Feeling Our Way
( Originally Published 1907 )
VERY early in the quest of the old, one comes to realize that there is often an important difference between finding a prize and securing it. Many of those who possess old furniture have a high and just appreciation of it, and in such cases the right-minded collector does not wish to get it. But there are other owners, who neither prize a thing themselves nor permit it to pass into other hands.
In the garret of one of the oldest houses of the Western Reserve we discovered an old grandfather's clock. It had been made in Connecticut; it had been carried to the shores of Lake Erie in those early days when the wilderness was still unbroken, when the pioneers took with them indispensable furniture, household supplies, clothing, shoes for every member of the family for years to come and for children still unborn. And here the clock was, after years of usefulness, lying flat on its face on the floor. It had lain there, said the owner, indifferently, for thirty years, waiting to be repaired. He would neither repair it nor set it up, nor would he let any clock-lover obtain it.
And so, although there is somewhat of whimsicality in feeling annoyance because a man does as he pleases with his own, we none the less felt annoyed.
It was not long after this experience that we obtained, from an old house on Long Island, the tall grandfather's clock which we still possess. And our difficulties with it have been full of amusing instruction for us.
The clock is of good shape and design, it is of good height, full seven feet and five inches, and the top is of that charming "broken-arch" or "bonnet-top" design which first made its appearance in the furniture of Queen Anne's time, and was not much used before 1730.
But this clock does not date back so far as that. The dial-plate is of white enamel, and this alone, to begin with, would show that it was not made before the latter part of the Revolution. Before that the dials were of metal; of silver-plate or of brass.
There are other indications which fix the date at not long after 1790.
There is neither date nor the name of the maker, but it is often surprising, in fixing the age of furniture, how much can be determined from the style and the ornamentation.
The design, on the upper part of the dial-face of this clock, of an eagle, two American flags and two shields, shows that it was not made before the eagle became the national emblem.
And this design is amusingly worthy of examination as an example of bucolic heraldry. The shields are held out on the ends of two sticks, giving the precise effect of spades. The flags are a trifle nondescript in character. The colors of flags and spades are soft red and white and blue, softened still more by age. But the eagle is brown-a golden eagle-and with outstretched wings is perched, not on some classic pedestal, but on the ridge of a barn! The barn is tiny. It is scarcely half the size of the eagle itself. But it is none the less, unmistakably, a plain barn, such as the maker of the design must often have seen large birds perched upon. The entire effect, although it can scarcely be called artistic, is very pleasing, and proves at least an independence of thought on the part of the simple-hearted maker.
The tall cased-in clock stands with a dignity and simplicity of line that are very charming. And it cost but twelve dollars, which is very little for an old, brass-ornamented grandfather's clock.
But it has wooden works! And among the mistakes which collectors just beginning are liable to make, the getting of a clock with wooden works is one.
Not but that wooden works have some degree of special merit. They seem, indeed, to give an air of greater simplicity and age. But, although this effect is right enough as to simplicity, that of age is quite factitious. As a matter of fact, all of the oldest tall clocks have works of brass. The putting in of works of wood came through an enforced simplicity of life resulting from the Revolution. Economy of price was suited to the hard and barren years of the end of the century.
Clocks of this kind are to be prized, as they represent an unquestioned Americanism. Most of them were made in Connecticut, a place noted for the manufacture of other small, round, wooden things besides cog-wheels of clocks, and the one we have was doubtless carried thence across the Sound. But their disadvantage lies in liability to get out of order, and in the difficulty of getting them repaired.
One is tempted to wish for the reincarnation of that ancient clockmakers' guild, of nearly three hundred years ago, whose members were authorized to seek out and confiscate clocks, as the old charter naively had it, "with bad and deceitful works." Ask a mod-ern clockmaker to repair wooden works, and he will shake his head, with a smile. "No one can do that nowadays!"
Our tall clock stopped running, after a house moving, and nothing would coax it to go. It was obdurate. No one could be found who could overcome its exasperating inertia.
