest woodworking feature is, without doubt the stem which is reeded (hollowed out). I will be taking this table to the San Francisco Fall Art and Antiques Show at the end of October.