Ah, the very word Broadway. To me it brings immediately to mind my times in New York's Theatre Land, buying tiny cowboy boots for my three and four year old sons in a shop called Tepee Town and being allowed to watch the Woody Herman Big Band rehearse in the afternoon before their Top of the Bill concert at Radio City. The beginning of this theatrical legendary area began in the 1750's when Walter Murray and Thomas Kean opened a theatre on Nassau Street. So it is comparatively new compared to the other Broadway which holds equally fond memories for me. That's the one in the Cotswolds. For it was there that I first travelled with my father to visit antique furniture dealers in that most beautiful and ancient town. Dating back to the Mesolithic period (9,600 -4000 BC) Broadway in Worcestershire is now equally known for its charm as its centre for the Arts and Crafts movement. In the town itself is the Gordon Russell Museum, where the history of Sir Gordon Russell and his work is most fittingly displayed, while in nearby Chipping Camden one of the original artisan workshops, Harts Silver, is still being run by the founder's family. Currently they have a truly inspirational Exhibition in the Aylesbury Museum, on display until December. An absolute must visit for silver of the period enthusiasts. But nearby Broadway is an architectural Folly. A structure that my father took me to see as a lesson on the inspiration of Capability Brown and the designs of James Wyatt for the Countess of Coventry which was built for her in 1798 – 9 as a tower from which she could view her vast estate. The mirror illustrated is a great example of how architecture influenced some of the more avant garde patrons of the English Regency period in their quest for novelty in their furniture. Amongst their favourite makers was one George Bullock (1777 - 1813) to whome this is attributed. So mirror, mirror, on the wall, is it the reflection or the frame for which we fall?
Our fascination with tea imported from China began in the early 17th century and within one hundred years it had become a national institution. One chief protagonist was Samuel Pepys who, in his diaries claimed that drinking the beverage was a cure for his wife's "defluxions". By the 1720's specific tables were being made by leading London craftsmen for the ceremony of taking tea and ladies who were invited to "the tea table" would take a katy (caddy) of tea as we would take a bottle of wine to a dinner party today. The problem of transporting the tea from the caddy to the teapot was solved first by Lady Lauderdale who used the lid of the sugar bowl as a carrier, but when in the 1740's tea leaves were chopped fine our industrious silversmiths developed a short-handled spoon with a disproportionately large bowl and the caddy spoon was invented, to be used well into the 20th century. Apart from the manufacture of silver and furniture there was hardly any branch of domestic industry that was not affected beneficially by the demand for tea and its consumption. Josiah Wedgwood made a fortune out of producing his fine ceramic tea wares, the cups of which would crack when filled with boiling water. Thus began the habit of putting the milk in first. While the accoutrements considered necessary for the polite serving at the tea table - tea pot, cream jug, sugar bowl, hot water jug, tea urn, tea and caddy spoons, sugar tongs and the tea caddy, the presentation to the public of the raw material required the craft of tinsmiths and decorators to produce the toleware display cannisters that enlivened every upper-crust grocer's shop throughout the country. Many of these were made in Pontypool and the finest were decorated with 'japanning' in gold and bright colours with scenes of Chinese figures in a variety of settings. Originally made in large sets to occupy a wall space, it is rare to find a good single one today. While we still drink tea it is more often without the ceremony, making the words "one for each cup and one for the pot" magically nostalgic for a bygone age.
For more than 2000 years the shell of the Hawksbill Turtle has been prized for its beauty and mystique and used as a traded commodity as well as for the finest and most luxurious decoration. Of the latter the greatest exponent was Andre Charles Boulle, sometimes spelt Buhl, 1642 - 1732, who developed a type of veneer for furniture which has born his name from the 17th century to the present day. It comprised mainly brass and turtleshell which, probably because it is a nicer word, we call tortoiseshell. A sheet of each material is fixed one to the other much as a sandwich and a pattern drawn on to the top layer. The lines of the drawing are then cut through with a fine saw blade as in a jigsaw and the two sections separated. Two pictures are thus created, one with a tortoiseshell background and brass pattern and the other the reverse. Such furniture was obviously highly prized and priced and at this early period made in pairs - Boulle and Contre Boulle. While there are some wonderful examples in many stately homes in England it was more to the taste of the French and other European Courts and was hardly evident in Chippendale's England. However after the defeat of Napoleon and the arrival in London of several notable French craftsmen, Boulle or Buhl work saw an immediate popularity and demand. This was largely due to Louis le Gaignieur who opened his workshop in the Edgeware Road in 1815. From then on such decoration remained in vogue, with the tortoiseshell being replaced with cheaper, inferior and fake materials, easily recognised today by their instability and being prone to blister. The one question frequently asked is how do you change an old, hard, ancient marine protector into a maleable material which can be sliced into flat sheets 1/16" thick. Well in the same way you turn an old 78" gramophone record into a fruit bowl. You heat it. Apparently there is a sea turtle in captivity in China at 400 years old. Now that's something of a record.
