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.

Initially, when I first started reading about Donald Trump’s run for the Presidency, I thought that he might be a Shakespearean character, perhaps a Falstaff, a buffoon like character who speaks some truth but mostly balderdash. However, I recognize him now as a man who operates in the gray areas. He is non-specific for a purpose, because it allows him to make light of those things he knows little about and it also allows him to be heavy when he chooses. It is an amoral position because it allows him to sit on both sides of the fence. He has no position other than what is good for him.

I have immense respect for decorators and designers who are capable of translating their clients’ wishes into a home or apartment that they can enjoy. It is an arduous task as it requires a sense of psychology, a solid work ethic and a great deal of knowledge. The penultimate day of stress has to be the day of installation where, once the walls are painted and floor is ready, the interior is to be laid out. This is the day where a decorator learns a number of lessons, the foremost being whether they are going to enjoy this line of work, or not.

Inevitably, the gray areas, those not fully discussed come back to haunt the decorator just as they will haunt the American electorate if Donald Trump somehow succeeds in enrapturing the Republican faithful. My hope is that his stance will force one of his sixteen rivals to repudiate the party line which is largely so negative. The only person remotely doing so at this point is John Kasich. Why the Republicans don’t see this is beyond my comprehension. I guess it might be time to deal with the facts of Bernie Sanders’ message. No gray area there.

The Republican primaries are a long ways away and a good reminder of this is that Donald Trump is leading in some polls. Trump has a special place in the primaries and it is, as far as I can tell, as a gadfly, a provocateur, someone whose raison d’etre is to provoke others. Of course, he is trying to enhance the visibility of his brand, that is his name, and win or lose in the primaries, it is still a winning position for him. It may be costing him business in some ways now, but in the long run, he knows that his name recognition is worth a fortune.

As in Greek tragedies, although more nuanced, Shakespeare always has a provocateur in his dramas, someone who could stir the protagonists into action. Whether they were mendacious or truth tellers, drunks or jesters, what they said often dictated a response of some form or another. In “Othello”, Iago’s innuendos and whispers are too much for the somewhat simple minded Othello. Falstaff, on the other hand, comes across as a buffoon, drunk and whoremaster whose words often appear foolish, but which often are truthful and on point.

Trump’s bloviations are largely aimed at the far right of the Republican Party. The Republicans, who empowered the far right in the election of Ronald Reagan, are reaping the results of that strategy today. George Bush was elected on it, but few Republicans seem capable of finding the same timbre that their predecessors took. It is a delicate balance, one that requires not a little mendacity, much like all political posturing, but in this case, the litmus test is social issues, and that will always be a sore spot as the evangelicals of the far right push for a no-compromise agenda.

The question remains as to just where Donald Trump fits into this puzzle. Is he helping or hindering the Republicans? I would say that he is helping. He is giving cover to many candidates at this point and he is also making it clear that the far right issues, such as immigration, need careful consideration, not a sound bite. The candidates that have the most chance of victory should be using their cover and looking for the correct timbre that can embody their message and appeal to the big tent of Republicans. Donald Trump should be making that clear to everyone. What’s a buffoon for, after all?

The annual CINOA (Confederation Internationale des Negociants en Oeuvres d’Art) conference was held in Dublin this year in early June. CINOA is the umbrella group for a number of top end art and antiques organizations around the world and most of the attendees were from the Europe, but there was one Australian, a former member of the CINOA Council who resigned this past year. The group is, in a word, diverse with Russians, Swedes, Austrians, Germans and more.

The business side of the conference was about the primary issues facing members. In Europe, it is artist resale rights, a law that is often less than clear. In the U.S. our primary issue is how the laws on the ban of trade in ivory are being ramped up to include both new and antique ivory. There are other issues as well, but these always take the most time because we are all stunned at how law makers seem so arbitrary in their initiation of new regulations. Bureaucrats must have their fun!

The best part of these conferences was, and is always, the down time. Dinner at Trinity College with members of the Irish Antique Dealers Association (IADA) was great fun and visits to Castletown and Russborough Houses, both within reasonable drives from Dublin, were quite rewarding as I saw examples of several items that are in my current inventory. Finally, Dublin is on a wonderful scale, no super tall buildings, with a large proportion of them being Georgian or earlier. What more could I want?

I read an article in the May 18th, “New Yorker”, about Marc Andreessen, a venture capitalist specializing in internet start-ups. He believes that the future is being decided by the internet, changing the way we do just about everything. I agree with him that the internet will have a strong influence on how the future looks and yet I feel a little dispirited by what I think that future might hold.

American civilization, at least from the industrial age forward, has been most creative in figuring out how to quantify seemingly unquantifiable things. That was Henry Ford’s genius, just as it was Ray Kroc’s and countless other entrepreneurs. These men figured out how to do things en masse for the masses. The internet is another step in that direction and because there is so much that is quantifiable, surprisingly so when you consider start-ups like Airbnb or Uber, it is genius to envision it.

But, how do you quantify those things in life that give it meaning? Stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon and it takes your breath away. Watch your team upset the favorite to win a championship and it will be a memory forever. Describe the colors of the sunset that happened when you had your first kiss. These are the depth and dimension of life and I see us veering away from their appreciation because our smart phones and computers are offering us alternatives—alternatives that are without depth or dimension.

