An Antique Dealer's Blog: Looking at English Furniture

9/3/2009

The protagonist in William Caddis' novel, " The Recognitions", Wyatt Gwyon, is a faker of old master paintings. As the novel was published in the 1950's, old master paintings were considered the ne plus ultra of art investments. That is no longer the case, but what is so interesting is not the fakery but the artist. Unlike Ayn Rand's noble architect, Howard Roark, in "The Fountainhead" whose originality is unquestioned, Gwyon is made to appear as if he channels old master artists. His character is both an aesthete and a misanthrope, a life dedicated to art and little else. And the enigma is that the one painting he can't complete is the portrait of his mother.

In the early 1970's when I was a student at the London College of Furniture, I came to know a great many restorers from outside the college. Almost all of them had stories about the 1930's and trying to get things into great collections past the gamut of experts that would determine authenticity. One fellow carried around a story about a tea caddy that he had made and which was bought by Percival Griffiths, the noted walnut collector. As far as these men were concerned, they might just be craftsmen, but they knew enough to outsmart the experts. Such is the role of every expert, to ultimately be outsmarted.

Gaddis' character seems more disconnected than anything else, but that is the Gaddis style. At one point, however, he gets a little technical and talks about the glair from eggs used to help create craqueleur in a painting. It reminds me just a bit of Robertson Davies in the Cornish Trilogy, Bred in the Bone is one that I remember, or of Lovejoy, the antique "divvy" created by Jonathan Gash. Faking is really not so complicated. It is like magic. Just get all the heads turned in one direction and go in the opposite direction. The problem is that sooner or later, someone will catch on. They always do.  

William Gaddis' book, "The Recognitions" , is a dense novel filled with abstruse references, a few of which I can grasp and some which flow right by me. The vocabulary is equally dense and his prose borders on poetry from time to time. At one point, his protagonist, Wyatt Gwyon, utters a terrific and memorable line, "every work of art is a perfect necessity". The statement redounds with meaning and speaks of the nature of art and its sense of originality and uniqueness.

English antique furniture from the 18th century is not original in the sense that its source is a continuum of design that spread through Europe in the early to mid 18th century. However, in the sense that every craftsmen becomes a designer in the making of a piece of furniture, every piece is unique. It is this which makes 18th century English furniture so compelling. As compelling as later design is in the 19th and 20th centuries, and some of it most certainly is for its original use of materials and clean design, it is the 18th century that works so well for me.

Contemporary art, as far as I can see, is driven by investment value. There are names who have made the grade and most that have not. I don't think it is because of the intrinsic value of their work in either case, it is more about who can make the best case for being a cause celebre. Money counts in this world of art and it will be interesting if future generations agree or believe that this world of the early twenty-first century was crazy. As far as I can see, perfect necessity seems the last thing on peoples minds these days.  

The political, social and economic scene towards the end of the 17th century in England made for an interesting society. The English, and more importantly many of the oligarchs, were Protestant. Both Charles II and James II were Catholic and as monarchs were charged to defend the Protestant faith. Ultimately, James II's Catholicism roused the oligarchs and William of Orange to usurp the British throne in the "Glorious" or "Bloodless" Revolution of 1688 after which William, along with his wife Mary Stuart became William III and Queen Mary II of England.

In short, religion was the deciding factor of many politicial decisions. It was thicker than both water and blood as Protestant Mary was deemed appropriate to rule with her Dutch husband while her Catholic father skedaddled to the protection of a Catholic France. That William of Orange was made king despite the fact that the English and Dutch had been to war twice in the previous thirty years is astounding. Clearly, the animosities between the countries was less viral nationalism and more based on religion, family squabbles and trade advantages.

While the political turn of events was being forced towards Protestantism in England, France outlawed Protestantism within its borders. The upshot was that many craftsmen and designers, among the most famous are Daniel Marot and Pelletier brothers, decamped from France and went to England. Furthermore, other Dutch craftsmen went to England for reasons unknown such as Gerrit Jensen and Grinling Gibbons, both famed for their craft, Jensen for superior inlay work and Gibons for his wood carving. Clearly, there were many more Dutchmen who took a similar path.

The stylistic differences between a lot of high end Dutch and English furniture between 1670 and 1720 are not easily separated one from the other. Some pieces are unidentifiable nationally despite a knowledge of style, craftsmanship or even the name of the craftsman. The permutations and combinations render such distinctions moot, at least as far as knowing where or when a piece might have been made. Anglo-Dutch as country of origin is as good as it gets for many pieces of this era.

