An Antique Dealer's Blog: Looking at English Furniture
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 “feeling” 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.
The world of fashion, design in general, is, by its very nature, fickle. Clothing is certainly top of the list, but art, architecture, furnishings, almost every other field are all close behind. The desire to be new is built into us. The problem is that our brains tell us to adhere to what works which is what sways us to cling to the old. (Classic products, like Coca-Cola labels are a good example.)The fine line that dictates what might be good, or not so good, can get lost in this seesaw of competing desires.
English antique furniture (and 18th century furniture in general) slots into this dilemma perfectly. Admittedly, the price for it was going ballistic (and still is for certain items) but in essence, there is a reason for the meteoric rise it had in the 1980’s and 90’s. The best of it is the quintessence of quality, built to last, well designed, ergonomically well thought out and beautiful. Simply put, from the point of view of functionality, there are few other eras of furniture that work quite as well.
Notwithstanding this, it is easy to understand why people follow fashion. Our brain seeks stimulation. A building that is made of poured concrete, for example, is new in a world of bricks and mortar. Given that poured concrete can do so much more, you can understand why some might feel this would be the style for the future. And yet, as many Brits will confess about the Southbank Centre complex, it is cold and uninviting, no matter how well it functions. The city of London’s love affair with raw, poured concrete lasted a little too long in the eyes of many.
The reality is that the natural flux of fashion doesn’t call for the destruction of the old. It does call for a re-evaluation of it, however, which is often seen through a lens that is of the moment. Hence, the destruction of wonderful buildings such as Penn Station to name one of thousands. And, of course, this is true in every field. Ironically, particularly as regards to fashion, second hand clothes merchants are doing very well. Certain models of the Birkin bag continue to sell for well over $100,000, for example.
Inevitably, fashion is affected by market which will either diminish or enhance the way we look at things. The second hand market strongly affects our rationale for liking something. I have yet to meet a woman who would not want a Birkin bag, but is it the best hand bag in existence? That is a silly question. The intrinsic value of something is altogether separate from perceived value. And therein lies the rub. But it is also the reason why new markets create themselves. Thank goodness for that.
The value of art remains, as ever, a hot topic of discussion. Whether it is the soaring prices of (some) modern and contemporary artists, or the mostly falling, with exceptions, value of old masters, the market place remains unsettled, not unlike the English furniture market. The fact is that the buyers seem to be either uncertain or completely bullish. It is, of course, a market, but I often feel that the art itself gets overlooked.
I was thinking about this after reading an article in the NY Times in re to a Constable that was espied by a dealer in the UK who purchased it for $5,200 and later sold it at Sotheby’s in London for one thousand times that price. It underscores the paradox that the art market holds for me that people aren’t really looking at and liking the art, they are looking for an investment. As much as I understand the fact that people do not wish to throw money away, isn’t art about visual pleasure?
Spending time with an artist as I do, I constantly hear how a painter has really mastered certain aspects of painting. I love these observations as it encourages me to look even more closely. I remember when I first saw a JMW Turner painting in Jansen’s “The History of Art”. I was fifteen and I was enthralled that this man could capture light with the colors in his palette. I continue to be enthralled by Turner. I feel that appreciation is even deeper having seen so many of his works.
Value is so tricky. Investors warn that buying the last known painting of a given artist is a bad idea. For one, the value might get overblown, but secondly, if no other paintings by the artist come to market, the artist’s value will fall. These observations clearly have nothing to do with art, just the market and even though you cannot deny the art market, it seems almost antithetical to art appreciation. Thank goodness for museums.
The furniture market is not that different. I hear of people referring to English furniture as “brown”, a pejorative that belies the premise on which good English furniture dealers work. Our focus is on color—of the wood, the paint, the gilding—it’s not brown but a panoply of colors. Such objections will rise about any market “in decline”, be it about modern or contemporary, except it will be about comfort, or craftsmanship or something else. It’s really just about economics, don’t let them fool you. You can like whatever you want.
For those of you who know my gallery on East 72nd Street, just off the corner of Lexington Avenue, I regret to say that I have moved out of those premises. In fact, regret is not quite the correct word since I felt that I was not seeing enough interested people that were actually buying and so regret is coupled with relief that I am no longer paying the substantial rent that came due every month. And yet, my furniture needs to be seen, and not just on the internet. I will now focus on a different strategy for doing that, but I am not sure what those logistics are just yet.