I love the internet, make no mistake. It has saved me numerous trips around the US looking at antiques in small auctions simply because I know my subject and can tell if something needs to be seen in person. The point is that my knowledge is what I am working with and the internet is an amazing facilitator. But the internet cannot tell me if the color is right. The internet doesn’t really betray proportion well. Those things that make you want to buy are ultimately things that you have to see.

It is said that the hardest thing to capture with robots are the mindless things we are able to do with our hands, such as putting them into pockets and picking out one particular object. I would venture that this mirrors the concept of experience that any aesthete has amassed in their life time. There is a knowledge that transcends collation and which isn’t quantifiable. Maybe I should add a minor caveat which is to say, not yet, at least.

It is hard not to think about the passage of time when you are having dinner with someone you have known longer than anyone else, other than family. My dinner was with Craig McAllister, a friend of sixty years, who has a memory like a steel trap. My own family accuses me of having such a memory, but next to Craig, I am like the Richard Nixon tapes—essentially gapped.

The passage of time and the change that comes with it is incrementally quite slow, but in aggregate quite dramatic. I see it in my own life as I remember our black and white TV and compare it with the computer screen I am looking at right now. The steps that led to that change seem rapid in retrospect, but in truth, they were slow and inexorable.

This is true in just about any field, but the time period of 1740-70 in England, style-wise was fairly intense. The English baroque style, freshly minted in 1740, rapidly alters as a succession of style fads including chinoiserie, gothick and rococo overlay it, succumbing altogether to the neo-classic style propagated by William Chambers, Robert Adam and James “Athenian” Stuart. It was a dizzying pace which hardly seems incremental at all. Did people of that age notice these changes?

The pace of change seems unrelated to the passage of time—when you are living it, you just don’t seem to take note of it. However, when we reference the change in our own lives, which is possible when you are over a certain age, you can see just how inexorable it is. When Craig reminds me of a name or an event from 1955 it is almost as if it happened to someone else. It clarifies to some small extent, at least for me, just why history has so many interpretations.

The discussion was largely focused on antiquities, but it applies to English antique furniture. There are certain pieces that just jump out at you for being 18th century. Everything about them, the wood, the craftsmanship, their color and condition just reek of an 18th century workshop. I would say, however, that pieces that touch all those bases are rare. Most pieces of English furniture require a reasoned assessment to determine their age. Interestingly, a group of documented furniture coming out of Houghton Hall in Norfolk, despite great provenance, leaves room for concern because the secondary woods on much of the seat furniture look amazingly fresh.

It only gets more difficult as you look at older items in the heritage of world art. Again, some things just jump out at you as being genuine, but others, for whatever reason, just come off as later or possibly fake. Interestingly, as far as I am concerned, there are certain antiquities that I feel more attuned to as, for example, Cycladic sculpture. I know next to nothing about it, but the pieces seem to have a purity that cannot be replicated. And yet, I would dismiss my “œfeeling” and always rely on someone who knew the culture, the time period and the range of known, genuine artworks. 

My response to the question is that knowing a culture leads to a different kind of understanding of its artistic output. I can believe that a deeper understanding is more valid than the visceral pull that many old things have. I also don’t believe that visceral pull is spiritual in any form. However, I do believe that people who care for artworks leave an indelible mark on things. This all reminds me of a conversation I had with an English furniture dealer about thirty years ago. After a long discussion about a piece in this man’s inventory, I asked him what, in his opinion, makes a piece old. He replied, It is if I say it is.”

Of all the freedoms that we have and which we try to respect, freedom of speech is the most difficult to fully understand. Laws have been passed about inciting violence as well as a law to help determine what are “hate” crimes, both of which can relate directly to free speech. This  is tricky territory and yet it is clear that “free” speech can be incendiary. In a democracy, the debates about free speech are a constant.

The value of free speech was not lost on 18th century writers. Consequently, much of the satire of the early periodicals such as “The Spectator” or the “Gentleman’s Magazine” were usually quite gentle and often published anonymously. The aim was more to poke fun at the powers that be rather than to directly criticize them, an ill advised strategy in a monarchical society. Displeasing the King was just too dangerous and a writer’s chance of earning a living, just too tenuous.

The subtlety of what free speech really embraces is often lost in social media venues. Between blatant vulgarity and wolf pack political correctness, free speech becomes a standard that has no standard. We are all allowed to pontificate endlessly and yet, without doubt, it beats living in Russia or China. It is truly a cherished freedom, but one that is cloudy and opaque even at the best of times. We should consider ourselves very lucky indeed.

I heard a line in a movie the other day stating that art was spiritually “transcendent”.  It may be for many, but I believe that art is more about  leaving your mark. I can certainly enjoy it and be enraptured by it, but I get no spiritual exaltation out of it. I have that from nature, even in New York City where a quick look at the East River riptide or a walk through Central Park can inspire me in a way that no piece of art can.

This isn’t to say that art can’t be sublime or revealing. No matter what, I see art as communication of where we have been and, to some extent, where we are going. It doesn’t really matter if it is an Easter Island sculpture, Cycladic figurine or even a Jackson Pollack drip painting. They are all cultural statements about a moment in time and, if the creator is lucky enough, they gain a sense of permanence that few other things connected with civilization have.

Some people will say that things speak to them, something I cannot deny. I greatly enjoy looking at antique furniture that was well made and maintained all of its existence. These objects reveal themselves the more you look at them, but even then, their essence is real, not spiritual. It is possibly why I find myself in complete wonder at the veneration of religious symbols—they are, after all, made by man. But that is what makes a horse race. We all worship different things.