Several times over the course of three years I’ve written this blog- can it be that long?- I’ve mentioned our former near neighbor, and now sadly ex-antiques dealer Gaylord Dillingham. Gay is possessed of a tremendous eye, with everything I’ve ever seen in his premises of exceptional quality. One of the things Gay was nearly manic about was color. What Gay knew and had a particular eye for was color in wood. Gay’s inventory at any given time formed a benchmark for appropriate color in mahogany, walnut, oak, or rosewood. Although formal furniture was his forte, Gay would have the occasional piece of country furniture. I remember a late 18th century elm cricket table, that ubiquitous tripod table found in any crofter’s cottage. What set Gay’s apart, however, was the exquisite color of the elm. What is an ordinary wood, normally relegated to the seats of spindle-back chairs when it is used at all, Gay’s example was a wonderfully patinated, deep yellow color. Before it was Dillingham and Company, Gay’s firm traded as Dodobird Antiques. As with the extinct dodo, the right color, wrought from centuries of use, oxidation and general environmental detritus, cannot be reproduced.
Where all this is coming from is a follow-on from a blog I read yesterday penned by a gallery assistant of my acquaintance. A nice guy, but he knows nothing about period material. Scotch that- he knows how to read, and a fair number of his opinions are gleaned from others, and he gives occasional editorial credit. He did, however, start to discuss the importance of proper color in period pieces and at that point, I nearly lost it, as the fellow patently had no idea of what constituted ‘proper’ color. ‘Unusual color’ (his words) was also a desirable characteristic. Unfortunately, the firm this gentleman works for turns out shall we say ‘improved’ antiques with wood colors unknown to nature.
‘Unusual’ for a prospective buyer should be synonymous with ‘suspect’. The fact of the matter is, British and continental European cabinet makers for centuries have produced furniture pieces that conformed to standard models that in turn was driven by a demand generated by local custom, and rendered in recognizable national styles. A scrolled foot on a piece of furniture- a standard French motif- when produced in mid-18th century England would always identify the foot style as, say, a ‘French’ scroll, or ‘in the French fashion.’ Prior to the growth of international trade in the early 19th century, European furniture was executed in vernacular woods- oak, beech, and walnut, and painted or gilded as required. The two notable exceptions were the ebenistes in Paris, whose work was exquisitely worked in costly materials, including porcelain, and the English joiners, whose extensive use of mahogany was fueled by consumer demand- and the fact that English shipping from about 1740 entirely controlled the worldwide supply of this timber.
To be continued…