Fitted with a leather-lined writing surface within a rope carved border, above false drawers, the side drawer opening to reveal a library ladder, the whole raised on reeded legs ending in casters. Fitted with gilt-metal handles. This table is en suite to the writing table advertised by Mallett and Son. It has the same rope twist molding around the top and the handles are identical and after a design by Thomas Hope. It is extremely rare to find en suite pieces such as these by top craftsmen.


An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

The College did not teach a course in furniture styles. If we were interested in style, we needed to go to the library on the sixth floor, across the hall from the cafeteria. This was where I learned about the pioneers of English furniture history. Percy MacQuoid, Herbert Cescinsky, and R.W. Symonds. These were the style books of note, but it was Symonds who elevated the field to a level of expertise that set a standard for almost all authors thereafter. Importantly, he was a connoisseur, a man who understood the concept. later mined by Albert Sack in his work “Good, Better, Best”, that not all antiques are created the same. Minor changes in proportion, in detail, in timber could all affect how the object presented itself. Most of all, two craftsmen (or more accurately workshops) could interpret the same design quite differently. This may seem obvious, but if I say Chippendale chair, it evokes an image, not of the wide ranging styles that Chippendale chairs can be in, but of one particular chair. Rightly or wrongly, it limits your view of the antique genre.

The restoration department clearly knew that its students needed to understand a dimension that other students in the College didn’t necessarily need to know. That was the reason for the field trips that we took, albeit under our own steam, to various houses both within and outside of London, including Clandon, near Guildford in Surrey and Knole in Kent. We also visitied Ham House, Marble Hill House and we went behind the scenes of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Indeed, the museum sent along a set of Charles II “Restoration” chairs that were beset by worm. We were cautioned not to touch them, hollowed out as they were, as just by gripping them too hard could cause them to disintegrate in your hand. It was the most drastic case of worm I have ever seen and, because they had sat in a storeroom untouched for years on end, showed how efficient Anobium can be when left unmolested.

Visiting houses is its own reward insofar as you learn to be aware about how things fit. For example, visiting Ham House lets you see something very different from what you see at Chiswick House. What was the purpose of either house and why is the furniture in them appropriate? In these two houses, that is not such a difficult concept to ascertain and for the furniture expert, it teaches you that not all pieces of furniture were meant for an obvious function. Chiswick is a folly, in essence, a pleasure dome, an exercise in grand Palladian design. Ham is a house that is being lived in and utilized where functionality and scale are closely monitored. Visiting houses helps to interpret the photographs of furniture that you find in Symonds, et al, and makes it less iconic and far more approachable.

Looking at Furniture

The cabriole leg looks like such a simple, even obvious idea. Make a curved leg that has balance and that looks appropriate to the size of the item the leg is supporting. To be frank, there are lots of different styles of cabriole legs, but very few really good ones. This is the leg of a stool made of walnut circa 1715 belonging to a friend who sold it last year to a collector in San Francisco. I was interested in it because I once owned the pair to it, which I sold to Stair and Company back in the early 90’s. The stool works on a number of levels that work together, such as the oval shape which is relatively small, the curve on the leg nicely capped with the shell decoration and the sizable pads under the feet all help to offer a feeling of tension, sort of like a ballerina on tiptoe whose balance is just right. When you see the stool in real life, you realize that it was not made for a large scale drawing room, but for an intimate setting. As it happens, a pair of these stools came on the market recently and I was able to buy into them, so now I have either seen or owned four stools of this model. Unfortunately, I think the photographer over-emphasized the chromatic yellow in the shot, but you can rest assured that the stool, as well as the pair that I own, are not so orange and are, in fact, superb color. As an aside, I will say that photographing furniture is an art that is very hard to master.


An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

The instructors at the colleges were not expert in everything so outside teachers were brought in, specifically for carving and gilding. The gilder, Mike Baker, was one of the very best in London and could achieve an old looking finish that the antiques trade just loved. Mike is long dead, but his assistant, Glen Beckwith, continues in his tradition. Anthony Harrington was the wood carver and Tony has been a life long friend. Indeed, the photo at left is of a 1755 rococo girandole and he carved the pair on my website. He, and his foreman, Barry, nearly went crazy doing it. The carving is in pine and is extraordinarily complex. My own talent in the field of carving was nonexistent, but I remember as a 19 year old seeing Brancusi’s “workshop” in the basement of the Louvre and feeling a great attraction to the concept of creating things out of wood with chisels. It continues to fascinate me, even now.

