Jacqueline Duncan, OBE, discusses the shift in antiques from private use in homes, to museums and public spaces.
It would appear that the strong links once existing between the world of antique furniture and the design community are now almost non-existent. It is surely regrettable that furniture produced in the 18th and 19th centuries should be increasingly ignored in terms of private use, to be viewed as exhibits in public spaces rather than enjoyed in the interiors for which they were intended.
The works of the English cabinetmakers in both centuries are not only beautifully designed but are of superb quality.
These are items that not only provide comfort and convenience but are visually a delight, effectively works of art.
Fashion swings from one extreme to another, and the popularity of furniture we called ‘antique’ has given way to the attraction of furniture made of contemporary materials with contemporary finishes, a trend that was started in the thirties and only interrupted by WW2 and the very different priorities of producer and public.
The pressures driving this change of direction are simple; today it is important that the care of an interior design is as simple and as convenient as manufacturers can possibly make it. Classic furniture and artefacts require classic treatment; thus in a world where hot drinks are served in mugs, polished surfaces become a liability. Washing up machines are not compatible with fine china and glass; underfloor heating is not good for valuable carpets and in addition to such considerations is the cost of good antiques and the added burden of insurance.
So what is the future for fine period furniture and indeed the professions allied to is distribution? Is this amazing resource to be side-lined by contemporary designers?
Will such artifacts be relegated to buildings open to the public, for cursory inspection with little further interest in production or provenance? In addition to the care involved, spiralling costs in both galleries and auction houses have certainly left private middle of the road clients disenchanted and the draconian buyers’ premium now imposed by auctioneers and passed on through the antique trade has not been helpful.
Cost is certainly a part of the thrust behind the fashion for ‘boho’ interiors.
Rooms are furnished with old provincial furniture now valued not for quality but for its aged appearance. Strange perhaps that, whilst ignoring the appeal of quality and elegant design, clients still crave items that have an appearance of age; damaged paintwork is applauded as having an ‘interesting patina’ and eccentric artefacts are graced with equally eccentric descriptions in auctioneers’ catalogues.
Is this odd preference a desire for familiarity, an atavistic link to our generic past, a reassurance of historic stability? Or is it a manifestation of a fundamental difference in perception, a move to the press button household where material values are a responsibility and the achievement of beautiful design, past or present, is side-lined in the Gadarene rush to the next appointment?
I hope not, if only in the interest of a contemporary contribution to the history of English culture.