David Swanson Antiques
Early English Country Antiques and Antique Furniture

The Value of Being Old and Eccentric

David Knell
People are attracted to country furniture for different reasons. To those furnishing a period cottage or converted barn, it seems the obvious choice. It blends in with its surroundings yet it is sturdy enough to withstand casual and everyday use. To those interested in social history, vernacular furniture brings an immediate connection to the past and illustrates it meaningfully. But aside from its utilitarian and historical aspects old furniture has another dimension that can appeal to people who may have no intention of actually using it and who may have relatively little interest in its specific history; they covet it for its aesthetic appeal. Indeed, it is the aesthetic aspect that can elevate the price of a piece far beyond what it might command based on its usefulness or history alone. It is clear that after the heady days of the 1970s and '80s (and perhaps an oversaturation in the media) the interest in 'traditional' antiques has somewhat waned. It is certainly true that mundane examples now arouse limited enthusiasm. The public has wandered to fresh fields. Of course, the boundary of what constitutes an 'antique' has always moved forward with each new generation. A hundred years ago our ancestors were captivated by 17th and 18th century furniture. The frontier moved to include Regency pieces a little later but anything made after about 1830 was still frowned upon. Forty years ago Victoriana became all the rage. Now the border has moved still closer to our own time to include not only Art Deco but furniture of the 1950s to 1970s.  And while 20th century decor is the fad pieces from earlier eras have been in less demand. Most furniture made before the 20th century no longer inspires a society which yearns for a retro 1960s look or a stark minimalist interior. Sheraton sideboards and Chippendale chairs have no place in such schemes. The same may be said for the majority of typical 'country' pieces such as oak bureaux or stripped pine dressers. It almost seems that nearly all furniture of the pre-20th century period is doomed to the doldrums in modern interior decor. But country furniture has that ace up its sleeve: the aesthetic dimension. As in all forms of antiques, the mediocre item struggles for admirers. But have a look at the piece in figure 1. It would be uncomfortable to sit on and thus its

Figure 1.Windsor armchair, oak and ash,Welsh.

Figure 2. Dumb waiter, oak,Welsh, early 19th century.

Left. Figure 3.Winged armchair, elm and poplar, Lancashire/Cheshire, early 19th century.

Figure 3a. Detail of the back of the chair in figure 3.
utilitarian use is small. Nothing is known of its specific history. But it has 'presence', and it possesses those special attributes that make it an art form, akin to a sculpture in wood. As such, its environment is of little importance. It does not matter whether it is in a period cottage filled with other rustic pieces or in a minimalist warehouse or a gleaming penthouse. Indeed, the more starkly modern its surroundings, the greater the contrast, the more a truly individual art form like this chair will breathe a life of its own and focus our attention. Any art should stir our emotions and stimulate a response. In addition to obvious prerequisites like authenticity and degree of originality, there are three golden attributes which quicken the pulse of those seeking country furniture: form, surface and colour. To qualify as a work of art in its own right a piece must possess at least one of them to a degree that lifts it far above the ordinary. In the field of country furniture, those attributes are best when they emphasise the piece's rusticity.The most desirable pieces possess a form which may be primitive, individual, even eccentric. Indeed, eccentricity,provided it is achieved in an aesthetically pleasing way, can be one of the most desirable qualities.The form of the dumb waiter in figure 2, although fairly conventional in its own region at the time, possesses an offbeat character that is immensely appealing. The eccentric turning of the central column and in particular the substitution of a wedged stool-like base for the more sophisticated tripod found on its city counterpart impart the kind of charm that evokes the fantasy rural interiors depicted by Beatrix Potter. Little matter that such interiors were a far cry from the harsh reality of rural life for many in the past; it is an idealised vision of the country that stirs the emotions and the dumb waiter expresses that abundantly. The armchair in figure 3 conveys a similar atmosphere, a rustic interpretation of the type of armchair which is typically upholstered in fine fabrics or leather. Particularly appealing is its transparent honesty. It makes no pretensions to be something it is not.The drawer under the seat is starkly practical, the rockers are included for simple comfort, not to impress, and there is no attempt to disguise its rugged joined and boarded construction by overlaying it with decorative elements or veneer. Such honesty was the overwhelming factor that inspired the founders of the Arts and Crafts Movement of the 19th century. Men like William Morris and Ernest Gimson, tired of the conceits of massproduced items, sought to emulate the honesty of vernacular furniture in their own designs. The armchair here evinces that virtue in spades; it was not only well made but clearly made to last. It is a far cry from the throwaway mentality of today when things are replaced rather than mended. The simple repairs to the back are a pleasing feature; being undisguised they echo the theme of the chair itself. While many items of country furniture reflect the rugged simplicity of their rural origin the Windsor chair in figure 4 not only resonates with an arboreal ambience but seems almost to be part of the very woodland from

Left. Figure 4. Windsor armchair,ash and walnut, Welsh.