My favorite hands on class was in the polishing studio on the second floor. Burt Burrell, my teacher, was born Cockney and was my introduction not only to polishing, but Cockney rhyming slang. “Let’s take a butcher’s”, he would say, which in slang is shortening the rhyme for “look” from butcher’s hook. He was a remarkably agile finisher in modern and antique methods. The polishing department was very up to date on the latest materials and techniques, although both wax and French polishing were my fortes. Faux finishing, at least from a polisher’s perspective, which means to be able to create oak from a pine base (not easy because of the lack of pores in pine) or satinwood from mahogany (satinwood has few pores and mahogany has a fair number so the grain had to be well filled) was difficult. Burt was a master of all.

But my really favorite class, not upholstery despite my initial interest, was the Wood Technology class run by a man we affectionately called Gribble (a type of woodworm). His full time job was as a consultant, mostly about homes that were afflicted by wet or dry rot (a home destroyer that is hard to conquer). He taught us about the Anobium punctatum (the woodworm that most everyone knows) and got me interested in wood identification which was ultimately going to compel me to look at and photograph timber trees. He was the first to tell us about a product being developed that would seep into and fill the pores on badly eaten sections of woodworm. That product obviated the need to fill the holes one by one with hot glue, a tedious and very labor intensive job. He also made it clear that every piece of furniture fumigated needed two shots as you needed to wait three weeks after the first fumigation to fumigate any eggs that might have reached the larval (the destructive phase) stage. Gribble’s fascination with his own subject was entirely infectious and inspiring.

Looking at Furniture

This pair of consoles were sold by me several years ago, but remain a great favorite. I don’t think the rams’ heads above the legs are necessarily beautifully carved detail per se (in fact, the heads are cast composition) although their faux bronze finish not only works, but has held up very well in the last two hundred years. The classicism is almost in code, with “columns” that have faux volutes and a bead, rams’ heads and little else. I think the design is remarkably successful with an artistic quality that is very rare in high end English furniture. I don’t mean that high end furniture is not artistic–it most certainly is–but that makers seldom dared to be so creative in execution at this time, circa 1815. And when they were, their success was, as a rule, mixed, although almost always interesting. One of the leading architects of this era, Sir John Soane whose house museum in Lincoln’s Inn, London, is well worth seeing, practiced intensely severe classicism. The designer of these tables was most certainly aware of Soane’s work as these tables epitomize his philosophy of less is more.

The second great feature of these tables is the quality of the mahogany. The mahogany, Swietenia mahogani, I believe, was first used in Europe in 1514 in Spain. It only became the wood of choice for cabinetmakers after the English Parliament slapped a tax on walnut in the 1740’s of one pound per pound. Mahogany, if brought from British colonies (often as ballast) was five pence per pound. As it happened, it became a very popular timber at least partly for the spectacular color a good polisher could evoke. With time, it also develops a tremendous patina, clearly evident in this pair of tables. It is also interesting to note that I bought these two tables years apart. They both came out of the Midlands of England and I bought the first and liked it so much that I took it home for a number of years. And then the second one showed up so I made an economic decision that I could not ignore.


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.



The high humidity that summer in New York brings has consequences for our bodies that seem entirely unrelated to barometric pressure. I notice one of them throughout the summer as my ear canals swell just enough to make the wearing of my hearing aids uncomfortable. Clearly we are talking about a tiny amount of space, but I can assure you that the agony of a slightly smaller ear canal is very real. For some, it is the feet and legs that swell, also an uncomfortable by-product of high pressure systems.

High humidity causes problems for wood as well. Cut timber, no matter how well dried, never stops absorbing moisture. This tends not to be a major problem if humidity is controlled, but if there are radical extremes of moisture, there will be swelling and shrinking, a problem that can be deleterious to all furniture, not just antiques. The average apartment in New York City will range from 3% humidity in the heating season to 80% in the summer.