Once in a while we tried to fix it ourselves, and a kitchen table covered with wooden wheels that looked like pie-crust markers became a familiar sight. We vainly tried to decide upon the part that failed. We vainly made easy the way of the possible transgressor with tallow or the prized panacea of graphite. Vainly we tickled the escapement with quill of oil. Long it stood, silent and lifeless, as if worn out with keeping time. But at length we heard of a queer mechanical genius who lived solitary, on a solitary farm, some miles away.
No sooner heard of than we drove there with pendulum, weights and works. We found him living in the midst of a medley of mechanical contrivances.
His water was pumped, his cattle were fed, his wagons were hitched, his clothes were hung upon the line, his doors were opened, his shingles were made, his wood was sawed, by one or another of his queer devices. A vastly interesting character, he; and if the getting of wooden works in a clock could but as-sure the resultant finding of such a human treasure, then the getting of wooden works would be the thing advisable.
To him the fixing of the wooden works was easy. He delighted in doing what no one else could do. And the old clock ticks in our hall, in solemn dignity, as becomes the representative of exigent, inexorable, but gravely decorous Time.
No one can gather a collection without, in the beginning, making mistakes. Now and then, as others do, we picked up the wrong thing, and, finding it out in the course of time, discarded it. It would be difficult to name any line of acquisition in which greater care is requisite. Not only is eternal vigilance the price of having genuine specimens but it must be a vigilance well informed. And even though the pieces in a collection be genuine, there must also be, to enjoy them to the full, some knowledge of styles and names and makes.
There are no names in more common use, in describing styles of furniture, than those of Chippendale, Heppelwhite and Sheraton. To these might be added numerous others, the most important being Empire, Adam and Jacobean.
Chippendale was a cabinet-maker of the middle of the eighteenth century. He published a book of designs of furniture, and his name has come to stand for the work of an entire school. There are few articles of furniture on this side of the Atlantic that were made in his own shop, but other workers copied him closely, as he intended them to do. More than four-score cabinet-makers of London are known to have subscribed for his book, and workers in America also eagerly followed his style.
He was a man of forcefulness and originality. He eschewed inlay and veneer and depended for his effects on proportion, strength and craftsmanship. The typical Chippendale chair, in particular, is al-ways recognizable. It has a certain bow-shaped top, and down the middle of the back runs a graceful perforated splat.
There is a wide variety of shape with Chippendale furniture. That he expected. With the design for a certain kind of a chair he would not only give dimensions, and rules for putting together, but he would show differences of possible detail, so that the cabi net-maker using his designs could present them all for the choice of the customer for whom the work was to be done. Different splats were shown, and often a single cut would present one leg straight and one leg cabriole, one-half of a chair with infoliated carving, or shell ornament, or fretwork design, and the other half without; so that one single cut might stand for a dozen different chairs, making thus variety in unity.
To some extent Chippendale adapted from existent shapes. And, oddly enough, not all the shapes known as his are to be found in his published book.
He made no sideboards, as the term is nowadays understood. His sideboards were but side-tables. The sideboard with drawers came in later and may be either Sheraton or Heppelwhite or Empire; although it has come to be common, especially with dealers, to use the term "Chippendale sideboard" on account of the appeal of the name.
After some years of vogue, the Chippendale style was displaced by others, but it has recently come into its own again.
Heppelwhite was a London cabinet-maker who came into prominence about the time of our Revolution. His chairs were less strong than those of Chippendale, because of the construction of the backs, which were always of the shape of heart or shield or oval, and most of them delicately beautiful. Fewer of these chairs are in existence, as they did not wear well.
Sheraton, who rose to prominence a few years later in the century than Heppelwhite, never made chairs with backs like those of either of his predecessors. The distinguishing feature with his chairs is that the back, except for the uprights on either side, never comes to the main body of the chair; there is never a splat reaching to the seat; and always there is a connecting piece, or cross-rail, running horizontally from upright to upright, just above the level of the seat. His backs, in general effect, are square or rectangular.
Many of the Chippendale chairs have straight legs and many have cabriole legs. Neither the Sheraton nor the Heppelwhite is ever cabriole.
Sheraton and Heppelwhite, although they differed so radically as to their chair backs, were greatly alike in their methods, in spite of the fact that they rather scorned each other. Their tables, sofas and sideboards are often greatly similar, with an airy lightness of effect, and with straight legs tapering delicately downward. They never used the claw-and-ball, or that kind, known as web-foot, which may be described as a suggested claw. Chippendale used not only the plain foot, usually very solid and substantial, but often the web and the claw-and-ball.
