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The Quest For The Old And Beautiful (Part 2 Of 2)
The shop of the dealer in antiques, such as are to be found along Fourth Avenue, New York, is always a fascinating place to me. There is such a dusty disorder about it, such a herding together of ancients and honorables, with the dealer himself so utterly out of sympathy with his surroundings, and yet so strangely a part of the scene. Ten to one he is a man whose birth and breeding make it impossible for him to appreciate a single thing he owns, except as it represents cash, and who must look upon many of his effervescing customers with wondering contempt. Once in ten times you will find him a mellow old antiquarian who is worth knowing for his own sake, and who sits at peace among his andirons and girandoles like Abraham amid the flocks and herds with which the Lord had blessed him.
I fancy, however, that nine tenths of my readers are not collectors in the true sense, and never will be. They may be only mildly interested in the subject and may ask the leading question, "What are antiques good for, anyway?"
Take old furniture, for example. I suppose if I were a collector, with this as my great hobby, I might say that antiques existed for their own sake, to be treasured and admired. But I do not believe that. I believe that antique furniture can be made to serve a distinct purpose in the modern home, particularly the spacious country home. Let it be strong, useful, and beautiful, as much of it certainly is. No other sort of furniture can be more. But the antique means something. It interests and it charms.
But granted that we have the real antiques, and that we know how truly to appreciate them, how shall we best make use of them? Well, there seem to be two ways. One is to use a piece here and there in modern rooms where there is no attempt at consistent period decoration. They cannot help adding charm to such a room. The other way is to be thoroughly consistent and furnish the house throughout with antiques of a single style. I am not giving a moment's consideration to the house that is turned into a mere museum. The only antiques I would give house-room are those which I can use every day.
Then why use antiques? If the fake and the genuine piece look alike, and what you want is usefulness and beauty, why aren't the fakes, which are cheaper, just as good? It is all a matter of taste. To one man nothing but the real thing will ever do, and you can never argue him out of it. Another man will tell you he would rather have good, clever, new things from Grand Rapids than all the old castoff things you could give him. And they cost less.
Personally, I find myself somewhere between the two. The old styles I admire, whether in the original or in reproduction. And I love the old things that have belonged to my own ancestors. But when it comes to other people's heirlooms, purchased in a shop, my enthusiasm begins to wane, especially when the cost is high. And yet I cannot leave the decision there, for there is a beauty in old oak and mahogany and walnut that time alone can give, and a rare quality in the workmanship that our century has not equaled. Reproductions never have the charm of originality about them. "Copy" is stamped on their face by modern appliances for carving and shaping.
I still feel that a word needs to be said in favor of good reproductions. By this I mean, of course, frank reproductions, made, sold, and used with no intent to deceive. Reproductions are so much less expensive than antiques that they open up delightful possibilities to people who could never afford to own many antiques. Of course all this sounds like heresy in the ears of the enthusiast. It is all a matter of taste.
However, we were speaking of genuine antiques, and it is in the possession of them, after all, that the real joy lies.
The matter of style remains for consideration. Antique is a broad and somewhat vague term. The average antique shop is a hodge-podge of unrelated styles. You don't want your home to be like that. Choose some one style and follow that consistently, seeking for fine examples in season and out.
Now, the best styles for the modern American home, it seems to me, are those of the Renaissance period and later. I include here Italian, Flemish, and French Renaissance in one group, as the earlier period. Later are the styles of Louis XIV, Louis XV, Louis XVI, and the Empire; Dutch Colonial; Old English, including Tudor, Elizabethan, Jacobean, Queen Anne, and Georgian; and American Colonial. The later group is by far the most desirable for the average American country house. The contemporary styles are all more or less related and may be used together harmoniously, as, indeed, they were in the American colonies from one to two centuries ago. Moreover, the best of our country houses are being built in these or kindred styles of architecture.
I would advocate the preservation or purchase of furniture of the Colonial period (using the term in its broader sense), particularly the English and American pieces. While Flemish and Italian antiques appeal wonderfully to the collector, it is in the furniture of his Colonial ancestors that the chief charm exists for the average American. And with his furniture let him possess some of the other household goods that went with it-candlesticks, dishes, old pewter, and old brass.
Now if this suggestion of old furnishings in modern homes appeals strongly enough to a man or a woman to create a desire for possession, the question of ways and means naturally arises.
For the wealthy, of course, this question is of little consequence, but a perusal of the following pages will show that antiques of real quality and beauty are not cheap. Knowing the importance of this side of the subject to most people, I shall try to give an idea of values, and to give, as nearly as I can, the prices at which such things can be bought at the present writing. But let not these prices discourage you. Visit old houses in the country, poke about among the shops, and buy one thing at a time.
I can conceive of no more fascinating pastime for a young couple furnishing a home for the first time. Perhaps one of your mothers has a mahogany worktable or a piece of old china that will do for a start.
Then add little by little, and in each piece acquired there will be a twofold value in association as the years go by. I fancy that the very lack of unlimited means will make the selection more careful and the possession more keenly appreciated.
Make your antique furniture a means, not an end. There is a charm and beauty in it, when it is chosen with good taste and good judgment, which the devotee can never adequately express, nor the Philistine ever understand. It is desirable only when it is real, when it is beautiful, when it is good for something, when it means something. In short, when it is good, it is very, very good, and when it is bad, it is horrid.
About such a home, in which antique furnishings have a part, there hangs an aroma of the past, telling of long winter evenings in the old New England kitchen, of the stately hospitality of some old Virginia mansion, or the stirring days of '76 in little old New York. Above the mahogany stand hovers the form of a gracious dame in brocade and lace, pouring tea into delicate Lowestoft cups. In yonder roundabout sits the austere elder with his ivoryheaded cane between his knees. A demure, gray-clad maiden in kerchief and cap is lighting the candles in the gilt girandoles, while a sturdy swain sits on the edge of your Heppelwhite chair and watches her intently.
I know that every writer on old china has quoted Charles Lamb on the subject, but somehow the gentle Elia knew how to say things with such a tender grace that we cannot hear him too often. I urge you to read again the essay on "Old China." Perhaps the time will come when you, too, will look back with fond recollection to the day when you scraped together enough money to buy your first piece of Old Blue, and when the handling of it will produce a sensation not unlike the hearing of an old lovesong.
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