Museums such as the Metropolitan Museum have atmospheric controls to keep humidity, year round, at around 55%. Indeed, if you don’t have climate control, the MMA is a great place to visit in mid-winter to make your entire body feel less tight, because, just as humidity swells the body, high heat shrinks the body causing tightness or stiffness of the joints and muscles. Couple that with the cold, and winter earns its place as being more miserable than humidity in summers.

Clearly, too much of one thing is never particularly good. Extremes of heat or cold are bad, but when we become extreme in our behavior, it can be quite dangerous. Militant extremists have no qualms about their lack of balance and always see war as justified. Indeed, balance, as the Chinese recognized long ago and which they appear to have turned their back on, is in understanding countervailing realities and working within the context of that dichotomy.  It seems a hard thing to do these days.

 


Simplicity is what every designer is urged to remember when creating objects for regular use. It is not a bad mantra for all of the decorative arts and also applies to writing. Clarity, we are told, can get lost in complexity. I don’t think this is wrong, but simplicity, as pleasing as it can be, denies the role of style to some extent. We neither can, nor necessarily want, to write like Ernest Hemingway or create Shaker style furniture. Both are beautiful in their own right, but they should not be used as a good reason for not writing like, for example, Franz Kafka, or creating furniture in a rococo, classical or baroque style.

Our minds, however, often create an either/or dichotomy as it is far easier to digest. It takes work to understand Kafka and it requires attention to detail to understand style. It is far more difficult to understand great rococo than it is to understand Shaker furniture. This is not placing the two styles in contention, it is understanding that one is more complex in its nature. You either like the complexity or you don’t, but to dismiss it is a form of ignorance. That ignorance is easily cured, but the reality is that people take offense at things they are ignorant about rather than take the time to understand them.

This is true of our nation at this moment. There is a groundswell of support for non-toleration of what is called, “the other”, or people with whom we don’t identify. Essentially a dismissive attitude grounded in ignorance, it denies the value of any other system but our own. Looking at human history, most great empires that have not valued the other have essentially self-destructed, primarily for their inability to adapt to societal change. You can see a parallel in genetics as interbreeding causes species to lose the breadth of antibodies that are able to fight ever changing pathogens. Simply: diversity is good.

The truth is that it is hard to understand the other. It takes both tolerance and the intellectual capacity to realize that there is more than one way of doing something. The rococo style can be frivolous, to be sure, but there is a beauty to it that Shaker furniture can’t have. The opposite is true as well and for the connoisseur grasping those realities is part and parcel of connoisseurship. Understanding the many ways of being in this world, and recognizing that there is something to learn from all of them, is important to the survival of our society. Greatness isn’t pure, it’s a composite of many things.


What is it about art that gets people so excited? This is the kind of question that is very hard to answer as only personal experience is valid as a response. Rather than try to talk for the masses, I would much prefer to say what gets me excited about art. I will admit that it doesn’t happen often enough for me, but it most certainly happens. It also happens with antique furniture, but in a very different way. Both, however, ring the aesthetic bell when they are right.

I have to admit to having taken a number of art courses. I am not an artist. I could draw in a barely passable fashion, but there was no inspiration to my work. I did, however, love to look at art. Janson’s, “History of Art: The Western Tradition”, was my bible and I learned every painting in the book. That paintings could be so many things—craft, allegory, decorative, colorful, eerie, suspenseful, sad and joyful, and much, much more, was fuel to my understanding.

Of course, the range of feelings that you can get from a painting is singular in one way, but widespread in others. How do you define that the image that resounds so purposefully, a feeling that no one else can know? The truth is that all of us get these moments in our own way. What is so extremely interesting is that paintings can be part of fads and fashion. How can any style of art go out of fashion? As unbelievable as this might be, it happens.

I can remember more than a few moments where I have been deeply affected by a painting. An exhibition of Edmund Burra’s work at the Tate, Rembrandts in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., Poussin in Edinburgh or the incredible exhibition of Pissarro and Cezanne at MOMA. There are many more of those moments, but in each case, I felt that the paintings were more than their substance or their subject, that somehow the artist transcended everything to show me something quite singular.

