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Antique Furniture And The Small Home
It is really impossible for anyone living in a small house to be a serious collector of antique furniture. Porcelain, clocks, pictures, glass, silver and even mirrors can be accommodated in quite large quantities in a six-room villa or even a threeroom flat. In fact, if only one good-sized room is available for a collection it is surprising how many objects it will take. But furniture is another matter. And the difficulties are not diminished by the generous proportions of most antique pieces dating from the days when life was lived on a more expansive scale than now.
For this reason this section will not be an extensive one. Anything which can call itself a `collection' ought to include thirty or forty specimens at least of the chosen kind; with the chairs, tables, cabinets and commodes of the past this is simply not practicable for most people today.
Still, whether you are able to collect it or not, furniture is of absorbing interest and a knowledge of it always worth having. Most sales make a prominent feature of it, and in view of the high prices of good modern furniture many young couples, who might not otherwise be interested in antiques, have found that they can furnish more cheaply on antiques than they could do at the modern store. And having done well with a few essentials, chairs, tables, dressers and so on, they may then turn their attention to the lovely luxuries of the past, its china, its clocks, its pictures and its bric-a-brac. In this way a most satisfying little home can be gradually built up, whereas, if expensive modern furniture is bought to begin with, it will not be a good basis for any antiques that may interest you later on.
If, therefore, you can start absolutely from scratch you may be able, even with a small home, to be something of a furniture collector after all. But you will naturally have to choose your pieces with a view to constant household usage rather than purely artistic effect; the bulkier articles, however they tempt you, will have to be avoided.
A definite programme is worth working out, but it is one thing to start with an ideal scheme and another to carry it through. For example, a mixed collection of pieces will be much easier to get than a complete set of perfectly matching furniture a la francaise, for which high prices are bound to be reached. Again, if you want a room furnished throughout in pleasant old oak you will manage to get it more cheaply by mixing periods and styles than by insisting strictly on a prearranged plan in which everything must belong to one century or manner.
This is a very practical course if you are prepared to buy `harlequin' sets of chairs, either for the dining-room or the lounge. Often these can be got with the individual pieces so nearly the same that the difference is not worth bothering about.
Generally, the `old English cottage' style is the cheapest to furnish in, especially if you are not too fussy over the exact age of your specimens and don't always demand early Georgian or Queen Anne pieces. Rooms can be furnished in, for instance, `cottage style' of the period 1800-1840 very reasonably indeed. Oak, on the whole, is cheaper than mahogany, but a room can be furnished with a mixture of the two for around $240. This would consist of, perhaps, a mahogany dining table, a pair of early Victorian armchairs, an oak cupboard, a small wine or coffee table, and a set of four dining chairs with possibly a Victorian or Regency sofa as well.
Bureaux, in oak, mahogany and walnut, both Georgian and Early Victorian, can be obtained for prices ranging from about $60 to $200, with, as always, really fine examples fetching much more. Escritoires and secretaires reach somewhat similar prices, again with the same qualification. Good Regency chairs can be sometimes found for about ten guineas each, occasionally cheaper still, while antique oak joint stools, if your fancy runs that way (mine doesn't) for about $30 to $40.
Oak dressers are somewhat expensive and their price range is very variable, something between $45 to $200 according to quality. Antique oak wardrobes, however, are fairly cheap, around $75, and antique oak beds, including four-posters, can usually be bought for $60 to $100 Good wing chairs tend to be rather dear. Fine specimens will cost perhaps $180 each, though cheaper ones from about $60 do crop up at times.
The above prices are all given merely as pointers but it must be emphasised that all antique prices are liable to fluctuation, and nothing which any book quotes should be taken as more than an approximation at the time of writing. What is quite certain, however, is that if you want really good eighteenth-century furniture you will always have to pay a high price for it, wherever and whenever it appears.
