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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Antiques And The Glass Shelf

( Originally Published 1913 )



Lately I saw in a Bond Street shop-window a sight to distress any collector's heart. A huge marble and ormolu Empire clock had stood on a plate-glass shelf; below it, in the bottom of the shop-window, half a dozen fine pieces of Chelsea china had been exhibited. All of a sudden the excessive weight of the clock had its natural physical effect, the glass shelf snapping asunder; down went the clock, and to smithereens went the beautiful old porcelain below.

Precautionary. I should have expected a Bond Street dealer to know better than risk his precious " Chelsea " under that heavy timepiece on that crystal shelf. The simplest shelf of wood is safer for its purpose than even the most massive strip of glass. For glass is subject to effects of heat and cold, and glass has no self-sustaining because connecting fibre. Moreover, you cannot support a shelf of glass in the way you can a, shelf of wood; often the little metal appliances which shopfitters and cabinet-makers supply for the purpose are quite inadequate to their task. There are calculations as to weight and breaking strain available for iron girders and other building material, but I do not know of any by which a collector can test the validity of his shelves of glass. The best safeguard is not to use glass shelves at all; I, at any rate, will get no more of them, and I have tested and verified those which I have, placing the heavier pieces of china upon shelves which are of wood.

The Attractiveness of a Glass Shelf. And yet I know that collectors are strongly tempted to use glass shelves. In most old cabinets for china the old shelves are too few; they leave a disproportionate space between the top of the china and the bottom of the shelf above it; and they are often fixed so that you cannot well rearrange them or introduce other wood shelves like them, without knocking the interior of the cabinet about. To introduce a glass shelf between each pair of them almost doubles the capacity of your cabinet, and as light can penetrate them a cabinet containing glass shelves is particularly suited for the display of old china.

Other Drawbacks of Glass Shelves. But there are other drawbacks, besides the risk of the shelf itself breaking. Because the glass shelf simply rests upon metal supports at its corners, it does not always lie true ; and there is the risk of its cocking up if you touch one part of it, and of some of the china upon it sliding off, and out, and down to the floor. I once owned a fine Wedgwood basalt statuette of the "Vicar of Wakefield"; exquisite was the modelling of the dear old gentleman as he stood peering at one of the gross of pairs of green spectacles which Moses Primrose, his greenhorn son, had brought home from the fair; the other 143 pairs, or what resembled them, rested, neatly ranked, in the open box at the vicar's feet. He stood on a glass shelf; a visitor put his fingers on one part and edge of the shelf; in a moment my "Vicar of Wakefield " lay in seven fragments below.

The China-Cabinet. But a china-cabinet is subject to other risks which it is worth while to mention. In a dealer's shop at Fulham I saw a tall cabinet full of porcelain and earthenware lean slowly forward from the wall, fall, impale itself upon the top corner of a chest of drawers, and let most of its contents slip out into smashed fragments.Precaution suggests that a tall, narrow, flat china-cabinet should be secured to the wall itself, and that need not mean cutting and plugging the wall, or nailing or screwing the cabinet to the plugs.A hook in the wall, and a strong wire attachment both to the hook and the back of the cabinet will give the needed security, if also the feet.of the cabinet be slightly wedged, so that they stand a little more than firm and level on the carpet.

Lining the Shelves. One of the worst features of a glass shelf in a china-cabinet is that you cannot safely stand your fine Swansea or Coalport plates on edge at the back of such a shelf. The edge of the porcelain will slip upon the glass, knock forward any china standing in front of the plate, and cause "smashage." There is risk of the same kind of injury even if the shelf be plain wood. Now, it is desirable that fine plates should stand upright at the back of the shelf and the cabinet; it economises space, they hide a plain or ugly cabinet-back, and they afford a background against which your china figures, vases, etc., may show up. The safest shelf is one made of wood, slotted or pegged into the frame of the cabinet, and covered with velvet or plush.

A good deal in the way of effect depends on the colour of the lining. Pale tints, grey or blue or white, are less effective than darker ones. Black is the best of all for effects, but black is rather funereal. A rich dark brown, almost a chocolate, but not a red, is more desirable. What are called "old gold" and "crushed strawberry" are not so suitable for the lining of china-cabinets ; they rather usurp the province of the porcelain, which is to be rich in colours and to shine out against some dark relief.

PhilosophicaL With the best care and precaution in the world, porcelain will come to ruin. "Hast thou a vessel of earthenware?" Epictetus counselled,nearly 2,000 years ago. "Consider that it is of earthenware, and therefore facile and obnoxious to be broken, and be not so void of reason as to anger thyself when breaking comes to pass." I have learned that wise lesson; when I picked up the "Vicar of Wakefield" in pieces I said never a word.



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