Right. Figure 5. Windsor armchair, yew and elm,
Thames Valley, mid-18th century.
which it was created.The Windsor chair is sometimes regarded as the epitome of vernacular furniture: honest, skilfully made using the properties of the wood itself to bind its construction, perfectly conceived for its purpose, and often beautiful. The rare example in figure 5 combines all those qualities and adds the feel of history. It is an especially early example from the middle of the 18th century and is similar to those made in the workshop of John Pitt at Slough, one of the earliest makers who has been recorded.A chair by Pitt, with the same unusual feature of all four legs being of cabriole form, and still bearing his label under the seat, is believed to have furnished the cabin of Captain Cook on a voyage to Australia. It may seem that in viewing a piece of country furniture as a work of art its authenticity as an item shaped by history is unimportant; in fact its authenticity is paramount. A reproduction may accurately achieve the eccentric form of a piece of country furniture and it may even emulate the worn surface and the rich colour to a degree but it is still only a poster print of a genuine Renoir. A reproduction is only artificial and it cannot stir the emotions. It lacks the sense that history has contributed to its present state, it wants the true character of a time-given surface and the depth of colour in the real thing. History is a vitally important component in the merit of a piece of country furniture but in the realm of judging an item as an art object it is not so much a specifically known history the majority of vernacular furniture will always remain anonymous as the sense of history.
A piece which quickens the pulse must not only be old, it should look old, preferably in a way which exudes warmth and charm.Writers of the 19th century such as Dickens described old furniture in almost anthropomorphic terms, as if it had literally lived through past times, and a similar vein persisted in the writings of some early furniture historians.There is a tendency to scoff at such sentiment in today's cynical society and of course it has no place in an academic approach but even if consciously subdued, a sense of romance still exists in nearly all of us. Few of us can visit an ancient castle or ruin without feeling some sense of awe. A building or an object that has survived from a past era is a survivor from another world. It impresses us because it makes that world tangible and if it looks old – if it bears visible signs of having passed through time – it impresses still more. There are many who question the modern tendency to clean cathedrals and other ancient monuments. Such cleaning may return the building close to its original appearance (and perhaps preserve the stone fabric from harmful chemicals that have accumulated) but it also robs it of its patina; it no longer looks old. The cupboard in figure 6 clearly conveys its age, the impression aided by the massive proportions of the timbers framing the door panels, the large and ornate iron hinges supporting them and the primitive pulls. The table in figure 7 nearly screams its venerability. The boards of the top (mellowed to an almost edible honey colour) have slightly warped, the front stretcher has worn where generations using the table to write on have rested their feet and the drawer no longer fits like a glove. Doubtless the drawer knobs will one day be replaced by reproduction fittings more in line with what it had originally but it actually seems a shame.The knobs are now part of the
history of the table,

charting its passage through different eras.They symbolise the adaptability

Figure 8. Press cupboard, oak,Westmorland, dated 1701.

Figure 9. Low dresser, pine with traces of blue paint finish, English, late 18th century.
that helped it survive and emphasise its age. In the press cupboard in figure 8 the age is emphasised by a pronounced sag in the rails of the lower section. Far from being viewed as a defect, the sag adds considerably to the charm of the piece, lending weight (in an almost literal sense) to the feeling that it has passed through time. Precisely how long a time is pleasingly indicated by the date carved on the frieze 1701. Carved or inscribed dates, providing they are authentic as here, add greatly to the financial value of a piece but of still greater importance from a commercial viewpoint (and vital to those seeking an art object) are the glowing patination that has built up on its surface and the slightly variegated, rich brown colour of the oak. Surface and colour are equally vital attributes of painted furniture in a different way. The fashion for stripped pine decor over the last few decades has wreaked irrevocable damage to old furniture and the trend still persists in some quarters. Painted furniture has enjoyed periods when it was highly fashionable in the past it was used to furnish the royal apartments at the Brighton Pavilion under the Prince Regent for instance and furniture intended for everyday use in ordinary locations like staff quarters, offices, shops and bedrooms was commonly enhanced by a paint finish.The wood employed for such furniture was typically a cheaper timber such as pine; thus it was a base, never intended to be seen, and paint skilfully applied provided the visible finish.The paint finish was as much a part of the total concept of the piece as the timber itself and its removal to reveal the 'original' pine underneath is as senseless as stripping the stucco off Regency buildings to reveal the 'original' bricks. The flaking traces of blue paint still decorating the pine low dresser in figure 9

Figure 10. Corner cupboard, pine with simulated mahogany
paint finish, East Anglia, early 19th century.

Figure 11. Cupboard, pine with polychrome paint finish,
Northern Europe, 19th century.

Figure 12. Stool, elm and ash, 19th century.

Figure 13. Tripod stand, fruitwood, English, 18th century.

Figure 14. High dresser, chestnut, Pyrenean, 19th century.
lend it a weathered look that gives it great presence. Furniture made from pine was often painted in such a way as to give the impression that it was made from a much finer timber such as mahogany. The fact that the painter got slightly carried away in creating a feathered effect to the panels of the lower door of the corner cupboard in figure 10 only adds to the charm of the piece. Those with the imagination to see a piece of country furniture as more than just something to furnish a country interior have realised one of its greatest attributes: its value as an individual object of art. The best examples boast an eccentric personality that stimulates our emotions and provokes a reaction. In that sense, the continuing history they embody is not only tangible but still very much alive. I am very grateful to David Swanson, one of the leading specialists in country furniture, for sharing his deep knowledge and allowing me to photograph items.All illustrations are courtesy of David Swanson Antiques, Petworth, except figure 9 from Sotheby's, and figure 10 from Suffolk House Antiques,Yoxford. David Knell is the author of English Country Furniture 1500-1900 (see page 2).

Left. Figure 13a. Detail of the stand in figure 13.The dished top folds down and the height can be adjusted by an ingenious ratchet mechanism, allowing the stand to be used as a polescreen.