These are, of course, name painters, acclaimed by many and obvious choices. However, I name these paintings and these moments not to the exclusion of other artists, but simply because no one knows the other art I might refer to. There are a slew of artworks that I feel very strongly about, people that few have heard of, and the feeling of excitement is no less valid for their relative obscurity. This is, in my opinion, the very greatest thing about art.

I am not a connoisseur of contemporary art and such moments are rarer for me in that medium. I somehow feel that contemporary art has debased itself, relying on message over craft. This criticism is too broad to have meaning save for myself, but I have heard it often enough that I wonder just where, as a broad movement, art will step next? That doesn’t matter either as most artists aren’t concerned with anything but their own work Thank God for that!


I am a committed capitalist and have long realized that market analysis is a function of not only understanding how markets work in the short run, but also over time. Whether it is day by day, month by month, year by year or even decade by decade, the investor has to understand that his investment will necessarily fluctuate down and yet, hopefully, also go up. It seems pretty simple, but in this era of huge wealth, it also seems quite complex, particularly in certain markets.

The contemporary art market is an unusual market for the foremost reason that many of the artists being traded for high prices are still alive and producing. How do you know an artist has reached his peak? How do you know that the artist won’t trash or disavow his earlier work? What happens if the primary collector of that artist leaves the market? The list of questions is longer than you might think, the most pressing being what happens if the entire field, contemporary, starts to go south?

Another side of the question is how does major investment in art affect it as a whole? It certainly enhances interest in art which is a wonderful thing. The question I have, however, is why do we like art? What does it do for us? The investment angle yields a tepid answer—because it might be a good investment. What is lacking is the appreciation of the art itself. After all, some of the big money contemporary art might be judged in time as being second rate and not worth anything.

Investment, therefore, almost inevitably affects a market in ways that change that market. The tulip craze in Holland in the early 17th century is a good case in point where the price of a single tulip, at its peak, was worth an entire estate, and at its nadir, an onion bulb. Markets, in other words, often lose sight of the existential value of what is being purchased and in doing so actually destroy all sense of appreciation for what is being traded. Monetizing something can have negative effects after all.

Is this the weak point of capitalism? Can excess be reined in? I am not so certain that it can. Human nature will capitalize on the moment. In the crash of 2008, it must be remembered that  the big banks were trading junk securities but those instruments were filled out by local bankers eager to cash in on the rush to lend money to people who had no chance of repaying it. The conundrum of capitalism seems to be in knowing when enough is enough. That is a tough lesson to learn.

 


There are natural progressions that seem completely unnatural when examined. The path through puberty is the most obvious one as children shed their childlike ways to become something inexplicable until, of course, they achieve adulthood. The natural progression of fashion is no different, but it is not as clearly defined as puberty. Styles will spark, flare and either catch for a while or just fade away, but they almost never completely die. And the “new” can look entirely incompatible with the old and yet, you know as well as you know about puberty, that the new is never unrelated to the old.
The NY Times Style Magazine has a photograph of a poured concrete house, a former underwear factory near Potsdam in Germany, that looks vaguely unfinished. Actually, it isn’t so vague, it is purposely rough with two irregularly shaped windows that are not squared. The style touches on brutalist, naïve, functional and, in a way, even rustic. There is a distinct lack of decoration save for a downspout that juts out from the roof on one corner and looks somewhat like the spout of an oil can. Set amidst trees in a country like setting, the house resonates in a number of ways.
What sparked this particular repurposing? Look at all the glass towers being built in this world and you might have one idea. But think also of the desire for authenticity that seems so hard to attain in our slick modern world. But most of all, think of how much money was saved in the re-use of this place. It is by no means “undesigned” and it beats the costs of razing and building. And, if you know the area where the house is located near Potsdam, you will also know that there are numerous poured concrete camps, places for holidays in the days of the GDR. In other words, there is a tradition for the style in that area.
This is not to say that the house is representative of any style shift. The poured concrete buildings of the 1950’s are not particularly revered although they are admired, not unlike Sir John Soane’s austere classicism. This villa may simply be an enigmatic outlier to early 21st century architecture and promptly forgotten. The point is that there are very good reasons why it exists and why it is on the cover of the magazine. It says something about who we are at the moment, even if you don’t get the message. Liking it is one thing, understanding it is something altogether different.