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Home | Articles | Is it Genuine? A logical look at Antiques

dentifying and authenticating antique English furniture is as much a matter of logical thinking as it is of knowledge and experience.

It is, in fact, a most enjoyable way of learning social history, for it was the way we behaved that shaped the things we lived with.

So, the first step is to stand back from an item and consider if its use was required at the time it is supposed to have been made. For example, there was no such thing as a table made specifically for the preparation and service of tea until tea drinking became fashionable and popular at the beginning of the 18th century.

The next step is to establish in your mind whether or not the materials the item is made of were, in fact, available. Think here of the gullible buyer who bought Shakespeare’s typewriter. A more realistic example would be a 16th century satinwood framed cheval (long dressing mirror) glass; the size of mirror plates was restricted until the early 18th century and satinwood was not in common use until the 1770’s.

As more and more materials became available and the demands made on manufacturers became more varied, so the different types of household furniture and effects grew enormously. Throughout our history, this was not a steady development but one which went in fits and starts. The late 17th century was one such period. Encouraged by the vigorous King Charles II whose influential reign was 1660–1685, such things as card gaming tables, cane- seated chairs, lacquer screens and trunks, escritoires, bureaux and fine cabinets were introduced.

The next great innovative period came in the middle twenty years of the 18th century, and it is probably this one that amuses me the most. The biggest change came in the dining room. The new, rapidly growing upwardly mobile classes—the ‘nouveau-riche’—built for themselves fine houses and emulated their peers by way of lavish and prolonged entertainment, particularly at mealtimes. The manner of serving food required at least one servant per guest who saw to every possible requirement of that person. Fill the plate, replenish the glass, rinse the glass and fill it again, carve the meat, bone the fish, clear the dishes from one course and start all over again. Mop the fevered brow, attend to the make-up (of both men and women) and, this is the rub, listen to the conversation as it got looser, indiscreet and often scurrilous.

The ensuing threats and indeed practice of blackmail of masters by staff became such an acute problem that something had to be done. There were two choices. Either the diners stopped drinking so much and behaved themselves or they dispensed with the servants once the food was delivered to the dining room.

Well, it was no race. The servants withdrew and the hosts looked after the guests. Total chaos, until a whole new range of furniture and objects came into being. It was from this period—the mid-18th century—that we see sideboards flanked by cupboards which contained zinc linings to keep food hot and lead linings to keep wine cold. There’s nothing new in a Hostess trolley! Decanter labels kept you up to date with what you were drinking and decanter stands stopped you from scratching and staining the table.

Individual gravy and sauce boats appeared—called Argyles supposedly after the Duke of that name who is credited with their invention—and cheese and wine trolleys that could be passed up and down the table traveling on leather-tyred wheels. Extra drawers for napery and cutlery were added to sideboards and towards the end of the period, so too was a compartment to hold a chamber pot for the comfort of those guests who had to answer the call of nature, behind the large oriental lacquer or Spanish leather screen, of course! Among the most significant and still popular pieces introduced at this time was the two, or three tiered stand on a tripod base with casters to facilitate mobility around the room. The tiers or trays were usually circular and graduated in size, the smallest at the top, and held extra plates, cutlery, napery, fruit or desserts. In fact, anything that a servant would have served you with, and it was called, because of its total discretion, a dumbwaiter. Yes, indeed, that’s where the name comes from and you won’t find them in English furniture until the middle of the 18th century. Being classy items, they were made in the most fashionable timber of the time —mahogany—and if you are looking to buy one, try to avoid any split trays. As the century progressed, the shape of the legs changed from the curvilinear—as in the one shown—to a swept, elegant curve usually reeded. Some Regency examples have two trays of the same size separated by three or four gilt metal columns, and with pierced galleries to the edges.

Toward the end of the century another spate of new models entered the world of household furniture. Messrs. Gillow patented an extending dining table with a concertina action, and the Canterbury appeared. This was a small, box-like music or magazine stand with openwork sides and divisions standing on four short legs and casters. Also the Davenport (the small desk, not the large sofa of the same name which came much later), looked like a rather posh school desk a Captain Davenport reputedly first commissioned in the 1790’s. And then there was the sofa table, a long rectangular top with a flap or leaf at each end, standing on two standard supports enabling the table to be pulled over a day bed or sofa.

This came with the fashion for young women to dress and behave in a manner reminiscent of those classical models shown on the recently excavated vases from the Greek and Roman temples. However, the design of the table was flawed, for without any braces or cross stretchers, it was unstable, so by the mid-1790’s a stretcher or base was constructed to fit from the lower end of one standard end to the other. This remedied the instability but made it impossible to pull the table over a sofa. Nevertheless, the idea and shape of a sofa table were so appealing that it remained popular and in production well into the 1860’s. By 1810, a central column standing on a rectangular platform, from each corner of which sprang a curved leg with a brass caster often replaced the standard ends.

Thus, just plotting a bit of social history will enable you to identify the style and use of an old piece of furniture and thus, its probable dates. Authentication, though, is another matter for another article, but if you read this so far, you will be on the right road.

The Bly family have been dealers in Tring, Hertfordshire, since the beginning of the 19th century. The grandfather of the present John Bly first established his own business in the center of Tring in 1891. John Bly continues to provide the same services that his grandfather established: fine antiques bought and sold, full valuations, and cabinet making and restoration of the highest order. John Bly was made Chairman of the British Antique Dealers Association (BADA) in July 1999 and his younger son James is the fifth generation of the family to work in the business and manages the London gallery. They can be contacted at 011-44-207-930-1292.

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