The vogue for cultivating indoor plants and displaying them in a drawing room or other reception area rather than in a conservatory in the English home dates back several centuries, but having furniture built specifically for the purpose was unusual before the turn of the 18th to 19th centuries, becoming a considerable part of the decorating industry during the 1860's. Most common today is the single wooden box or tub on a three or four legged stand always associated with great-grandmother's aspidistra. These 'planters' were often made in a faux-Sheraton classical form, or later in the Japonnaise fashion. But these all developed from the fine rosewood pedestals of the 1820's and 30's closely following the Greco-Roman patterns of George Smith, Thomas King and other leading designers of the day. Another innovative twist to the floral display piece was the dual or even three-purpose Jardinière. While commonly associated with the late Victorian period there are prototypes which can be accurately dated as early as the late Georgian era. They were rectangular in form and were always made to stand in the centre of the room. One use was to display or hold equipment for needlework or a selection of books below a solid top. Solid except that a panel could be removed to disclose a metal tray deep enough to contain ice as a wine cooler, or, of course a display of plants and flowers. Smell the roses, choose a book, pour a drink and enjoy.
Although essentially made to hold documents the ornamental cabinets made for the courtiers to Louis XIII were really displays of wealth and taste, being enriched with inlays and appliques of rare stones, marble, fine paintings and gilt metal mounts upon the multitude of small drawers often concealed by sometimes deceptively plain doors. Traditionally, the very centre had a secret compartment wherein the owner would hide his latest treasured purchase, either from a Grand Tour excursion or a trip to the London Docks where Solomon de Medina would be off-loading a fresh consignment of intricate pieces of jewellery from Augsburg or miniature items of gold and pearls from Italy or Spain. Such a jewel would go into the cabinet compartment which was lined with mirrors to enable the object to be seen from every angle, and the floor painted to simulate a tiled surface, often in such a way as to make the space look larger. Such furniture was in complete contrast to that made by the craftsmen of England. They were joiners producing 'joined' work, ceilers making panelling for the walls of rooms and the tester or ceiling over the four post beds, and carpenters. It was another hundred years before the craft and name cabinet maker appeared in English records. By the end of the 17th century this had coincided with the development of clear glass for windows which enabled cabinets being produced with glazed doors and thus display the wealth of the owner by the showing to all and sundry the treasures inside the piece rather than the decoration on the outside. Back on the Continent the established form of cabinet, which might be made to sit on a table or if larger it would have its own stand, remained in vogue and the owner continued to secret his latest objet d'art inside the hidden tiny central room. Indeed it was his 'Cabinet Piece' and he would show this latest acquisition to only his closest and most trusted friends. They were his 'Cabinet Friends' and that is the origin of the term Cabinet in government.
There was so much bunkum created by high-end antique dealers in the 1930’s implying that recognising and pontificating on the authenticity of old furniture, porcelain, glass or whatever needs some sort of academic achievement that there is still that aura about the subject today. It was of course created to maintain a distinction between the knowledgeable dealer and his less savvy client. Talk about the blind leading the blind. I say that because so much of what was considered gospel has been rendered as myth, with grateful thanks to film and television companies paying location fees to stately homes allowing them to employ professional researchers to establish the truth about the manufacture and use of their contents, of whatever category and class. So, after the inevitable question of “What’s it worth?” has been dealt with the next remains, invariably, “How do you know how old it is?”. Whereas the standard reply used to be “Years of experience” the correct and current repost should be “It’s just common sense”. For example we couldn’t have an English Elizabeth I period hard paste porcelain coffee pot because we couldn’t make the porcelain and we didn’t drink coffee until after the 1650’s. Just a bit of social history is all you need, and maybe a smattering of politics. On October 1st 1890, the American Republican Representative William McKinley introduced a ‘protective tariff’ to safeguard domestic industries from foreign competition. It came into practice within six months with the stipulation that every import had to have the name of the country of origin indelibly and easily accessibly marked upon it. So when you see a piece of ‘antique’ porcelain, glass, silver, brass or any other material with the word England or Germany, Japan or wherever, you know it will have been made after 1891. You can amaze your friends at a boot fair with this little snippet. But 1891 was even more important for the Bly family, for that was the year when John Bly – great grandfather of James - officially registered his inherited antiques business in Tring. A year to remember for many reasons.