The typical Sheraton leg is round and delicately reeded, or fluted as it is sometimes called; the typical Heppelwhite leg is four-sided and never fluted; and in this lies the most apparent point of differentiation.
Both these men used various fine woods in beautiful inlay-work and delicate marquetry.
The Heppelwhite furniture averages a somewhat higher beauty than the Sheraton, and is particularly noteworthy in chests of drawers and sideboards, with curving fronts, swelling or serpentine, and in perfect little card-tables,. delicately inlaid, made to stand, when not in use, half circularly against the wall.
The name of Adam is less known, and this is largely because the Adams (there were two of them) made no furniture themselves, and did little besides making designs for special rooms. They flourished at the close of the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century, and, having closely studied classical and Continental styles, much of their work was distinguished and beautiful.
Something should be known of the stately seventeenth-century furniture, with its beauty of carving and painting, its cane-work and wainscoting. It is important to remember that in that century there was no mahogany in furniture, as that wood did not come into use until about the year 1700, and not commonly until about 1725. The famous furniture collections show notable seventeenth-century examples; there are some fine ones in Independence Hall, there are some still in possession of private families, and the collector may hope at any time to secure one of the prizes. Furniture of the early half of that century is known as Jacobean.
Empire is a famous classification in old furniture. It denominates the style that arose in France from the revolt that accompanied the revolution against the old order of things in art as in government. It attained its greatest vogue in the period of the First Empire, and was deeply influenced by study of the ancient classic forms, and still more by Napoleon's campaign in Egypt, which had appealed powerfully to the French imagination. Now it was that the winged claw came in; now came the sphinx, the lion and the griffin; now came a revival of the classical acanthus; and now came a wealth of pineapple tops and legs carved in twisted rope. There were splendor and beauty in the Empire style, but soon its very opulence, its very enthusiasm, caused it to degenerate into the monumental, the extravagant and even the grotesque. Its best years in France were from 1803 to 1807-showing the weakness of nomenclature, for Napoleon was not Emperor until after 1803, and the most splendid time of his Empire was after 1807.
The style came to America in the opening of the century, and was adopted and followed with enthusiasm, but at the same time with a saving restraint, although here, too, the style gradually degenerated.
From the first, there was one important difference between the Empire furniture of France and the Empire of America. In France, ormolu was freely used, and over-decoration the sooner resulted. In the United States ormolu was little used. With us the same ornaments were used as by the French, but where the French made them of ormolu the Americans carved them out of the wood. The influence of ormolu, however, is seen in the brass-tipped feet of a considerable number of Empire pieces of American make.
The taste for sideboards with drawers having rapidly extended in the quarter of a century following their introduction, there were many made in Empire style, and many are still obtainable. There were, too, some splendid Empire sofas. On this side of the Atlantic it is hard to find good Empire chairs.
These are the principal great styles in regard to which the beginner should, from the first, have a clear idea.
But he must also understand that not only is there wide variety within each style, but that there are many pieces of old furniture which so combine varied styles, or are so different from any precise style, as to make specific classification impossible. Often one can only say, "an old chest of drawers," "a five-slatted chair," "a slant-top secretary," "an eighteenth-century sofa," "a snake-foot tea-table." At least one hundred and forty cabinet-makers are known to have subscribed for the book of designs which, following the example of Chippendale, Sheraton issued, and among these there were many who, instead of copying precisely, made variations to suit their individual fancies.
There are, too, certain names of a different kind of derivation and of narrower application.
Such, for example, is the Pembroke, the name applied to long and narrow tables, square-sided, with ends either square or oval, and with drop-leaves at the sides so long as to reach almost to the floor.
These came from the name of the eighteenth-century Lady Pembroke who first ordered one made.
The name of Windsor, applied to the style of chair which held wonderful popularity for a century, arose, so says the charming old tale (for every tale is charming that puts royalty in a cottage), from the fact that George the First saw a chair of this design in a humble cottage near Windsor, and was so impressed by it that he had a number made for his own use, thus giving the design an instant popularity.