Is the high price of French furniture merely a case of passing fashion dictating the demand? With Louis XV furniture, definitely no. More and more it is being realised that the age of Louis XV saw the absolute high water mark of fine furniture making and specimens are likely to go on soaring in price indefinitely.
The conditions of production of Louis XV furniture were such as the world of art is never likely to see again, and even if you have no special taste for sumptuousness its superb craftsmanship must command your admiration. It is by now quite out of the reach of all but the very wealthy collector, but it is worth pausing here to examine its features a little since there is much of it available for study in English houses and museums.
It is, in fact, the perfect instance of the sort of antique that is difficult to collect but easy to enjoy, and the following brief historical account of it may perhaps help in understanding its beauty.
The rather heavy splendours of the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV, had begun, even in his own lifetime, to be outmoded. There was a movement towards a lighter and more graceful style of living, and this can be seen in every form of French activity and fashion, from painting and court costume to furniture and church architecture. Baroque was beginning to merge into Rococo, with its charming inspiration in shell and rock-style designs, and this lovely movement was to reach a climax in the reign of Louis XIV's successor.
The ebenistes (cabinet makers) of the early eighteenth century had inherited a wonderful tradition of furniture making from their predecessors, among whom was the almost legendary Andre Charles Boulle, who died at the age of ninety in the reign of Louis XV. Boulle had been appointed ebeniste du Roi in 1672 and it was he who really laid the foundations of the magnificent furniture-making that was to follow. Boulle's style, however, had begun, even before he died, to be thought somewhat heavy, and his characteristic features, a lavish use of brass and tortoiseshell marquetry, went out of fashion. But the elaborate ormolu mounts which he had employed so skilfully were retained and his influence on the general trend of furniture design was still very strong.
None the less, the ebenistes of Louis XV's reign were moving towards something more charmingly simple than anything Boulle had achieved. His had been a rather pompous splendour; theirs was to be a splendour of elegance, suggesting all the loveliness of a King's favourite courtesan. Inevitably one thinks of Madame Pompadour in connection with their work, and there seems little doubt that she was possessed of great artistic taste and did much to develop the arts of France during her brief lifetime. She certainly did much for the art of porcelain at the Manufacture Royale de Sevres.
Mention of Sevres porcelain brings us to a most important point in considering all French furniture of the eighteenth century. To be seen at its best all the accessories of the time should be present. It was conceived, like the porcelain, as part of a perfect harmony of civilised elegance to which everything was to contribute. Thus its architecture, draperies, carpets, ceilings, wall lights, clocks, paintings, and even the costumes of the exquisites themselves were all part of the enchanting scene. This superbly beautiful synthesis can never be fully enjoyed by us because our own clothes are so hideous and out of keeping with its fairy-tale spirit.
But some flavour of the enchantments of eighteenthcentury France (the Sleeping Beauty, as it has been calledsleeping before the rude awakening of 1789) can still be felt in any finely furnished French salon where the fauteuils are in harmony with a Savonnerie carpet and curtains of eighteenth-century brocade match the porcelaine de Sevres.
There had been beautiful furniture before the time of Louis XV, but never anything conceived so perfectly to blend with its surroundings. One of the secrets of its fascination is in the actual lines of its cabinets and escritoires and fauteuils. They have lovely flowing curves -'serpentine' is the usual description, but `bombe' is also used, more or less in the same sense except that it implies a swelling rather than an undulating curve. The supreme elegance of the curves to the legs of some of the little side tables of the period has to be seen to be really appreciated. Neither description nor illustration can possibly convey it.
