Occasionally you come across those odd finds in charity shops or the crevices of secondhand bookshops which you end up buying because it’s something to read on the bus home. This is my logic anyway, since 50p for a book rather than £3.99 for a magazine seems quite reasonable really. This is one of those finds.
Old English Furniture from Tudor to Regency by F. Gordon Roe came into my hands at a community book fair for about 20p or thereabouts a few months ago. I thought it would make for a good bit of reference material, and yet it is a little more interesting than that because it seems so dated. F. Gordon Roe (1864-1947) was a distinguished painter in his own right, gaining recognition and fellowships with his large historical compositions. He later went on to become a leading expert in antiques with specialisms in oak furniture. The Connoisseur Booklets were published around the middle of the twentieth century and covered a range of topics suitable for the ‘collector’ of antiques: pottery and ceramics, pewter and silverware, furniture, watercolours and clocks. The tagline for these little pamphlets read, ‘A preliminary guide for the collector’.
The booklets are illustrated towards the end in black and white mainly and include advertisements for reputable antique dealers; presumably according to antique type and relevant to the particular topic of the booklet.
In Old English Furniture, Roe describes the evolution through materials used in common furniture types from about 1530 to about 1810. He starts with the oak age and discusses examples of this type from church and private collections with acknowledgment of earlier medieval pieces. From the start the pamphlet reveals its age (apart from its pre-decimal era price in shillings and pence on the cover!), as Roe’s use of language asserts, ‘On the other hand, such extreme abnormalities as Elizabethan cabinets in mahogany (!) – one has heard highly dubious rumours of such – may well impose too heavy a strain on our credulity.’ The Connoisseur Booklets clearly had a highly regarded place in the world of antique collecting, afterall they were the product of The Connoisseur – a magazine produced from the turn of the twentieth century under title variations, the main one being The Connoisseur. An Illustrated Magazine For Collectors. Many a country house will have some editions stashed away somewhere, whether it is privately owned or otherwise. Perhaps this is quite ironic for later generations of country house owners since they had to sell vast quantities of household contents to meet growing debts. However, these pamphlets do prove useful and it is interesting to observe the purpose of them within the world of twentieth-century collecting.
I first thought that this was a good example of the kinds of things you would find at any country house in terms of furniture. On closer inspection Roe uses images from several sources which highlights the importance of antique furniture throughout several layers of society. For example, there are pieces photographed from the private collections of Roe himself and that of a Mr. William Randolph Hearst, newspaper magnate and amongst other things, builder of Hearst Castle, California. Then there are images of pieces from prominent antique dealers including Phillips of Hitchin Ltd, M. Harris and Sons, and Leonard Knight Ltd. Finally there are pieces which could be found at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (see above image, also p.23 in Roe). The exclusivity of certain pieces as collector’s items, and the subsequent arenas of purchase highlight the top end of the market. The museum pieces on the other hand mark out the accessibility of pieces for a slightly wider audience, albeit as exhibits.
What I like so much about this little booklet though, is its place in time. The collectors, the dealers, the specialists, and curators are all part of a fading world which was a predominantly male one. It’s antiquarian and authoritarian – and therefore distinctly ‘connoisseurial’. And there is nothing wrong with this, indeed this type of specialism has delivered many scholarly tomes on various aspects of the decorative and fine arts. Moreover, this connoisseurship helps drive the itineraries of all historical societies today who frequent country houses and galleries in search of craftmanship and examples of specific designers and artists. We can’t all have decorative art degrees, and so where better to start than from the sources themselves? As Roe says, ‘Often one may learn something from such inspections that might be vainly sought in public collections, though these, and especially the great array of furniture at the Victoria and Albert Museum, can be of the utmost value to collectors and students.’ (p.17)
Again, the language of the Connoisseur Booklets is tremendously dated, but their content is very useful. Once Roe completes his travels through the ages of English furniture, he carefully points out the value of knowledge in recognising fakes, a piece’s pedigree (provenance), and pests. I was once told that even the smallest of wooden objects infested with wood worm should never be brought into the home because it spreads! The ever anecdotal Roe adds, ‘…one has heard of a primitive method of treatment involving the placing of the infected item in a stone-floored cellar or outhouse with a piece of fresh sap-wood, to which the pest would (presumably) transfer its attentions … a device sometimes more remarkable for quaintness then for efficacy.’ (p.20) At the time of writing, Roe was well aware of proper chemical preparations in ridding wood worm.
Perhaps these booklets could be put back into print? There are many books and magazines for the modern collector of antiques, some may even contain well-researched essays on decorative art topics. Antiques are extremely popular, and we only need see a rundown of daytime television programmes where about 80% are concerned with period furniture, paintings, textiles, and tableware. There is still a sphere for the collector and antiquarian in modern times since their techniques for learning are still practiced at universities and colleges. The writers of these booklets are almost as significant as the pieces they enjoyed writing about, so maybe their texts could be left unaltered and we could visit this faded world whilst learning a thing or two about objects we never really noticed before.
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