Never did any chair attain a wider vogue. King George chair though it was, Jefferson sat in one when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, and a greater George than the king of that name had a chair of this pattern in his bedroom at Mount Vernon, and thirty on his piazza!
The terms Dutch, French, Spanish, when used in regard to furniture, are self-explanatory, and to some degree useful in establishing the origin of the. forms; but when one finds Spanish chairs commonly made by English workmen, Dutch pieces made in Scotland, French pieces made in Maryland, the practical utility of the terms diminishes. For centuries past, there has been a vast intercourse between various nations and continents, and chairs and ideas have alike been interchanged.
A century ago the winged claw came from Egypt. Long before that the claw-and-ball came from Holland. But Holland had found it in China!
The claw-and-ball is one of the links uniting us to the haunted and mysterious past of the human race. For the ball, held in the clawed foot, is the egg which is of such supreme importance in the mythology of the world. What came to us from China, by way of Holland, owed its inception to the same deep-based belief that made the egg a part of the monster Serpent Mound of Ohio.
Although the terms French, Dutch, Spanish, Italian will, for the reason pointed out, only serve to embarrass the beginner, he will take a keen delight, later, in widening his horizon by learning considerable in regard to them and in acquiring a knowledge of the great French styles that preceded the Empire : the Louis Quatorze, magnificent and imposing as befitted the reign; Louis Quinze, rich and sumptuous but overdone, fancy run riot in wood; Louis Seize, delicate and charming, seeming to tell of the beauty and sparkle and wit of the ancien regime. The term Boulle is applied to work rich in tortoise-shell and inlay, with metal and thin brass, and is the name of the seventeenth-century cabinet-maker who perfected this kind of work.
And, after all these, the deluge of the machine-made! "What a fall was there, my countrymen!"
The beginner, with a clear outline knowledge of styles and periods, and having familiarized himself with shapes from pictures such as here given, will be prepared to avoid pitfalls such as would entrap the uninformed. And he should, as opportunity offers, study the old collections, such as are displayed at Stenton in Philadelphia, at the Van Cortlandt mansion in New York, at the Essex Institute in Salem, and Girard College, and the fine collection of chairs at the Museum of the Arts of Decoration in Cooper Union, and pieces of a century and more ago that remain in historical buildings such as Independence Hall, Carpenters' Hall, Faneuil Hall, and the City Hall of New York.
And then, prepared for the search of the old and the beautiful, he should set forth with the idea that it is possible to come upon a prize at the most unexpected time or place. Emerson once asked Thoreau where he found so many Indian stones. "Every-where!" responded Thoreau, stooping as he spoke and picking up a beautiful spear-head. Thus it is with old furniture. The possibilities lie in myriad places. He that seeks is sure to find.
Driving, one day, through a district that was new to us, we came to a lonely cross-roads, where stood a deserted house, dilapidated, ancient, shingled to the ground. The yard was overgrown with mighty weeds. But the real collector never ignores a dilapidated and deserted old house.
The floors were falling in, the roof was half gone, there was not an article of furniture in the rooms on the ground floor or the second floor, or in that place where furniture is so frequently found, the attic.
But the stars in their courses fight for old furniture. In leaving, a sort of lean-to, off the kitchen, was looked into, and in that lean-to, with the roof partly fallen down over it, was a good-looking, old-fashioned corner-cupboard, which needed only slight repairs to put it into presentable condition. The house was a tenant house and the last tenant had moved away some years before, taking all his belongings with him. "Something there, did you say'? It 's just a bit he didn't care to carry off, then."
Which illustrates the point, so often tending to the good of the collector, that all the world does not have the same taste as himself. Many are the persons, rich and poor, who care nothing for graceful old furniture and the serene touch of age. It is fortunate that it is so, for if all the world wished for these things there would soon be none left to seek for.
"Old friends, old times, old manners, old books, old wine," were what Hardcastle loved. And many will add to these old furniture. For the old times and the old manners come dreamily back amid the fine old shapes of the past. No old book is so fascinating as when read from the depths of an ancient fireside settle. Nothing tastes so good as when served on old mahogany. And it is charming to see old friends seated in one's old chairs or circled about a splendid table of the past.