A Chippendale carved giltwood mirror frame

The tides of taste

Quality is as desirable as ever


This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The scourge of all antique dealers is to hear something described as “boring brown”, or “a bit Granny-ish”. Now, brown is not all boring and Grannies (especially my brace) are often individual, stimulating and not old-fashioned. Why has the image of second-hand furniture become so abused and tarnished? 

In the antiques world of circa 1960, dealers only sold pieces made before 1830 — subsequent work was not even described as antique. The Victorian age was decried as being a sort of dark age where nothing of any quality was produced (the advent of mass production), and the designs were hybridised, confused and compounded. A Victorian sideboard would therefore be understood to be poorly made and embellished with an incomprehensible mishmash of decoration and carved ornament from all and any epoch. 

But along came the pioneer supporters of that godforsaken age, the frontiersmen, who discovered from the end of the nineteenth century the modernisers and exponents of Japanese style, who cut through the lard of high Victorian design — Christopher Dresser and E.W. Godwin to name but two important ones. 

By the 1970s, demand was so intense that fights would break out

Dealers lionised their work and created a market. Their appreciation encouraged others to have new insights and to review the whole of the previously despised period. Inspiration and commercial opportunities were found in the designers from the age of William IV and the early Victorian style, such as George Bullock and Gillows. 

The main body of the Victorian age was next explored and designers were rediscovered who had published and makers who had stamped their work, businesses like Jackson and Graham, Crace, and Holland and Sons. 

As the desire to own antiques expanded, huge containers were shipped weekly out of England to the rest of the world. Dealers looked assiduously for new names to champion. By the 1990s every period up to our own was being pored over. Prices rose as demand grew. 

At my erstwhile company Mallett — Grosvenor House Antique Show exhibitors from the 1930s to its close in 2009 — one can observe the arc of change. Visiting the fair in 1965 you could buy a Chippendale gilt wood mirror for well under £1,000 and most pieces were priced under £500. 

By the 1970s, demand was so intense that fights would break out. On the fair’s opening day, the keen and rich would queue for hours and run to their favourite stands. By the late 1980s, Mallett pieces often sold in excess of £100,000, on several occasions over £1 million. But the pumped market was destined for a correction. Fifty years of sales left the quantity and quality of what remained greatly reduced.

With the decline in supply came a commensurate decline in demand. As huge prices were achieved for second- or third-rate things, reflection led to dismay and in turn to disgust. 

But great things are as valuable and desirable as ever

For half a century it had been considered the height of chic to furnish with the old; suddenly it became odious to do so. Contemporary art now dominates the market. While a stylishly-placed antique is still desirable, what people mostly want is now either modern or in the manner of modern — so-called “vintage”. 

The modern home has changed, too. The traditional separation of dining room and kitchen has been eroded; sitting rooms have become part of the confluence of the former two. 

Kitchens are the epicentre of our love of gleaming domestic gadgetry which sits uncomfortably alongside imperfect period tables, chairs and ornaments. The home becomes a beacon of modernity and old things need to find a way to be used. 

And so we return to “boring brown” and observe that the world has turned full circle; the froth that once fed an insatiable desire for antiques is no longer of interest or value. The less than exceptional works from the Victorian age which used to sell for thousands are now back to being hundreds or even unsellable. The mediocre and altered survivors from the late seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries are also not wanted. 

But great things, the beautiful nuanced brown — mellifluously carved, tenderly polished and cared for — are as valuable and desirable as ever. Maybe more so.

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