8/13/2009

I was talking to a wood carver the other day who told me that he had found a book delineating the rules and regulations applied to workers in the furniture trade in the late 19th century. Carvers could, apparently, take breaks when they wanted and even had flexible hours, an unheard of liberty in such a strict trade. Carvers in the trade have always been different as far as I can see. The good ones, such as Grinling Gibbons, Thomas Johnston and Luke Lightfoot were given free reign to create and they did.

This brought to mind an 18th century gilded rococo looking glass frame that I sold about fifteen years ago. The frame might have been all of one and half inches in thickness, the antithesis of what we think of as great, deep rococo carving. The carver, as incapable as he was to be sculptural, had a wonderful sense of line and the frame worked wonderfully. Given that the surface was dry stripped and really very beautiful and that the plate glass was original, it was an interesting and, in the end, a beautiful mirror.

Quirky is a word that is used to describe, at least in aesthetics, something that breaks the rules and yet which may be successful nonetheless. I enjoy some quirky things although they are often an uphill struggle to sell. English cabinetmakers were not bound in the same fashion as their continental counterparts and so quirky definitely has a place in English antique furniture. It is all the better for it.  

8/6/2009

The death of the third oldest man on record, Harry Patch aged 111, is noteworthy for several reasons. The first is that he fought in the trenches in the First World War, also known as the Great War and was the last British survivor of that conflict. The second is for his opinion that wars should not be fought but that there should be negotiation and compromise instead. I think that if you were in those trenches, that is the only way you could feel as young men, boys really, were slaughtered for no apparent reason.

Wars in the eighteenth century were certainly lethal, but doctors probably killed off more survivors than they saved. There were also surrenders where men were sworn not to take up arms again and released. Although wounds were far more deadly in that day, a surprisingly large number of people survived war time conflict. Horatio Nelson, the famed British admiral, lost an eye and an arm before dying in the Battle of Trafalgar in the arms of his first mate.

When I lived in London in the 1970's I frequented a pub where an old man told me about how the British used to have victorious British soldiers dropped off in Westminster near the Houses of Parliament to cheering crowds. However, when the soldiers were not victorious, they were dropped off in Limehouse in East London where I met this man. He remembered the troops who returned from Khartoum after the failed relief of Gordon in the 1880's when he was a young boy. Life is never kind to the losers. Harry Patch understood that much.

8/4/2009

When I said that arranged marriages were largely a tribal affair, I was referring to the society of today. Of course, there are certain eurocentric societies that believe in arranged marriages as well, including the tribe of the European monarchies. Some of them are allowing greater latitude of choice by the heir apparent types, but that latitude seems based less on enlightenment and more on necessity. Their numbers are dwindling.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu led an interesting life. She variolated (an early form of inoculation used by Turkish doctors) her children against small pox and was severely criticized for so doing. She was the first western woman to enter a seraglio (to view and write about the harem) and she is also thought to have composed a number of Alexander Pope's heroic couplets. Further, on rejecting Pope's amorous advances, he became an arch enemy, pillorying and slandering her in his poetic works. She did, however, elope with her husband against her parents wishes. By the age of 40, however, she separated from him never to see him again.  

8/3/2009

A delightful formere assistant of mine was married this last weekend in Virginia. I attended and greatly enjoyed seeing her and her husband's glow. She told me that the week prior had been pretty stressful but it did not show and she looked relaxed and very happy and very beautiful.  The groom also looked very happy and relaxed and the entire event was an enormous success.

The marriages I have read about from the 18th century were all matches designed by a parent for some political purpose. The saddest was that of Caroline of Brunswick who married the Prince Regent, later George IV, who was whiny, egotistical and selfish. Georgianna, Duchess of Devonshire, had a tough time because it was ten years before she had her first child. She clearly did not love the Duke and she did everything she could to not spend time with him. All of them, however, had great furniture to sit on.

Arranged marriages, which are "de rigeur" in many tribal cultures, are not so much a bad thing if a person can see his or her self as a political thing. If they can't, then it is life without love in most circumstances. Of the three weddings I have been to in the last year, the radiance of the couples has been quite special, a look I would never associate with an arranged marriage. I may be wrong about this but I think a great marriage is more important than great furniture. The two together, of course, is the "beau ideal".

 

"The Brothers Karamazov" has the perfect murder. Furthermore, the murderer is a proxy for someone who could never have murdered but feels guilty all the same. And the person for whom the proxy acts is so wracked with guilt, he might as well have committed the crime. There is a phenomenal scene where that person talks to the devil who he realizes is a figment of his imagination, but who is so real that even the reader believes he is real.

Dostoevsky mentions furniture just once. He refers to a house as being furnished in an "old fashioned" style. I can't imagine what that would be, but I would love to know what was considered old fashioned in 1880 and what would have been considered a la mode.