Outstanding among the ebenistes of the time was Jean Henri Riesener (1734-1806), perhaps the greatest figure in French eighteenth-century furniture. It was he who completed the monumental `Bureau du Roi Louis XV' which had been begun by his great master, Jean Francois Oeben. This is probably the finest single piece of furniture ever produced in Europe. The perfection and richness of the composition have surely never been surpassed, and it must remain as a permanent inspiration to all furniture designers of the future. If they cannot approach its miraculous loveliness they can at least always be stimulated by the supreme standards of work which it set up. Similarly, all antique collectors who see it must feel a fresh burst of interest in their delightful hobby even though such things are, as possessions, beyond their ken. The great triumphs of French furniture of this time sprang from a system of civilisation which no one can now very well defend. The cost of equipping those gorgeous salons, where the Dukes and Marquises lived like pantomime princes, was disastrous; the country was rushing headlong to bankruptcy and the crash when it came was terrifying indeed.
Some magnificent clocks were produced during the reign of Louis XV, including `cartel' or wall clocks, usually of gilded brass or bronze. Ormolu wall lights and candelabra are another of its splendid features; the quality of some of these has never been surpassed, though superb work was also done in the following reign.
Mention must also be made of the great achievements of he Manufacture Royale des Gobelins, the state-subsidised tapestry factory. The original scheme of this factory, founded in 1667, was to make it a centre for all the decorative arts, not merely tapestry, and it was entrusted with the furnishing of the whole of the vast new palace of Versailles. It was really from this great conception that the French ideas of a synthesis of perfections in furniture arose. Tapestry itself was beginning to give way, in the eighteenth century, to other ideas of mural decoration, but some superb masterpieces continued to be produced by the Gobelins factory, including the wonderful `Chasses de Louis XV.' The need for ready money was starting to be felt acutely in the latter part of the century, and orders were at last accepted for outside work. Prior to this time the sumptuous sets of tapestry had been a monopoly of the royal court. Some examples of these magnificently executed `outside works' can be seen in England at Osterley Park. Very fine work was also done at Beauvais where the designs of Boucher resulted in some exquisite pieces.
Anyone with a deep interest in French furnishing must inevitably pay a visit to Versailles itself, the great central Sun Palace of eighteenth-century splendour. But during the Revolution the contents were sold off, and what we see today, gorgeous as it is, is the mere shell for the wonderful furniture it once contained. The Wallace Collection gives, in effect, a better because more detailed conception of the furnishing background of eighteenth-century aristocratic life. Particularly lovely are its black and gold `armoires' and the smaller pieces, cabinets, desks and tables inlaid with delicate plaques of Sevres porcelain. Another excellent collection of French furnishings is at the Victoria and Albert Museum where some typical French salon decoration can also be studied.
French furniture is a temperamental rather than an acquired taste. You like it instinctively if you have a naturally luxurious mind, and it is curious that, at present, when we are so far removed from decorative elaboration in the arts, it should be fetching higher prices than ever before. The figures of $28,00o and upwards which regularly appear in the sale lists when a fine Louis XV `bombe' commode is offered show how valued such objects are in commercial terms, but they show something more. They show that along with the movement away from decorative splendour in. the arts which we call `modernism' there is a strong reaction developing. Fine decorative pieces are obviously making a greater appeal than ever to certain sections of the cultured public; perhaps - who knows? - we may be on the eve of a great swing backwards to `magnificence' as a guiding principle in the arts again.
Whatever the reasons, good French furniture seems to be settled firmly as one of the most expensive and sought after branches in the entire antique market.
So the name of Louis XV has, at all events for posterity, been triumphantly vindicated. His luxurious court and its artists, an impossible enough political organisation even then, and unthinkable now, left the world a glorious legacy, just as Ludwig II of Bavaria, with his fantastic castles and his expensive patronage of Wagner, endowed the world with some wonderful benefactions.
Our civilisation has moved to the opposite pole to that of Louis XV's France. Where its goal was charming elaboration for the few, ours is stark simplicity for the many. Where it aimed at an aristocracy of elegance we aim at supermarkets and washing machines and cars for the million. Which is the better aim is a matter of opinion. However we look at it, we ourselves can never re-enter that world of vanished splendour which the words Louis Quinze conjure up, but we can enjoy its material relics and fortunately these are quite extensive.