More and more art dealers, particularly fine or decorative dealers selling pieces that qualify as antique, are moving out of public premises and using art fairs to sell their wares. People attribute this public retreat as a fall off in the taste for the antique, but I am not certain that is the sole cause for this trend. There has been some shift in taste, but old things will always have resonance and few dealers want to abandon the trade they worked so hard to learn. The option to be a private dealer is really the best one available.
I can better speak about furniture than art although the sound and fury (huge prices) surrounding modern and contemporary art is a phenomenon that has a great many people scratching their heads. As far as I am concerned, long may it run. As for the shift towards modern and contemporary furniture, I believe it is predicated on a number of things. There is, for example, an intellectual attraction to finding the early work of contemporary designers such as Hans Wegner or Gio Ponti. More mundanely, much of the 50’s-80’s furniture is less expensive which will appeal to a younger market. But for the shelter magazines, contemporary allows for a new swath of advertising revenue.
This may sound cynical, but it isn’t. The supply of quality antique furniture of any nationality is limited and when there isn’t enough to sell, the market drops off because customers get discouraged. This will affect ancillary businesses, most notably the fabric houses who are huge advertisers, which, of course, affects the shelter magazines. The food chain gets disrupted and so the only smart move is to try and shift the market to a more lucrative vein. It is an effective strategy, but it inevitably moves public opinion away from one thing and towards another.
My rationale may not be absolutely watertight, but when you combine the fact that very few people are spending money these days—you can read endless articles about how businesses are sitting on piles of cash—it begins to round out a picture that demonstrates just why fewer people were coming into my gallery than ever. There are plenty of English furniture enthusiasts out there and there would be a whole lot more if things were slightly different. But I am dealing with reality which means it was the right move to become a private dealer. I love this business and would never give it up, but I also have to adapt to the moment.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) was wife of the ambassador to Istanbul in the early part of the 18th century and gained the favor of the sultan to the extent that she was allowed into the oda, the harem room, a place no western woman had ever been. She learned about variolation, a form of inoculation using material from a mild case of small pox, and had her children inoculated. She also convinced some members of the Royal Family to do the same. She was vilified by the London medical establishment for this “Oriental process” and church leaders thought her to be flouting God’s will.
The controversy behind vaccination has flared again, but for much different reasons. A doctor writing in the British medical journal, The Lancet, asserted that many children suffered side affects from many childhood vaccinations, the principle side affect being autism. The article was retracted when the doctor admitted to falsifying evidence in his article, but the controversy that he created lives on. Few medical professionals now suggest not vaccinating save for in some children whose immune systems may already be compromised.
Lady Montagu is known for the letters she sent from Istanbul and is thought to have composed a number of Alexander Pope’s alexandrines. Pope was smitten by the lady, but he misinterpreted her friendship and when he professed his love, she laughed, earning his everlasting enmity. As she grew older, she exiled herself, eventually divorcing her husband and to live an hermetic life in France and Italy. She came home to live with her daughter for one year before dying. Her progressivism is positively refreshing in an age that was attempting to free itself from prejudice and suspicion. We need more like her today.
One of the most intriguing country houses that I have visited is Claydon, located in Buckinghamshire, about forty miles from London. It is astounding because of the chinoiserie wood carving created by Luke Lightfoot who was the subject of a short biography in the annual Furniture History Society publication some years ago. Not that much is known about Lightfoot although one of the things he was thought to have done was taken Sir Edmund Verney, the owner of Claydon, for a substantial financial ride. Indeed, the family went bankrupt
Wood carving is a singular skill in the creation of furniture. Apart from mouldings, the carver must have a sculptural aesthetic that works well with furniture. Thus, when a carver is putting a ho-ho bird on the shoulders of a mirror, that bird needs to work with the overall composition of the mirror. It sounds simple, but when you see bad interpretations, the overall effect is a dud. The reason I am writing this blog is to showcase the pair of girandoles I have, one old and one new, that are frankly sensational. The ho-ho bird is reminiscent of Lightfoot’s carving. I only wish I could fully attribute it to him.
If Lightfoot did take Verney for a ride, at least his work was not a total scam. The carving work in the house is superb and the sophistication of the chinoiserie design quite advanced. The English were never quite as fluent with chinoiserie and rococo design as the French were, but there is no doubt that Lightfoot most certainly was and that Claydon represents among his greatest achievements. It is, in my opinion, one of the great country houses despite the fact that it is not on the scale of a Houghton House of Holkham Hall. Genius is always alluring, even on a modest scale.