Russian literature which I have read very little of--two novels by Tolstoy, two by Dostoevsky and one by Mikhail Bulgakov--is extremely compelling. They are so rich over the last two to three hundred pages that you don't want to stop reading and yet you hope they won't end. The understanding of human nature in all of these books has been profound. I think about what Thomas Cahill said in "Sailing the Wine Dark Sea" about how the ancient Greeks were into the essence of things and Romans were into the form. The Russians and the Greeks must be related.  

7/21/2009

No matter how good and right a revelation seems, it can be wrong. Perhaps that is why most people think of revelations as being spiritual in nature, because a spiritual revelation requires no proof. I, however, like to try and figure things out and when I think I have, I revel in revelation. If I get it wrong, then I start again.

In any case, I am wrong about the decoration on the front of my wine cooler (the strigliation or wavy flutes). It was used at least until 1805. After that date, I have no clear indication of whether it continued to be used. What is clear is that strigliation was introduced post 1760 and that is about all that we can be clear about.

My error was to rely on style as a dating device. Will someone who comes across a pair of Tom Wolfe's spats in one hundred years think they date from 1929 or 2009? Stylistically, they would be deemed to be out of fashion in 2009 and such a dating would be incorrect. And yet 2009 is the correct date.

It would be and always is better to judge by the factual evidence such as the leather, the aglets, the machine work or even the label. These are the clues that can render a relatively accurate date. Even so, I will never rescind the revelation of dental floss. It feels too good.

7/19/2009

It isn't often that I have a revelation about antique furniture, but it happened this week. I have a wine cooler on my site with a strigliated front (wavy flutes) and a carved stylized patera top with lion paw handles and feet in brass. On researching the piece, I found that the date put on these coolers ranges from mid-18th century to Regency. The confusion is based, I believe, on the lions which are Regency, but the strigliation is taken directly from Roman sarcophagi. By the late 18th century, Roman influenced design is not only on the wane, it has been completely phased out. In other words, the wine cooler has to date concurrent with the influence of Roman influenced designers such as Robert Adam, James "Athenian Stuart or William Chambers making the date for the coolers circa 1770.

Revelations come in all sizes and this one is not major. I am quite certain that other experts have made this realization before me, but I sense that the confusion is just another shibboleth that riddles the antique furniture world. I would like to think that there is actual evidence of these coolers being made in the 19th century, and it may exist, but I sincerely doubt that such evidence will be found. One should never say never, however.

I have been thinking about revelations because of reading "The Brothers Karamazov". Dostoevsky does revelations very well (Raskalnikov in "Crime and Punishment", Zosima and Alyosha in "The Brothers Karamazov") but his revelations are more Leonard Cohen and less St. Augustine, less dogma and more Delphic Oracle. I know that one of my own personal revelations, minor in the scheme of things but important to me, was dental floss. Seemingly prosaic, but not really.

7/13/2009

The Getty Museum in Los Angeles acquired a kouros, the statue of a Greek youth, in the 1980's that many have called a forgery. The provenance of the piece is certainly fake and some scientific tests seem to point to it being of relatively modern manufacture. Other tests seem to indicate that it is old. Aesthetes are divided on the subject. The statue is on exhibit with the tag that it is either circa 530 B.C. or a modern forgery.

What happens to a piece that has been tainted by scandal?  Sadly, even if there is nothing wrong with it or, as happens in English furniture when a piece is enhanced in restoration, the piece is tainted. Rumor and innuendo can damage a piece much more than factual evidence as the story is usually too good to be kept under wraps. The Getty kouros will forever be at the Getty and I suspect that there will never be a scientific test that will mollify the critics or prove the piece a forgery.

The question that begs to be asked is, why do we care if something is not original? There are lots of right reasons for caring, most of them to do with the body of work that is represented by an artist (or cabinetmaker) and any catalogue raisonne of that person's accomplishments. The wrong reasons have to do with investment. Strictly speaking, investment in art matters a great deal to the art world, but when investment becomes the raison d'etre of a buyer, there will be people wanting to take advantage of that buyer.

I have been asked many times how one should set about buying art or antiques. I think the first step is to find someone that you trust and that the second test is to listen to them very closely. No scientific tests, no aesthetic consensus and no verbose descriptions will ever satisfy the over riding question of a collector which should be, tell me why I should buy this item from you? There really isn't any other question that needs asking.

7/11/2009

As the art and antiques business gets more pricey, the rationalization of value gets more attenuated. Look in any auction catalogue to see how a more expensive piece is catalogued. There is a description, a provenance if any and then there is more and a lot more if the piece has a huge estimate. That more will include the lives of previous owners to the odd scientific tests.

Further description is important, there is no doubt. Someone may want to buy something owned by an historical figure and related examples are extremely important to know as they give a sense of an artist or craftsman's work in relation to the piece offered. Certain scientific reports can be helpful as you don't want a Michelangelo painted on contemporary canvas. A friend recently read a report to me, however, by a dendrochronologist, someone who dates old wood. When he said "...believed to be" twice to me, I said that was enough. Too many caveats for it to mean anything to me.

Not all knowledge is quantifiable. The knowledge of an artist's style is something learned by looking at a great deal of the artist's work. No matter how good at it you get, you can still be wrong. This is also true with furniture. Wood tests and analyses don't necessarily answer any questions, they just certify some facts that still have to be synthesized into a reasonable conclusion. That conclusion may, alas, be incorrect.

I would suggest to anyone wanting to buy the best of the best in any field that they find one person to trust and then, once you trust that person, learn to listen to that person. It is more important than additional descriptions, it is more important than all the scientific analyses you can imagine. It is, in fact, the crux to buying good artworks.  

7/10/2009

The interesting thing about people who are politically partisan is that, in this day and age, they tend not to acknowledge any other point of view than their own. My conservative friends think I am a liberal Democrat and my liberal Democrat friends think I am a conservative Republican. That is because I disagree with both of them often. I also disagree with waste and corruption and I strongly disagree with the synthesis of church and state.

I have liked a great many Republicans and Democrats over the years. Without naming names, the last two mayors of New York have been terrific, in my opinion. I haven't liked the presidents over the last sixteen years, but one tends to learn to live with that situation. I have hated the politics surrounding those two presidents.

Politics lacks the essential skill of negotiation at this point in time. We seem to have lost that skill. Perhaps it was the injection of family values into political debates or perhaps religious zealotry that has drowned out the essential strength of two sides reaching a compromise.

The former Treasury Secretary (briefly) under George W. Bush, Paul O'Neill, wrote a great article about waste in the health care system. That is what should be fixed first and foremost. We seem to want to protect and enlarge a system that is broken, not because it works, but because it already exists despite being riddled with corruption and waste. Why is that?

The people in politics remain open to ridicule. There are currently three Republicans that are imploding on a national level, but they don't own the title for bad behavior--it is shared with the Democrats. So, for my partisan friends, I suggest they take a more jaundiced view about politics and politicians and not be quite so dogmatic about everything save for one issue--getting this country to work properly.  

7/6/2009

It was William Sidney Smith who thwarted Napoleon at the siege of Acre in 1799. Smith seemed to understand Napoleon's next move before Napoleon was able to make it. Acre was the fulcrum that might have tipped the entire east to Napoleon, but instead he returned to Egypt. Destiny, for Napoleon, was delayed.

It was not such a bad thing that Napoleon returned to Egypt. His eastern dreams put on indefinite hold, he chose to return to France, taking with him many of Vivant Denon's drawings of the ruins of the Upper Nile. These drawings were the fodder for designers for years to come and echoed strongly among elite aesthetes such as Thomas Hope, Percier and Fontaine and William Beckford.

Napoleon's desire was to enlighten Egypt which is why he took 167 "savants" with him. These were artists, mathematicians, cartographers, naturalists, etc. who were to establish an academy of learning in Cairo. The ignominious surrender by the French of Egypt does not tarnish the incredible work done by these savants including the discovery of the Rosetta Stone on July 19, 1799. It was immediately known to be important as the key to understanding hieroglyphics. It could be said that the invasion was a failure but the cataloguing of Egypt was a huge success. It is just another aspect of the best and worst of Napoleon Bonaparte. 

7/5/2009

The world of politics has to be the strangest world of all. The New York State Senate will probably do their best to submarine the Governor after their enforced sessions in Albany this weekend to get some work done. As a resident of New York, I think the Governor is trying to get us our money's worth from these gentlemen.

"Napoleon in Egypt" is a book by Paul Strathern about Napoleon's foray into Egypt that was to turn him into a true "man of destiny". A man of destiny is both a doer and a strategic thinker, soemone who isn't daunted or deterred by events as the next choice is always the right choice. Nelson's legendary opponents, Nelson and Wellington and the Tsar, all benefited from this decisiveness. A strength can just as easily be a weakness depending on circumstance. Just ask Achilles.

There were plenty of men of destiny in the twentieth century--none were senators from New York, however. Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Churchill all qualify. FDR might also fit the bill but democracy doesn't seem to create such men as readily as totalitarian systems. That may be one of the better things about democracy after all.