Last winter, I was walking across Central Park on a wet day that had started out with snow, but which had graduated to a foggy mist. I passed the central allee of the park that has the American elms flanking it going south from the band shell. I was so impressed by the site of the wild branches against the white snow, that I snapped a photo on my phone. I wasn’t alone in my appreciation as virtually the same photo appeared in the Sunday NY Times that weekend.
Allees of trees have been cultivated for many years, probably thousands, as trees serve as both hedges and windbreaks. There is a majestic quality to a mature set of trees lining either a road or path. The older roads in England, indeed all through Europe, were often lined with trees. The Dutch elm disease laid waste to one of my favorite roads in Sussex as hundreds, if not thousands of elm trees died from the disease. It actually created a glut of elm veneer on the market as well.
Allees are not always the same tree. One house owner in England decided to create an allee with trees that ran the alphabet. It is an eccentric idea as the aesthetic value of the allee is compromised by all the different shapes of the various trees, but it is, without doubt, a tree lovers rebus. I can’t say that I would have recognized it right away, but if I was told that there was something special to the allee, I might have figured it out.
Another famous allee is one of laburnum trees that has been trained across a frame at Bodnant Garden in North Wales. I have seen this when the laburnum trees were in full flower and it is extraordinarily striking. But I have to say that the elms in Central Park are among the most breath taking allees I have seen. The rarity of mature elms, the way their branches swoop up and out, and the substantial number of them lined up in opposing rows is just fabulous.
I have written about this before, but in light of the shootings in Paris, I thought it worthwhile to go over the history of the Christian church’s acceptance of holy images of Christ, Mary, the Apostles, etc. It was the second council of Nicaea, held in 787, that reversed the ban on graven images set in 754 by Constantine V. It took some doing as the first attempt to rescind the ban in 784 was interrupted by the arrival of troops. The second attempt, engineered by the capable Empress Irene of Byzantium, was successful.
The icon business obviously flourished with the ruling and its long term impact is irrefutable as the interiors of many Catholic and Orthodox churches attest to. It is a tad spurious to relate these images to those of a satirical cartoonist except that the ban on reproducing the Prophet’s image applies to all images, not just those taken in vain. Islam, however, according to the scholar, Christiane Gruber, states in the online magazine,“Newsweek”, that there has never been, until recently, a prohibition on creating an image of the Prophet.
It is interesting to me that, without the Empress Irene’s fervor, Christianity might have been just as obdurate against portrayals of the Holy Family as Islam is today. The reason(s) behind her fervor remain a mystery, at least to me. I can’t imagine that Christianity would have evolved the way it has without artistic license. Indeed, western culture might have been quite drastically different without the Nicaean Council’s ruling. We certainly owe her gratitude for what eventually became the western artistic canon. Whether Christianity is better for her persistence is, I believe, debatable.
The Metropolitan Museum recently closed the exhibition of Pieter Coecke van Aelst, a Dutch painter and tapestry designer, an exhibition I would call a tour de force. Not only were his paintings extraordinary, but his tapestries were amazingly beautiful and, for the most part, still in superb condition. I wish I had written about it sooner. Frankly, the Met excels at this kind of exhibition having ample space to hang as well as ample space to stand and look at the tapestries.
On my second visit to the Coecke exhibition, I stopped to look at the exhibition of Bartholomeus Spranger (1546-1611), another Dutch painter who also trained in Italy. He became the court painter for Rudolf II in Prague and died shortly before him in 1611. Spranger’s work is very free and loose. At times, he chooses to leave parts of his canvas to the viewer’s interpretation. Coecke, possibly because he designed tapestries, never left a square inch to guesswork.
The comparison of the two favors Coecke as the more complete artist, but I would suggest that Spranger’s style represents a movement away from the tight Italianate canvases that Coecke produced. Spranger’s self portrait is wonderful, so it is clear that he could paint, it is just that he seems to have favored a more spontaneous approach to his canvas. My amateurish speculation notwithstanding, I found the serendipity of the simultaneous exhibitions a good reason for my membership to the MMA.
I should also mention that it is Old Masters Week as well as Master Drawings week in New York at the end of the month. Old master paintings have paralleled the English furniture market in that great things sell very well and so this is the week where you will see a number of great paintings on exhibition. I might add that James MacKinnon of London uses my gallery to exhibit master drawings and I have never failed to covet at least four if not more of the items he shows. Come and see.
Leaving Bhutan was, for me at least, an emotional experience akin to walking away from a friend that you knew you were unlikely to see again. The memories—the endless prayer flags, the Bhutanese people, the yaks in the mist, the dogs that were everywhere and barked endlessly at night—to name just a few, will last a life time. When you are leaving, you would like to see just one more emblematic aspect of this wonderful country to remember it by as if you haven’t quite had your fill. Bhutan will remain with me always, but I sure would like to return.
And, of course, we were leaving other things behind. The physical camaraderie of our group would be broken, as it had to be. We were also leaving behind our wonderful Bhutanese guides and our leader, Zach, and our river guide, Doug—they were off to kayak rivers only accessible by horse. (All the companies rafting in Bhutan are asked to look for vehicles that have fallen off the sides of mountains—just in case. Glad I didn’t know that fact on our foggy night drive.) The comfort of being looked after and catered to was also a thing of the past.
I don’t dwell on sentiment, but as our plane ascended in the clouds, I felt this sense of loss and yet I could not stop smiling. It was a fabulous time and I only wish that I could sell something from Bhutan in my gallery so I could return on a regular basis. (Believe me, I looked hard at all the artwork, carving, etc., but it was just not right for my gallery.) Bhutan seemed so unspoiled and protected by the seemingly eternal conflicts that beset the rest of the world. I hope that Edenic quality will endure and give someone else the pleasure that I so enjoyed. Shangri-La indeed!
Our penultimate morning was, again, bright and sunny and we loaded into our buses for the journey to the starting point for the climb up to Tiger’s Nest Monastery (Paro Taktsang). The starting point for the climb is at an altitude of roughly 6,500 feet and the monastery is at roughly 10,000 feet. In other words it is quite a climb and I am very happy that we did not try it on our first day. As it was, when we were on the Paro Chhu on the first day of rafting, I had a moment of dizziness and disorientation that lasted for about twenty minutes which I attributed to the altitude. By the last day, my lungs were used to the altitude, but my leg muscles were not. Fortunately, there is a halfway point where you can rest and have a cup of tea.
There was a woman having tea, she must have been well into her seventies possibly even older, who had climbed halfway and chosen to stop. This was her second visit to Bhutan and she had been to the monastery before and chose to relax and gaze on it from the privileged few of the halfway house. That she had made halfway was quite a feat and she well knew that you do not climb directly up to the monastery, but instead climb high on one peak and then descend 400 feet or so and then climb up to the monastery. It is hard, but because it rests on this second peak, you always have a view of it as you climb and it is just stunning, clinging to the cliff in ways you don’t really want to figure out, particularly when you are walking around inside it. And, there is the spectre of prayer flags draped from one impossible peak to another. Another breathtaking sight in Bhutan.
I forgot that we would be entering a monastery and so only wore shorts. Fortunately, Anne Harris had a pair of pants and gave me her tights which made the bottom half of my body feel like a sausage, or what I think a sausage must feel like. There must have been four or five separate rooms to visit in the monastery and it was extremely cold on the feet—the air up there was cool and the heat we had generated in climbing evaporated forthwith. Furthermore there is no ergonomic standard to these old buildings (1692) so it is easy to stumble on an odd sized step if you are not careful, and very tiring to be looking out for such anomalies. One of our group, Corinne, was two months off a knee operation and managing so I could hardly complain.
Lunch at the halfway house, back to chicken and rice, allowed me to ditch the tights. Our descent was uneventful and running the gauntlet of vendors at the bottom of the walk was vaguely stressful. You wanted to buy something, but the suitcases were full and I was running out of ngultrum, the Bhutanese currency. Also, we had an hour and a half hot rock sauna at the hotel that I knew we had to pay for so I passed them by. After the hot rocks, I found that my cousin Peter was having a fancy dress party with all the men who had purchased ghos (the male dress of Bhutan which is required for every Bhutanese who wishes to enter dzongs or monasteries) attempting to learn how to put them on. This is another little mystery of Bhutan. Alexander might have dealt with the Gordian knot, but donning a gho, I can assure you, would have been beyond him.
Our last dinner together, another table for 20 magically in place, was punctuated by toasts from just about every one of us. It was an extraordinarily enjoyable group of people to share Bhutan with and the party that came to pass after dinner expressed this as well as any of the parties we had in the span of eight days, so much so that we had Bhutanese, British, German and other Americans singing and dancing along with us to celebrate. As vacations go, it was absolutely sensational and not just because I was in Shangri-La, but because I was in Shangri-La with people that I enjoyed sharing Shangri-La with and furthermore, it came about without being planned—it just happened. Makes you want to believe for a second or two.