In the Right Place at the Right Time.
The term 'occasional furniture' actually dates back to the period between1660 and 1740 when the gentry took advantage of social change and had multi-purpose furniture made to suit different requirements at different times of the day. Extending the dining table, or having miniature beds on wooden wheels called 'truckles' to go under the main bed during the day were nothing new, but having small adaptable furniture that folded down or opened up were new in the Carolean era. Production of these pieces was made possible by improved methods of construction heralded by the introduction of a new craft and a new craftsman - the cabinet maker. His ability to create more finely cut joints, having access to more sophisticated hinges and of course the best long-seasoned quality timbers allowed him to create furniture that could be a serving board one minute to be quickly transformed into a table for gaming, needlework or tea the next. At this time rooms were not set permanently as we have them today or indeed as they have been since the mid-eighteenth century. Circular tables were made to tilt and long rectangular ones had disproportionately small centre sections from which two long flaps or leaves were hinged to be supported when horizontal by a framework rather like a gate, hence gateleg. Once invented these in various forms never went out of fashion and followed the styles of decoration throughout the ensuing periods. Still the most interesting are surely the earliest examples, miraculously surviving over three hundred years of use. Here the art of the wood turner comes into play, for now was the time when more than one person was responsible for making a piece of furniture. At first one can see just a single turned upright as in the table illustrated, but by 1700 the legs, stretchers and most of the gate were formed by the turner. An informal supper is over, let's fold down the table, tuck it away and dance.
Of all the wonderful landscape paintings in the world it may seem strange to relate, on one of the warmest February days on record, the genre that appeals most to me is the winter scene. From Andrew Wyeth to Hendrick Avercamp it's the silence that snow brings coupled with the sound of voices carrying over greater distance than they do in summer that captivate the imagination. I know that seems a contradiction but when snow stops falling and has settled deep, there is a quiet unlike any other before all sounds are magnified. Laughter and shouting, the hiss of skates on ice or, in the case of Wyeth, just the wind cutting through a fence to create a musical note that changes according to the velocity. The grandest examples of winter landscapes are generally considered to be painted in oil, but I have a particular fondness for Gouache.
Gouache is similar to watercolour, but with a binding agent to make it opaque. This was traditionally gum Arabic but it is popularly known as 'water colours mixed with egg white'. It requires an extra skill in its application because dries to a different hue than it appears when wet with lighter tones drying darker and vice versa. The term, derived from the Italian guazzo, was originally applied to the early 16th century practice of applying oil paint over a tempera base, but however achieved the effect is of great depth and infinite detail. The example illustrated is by Paradyen, an artist at the Court of the Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst-Dessau who lived at the Court of the Czar from 1741 until 1755. While there he was employed to paint portraits of the Czar's family in addition to many landscapes. Several of his portraits hang in the Old Masters Gallery of Dresden and in the last years of his life he gained further recognition in Paris, and is sometimes referred to in catalogues as 'Le Parisien'. One additional benefit of many Gouache paintings is that they are small enough to hang even on a crowded wall. Oh thank goodness, there's a storm on its way.
Of all the useful and attractive pieces of antique English furniture belittled by the name it must surely be the What-not. When seeking to find its derivation any dictionary will provide two explanations.:- (1) An indefinite or trivial thing or (2) A stand with shelves for small objects. The curious thing is the first record of the number (2) version is in Messrs Gillow's Cost Book of 1795. There is no mention of such a piece in Sheraton's Cabinet Dictionary of 1803 and the first published reference is in 1808 within the leers of Sarah, Lady Lyttleton. So it does beg the question what had previous generations put their little bits and pieces on during the preceding hundred years. Whatever, it is clearly apparent that this sometimes charmingly designed artefact did not appear in the fashionable house until the beginning of the 19th century and by the 1860's it was being mass-produced to the degree that no house was complete without one. The first examples were elegant and sometimes enriched with gilt metal mounts as in the pair at Southill in Bedfordshire, the home of Sir Samuel Whitbread, but as the fashion for them caught on, most were plain and their date clearly identifiable from the form. The earliest had square supports, with three shelves sometimes with a drawer below the bottom one. A variation at this time was of taper shape in pyramid style, but these are rare. By 1810 the supports were turned, changing from slender and elegant to wider in common with table and chair legs as the Regency period developed. In the time of George IV some what-nots had end supports in the form of lyres, but the big change came with the introduction of machine production coinciding with the fashion for barley sugar twist turning. By the 1860's the Victorians were demanding multi-purpose pieces and the what-not was combined with a music or magazine stand. No longer restricted to square or rectangular, ovals, rounds and kidney shapes were made to suit all tastes. In whatever style you choose, the what-not will for ever be a most useful and attractive piece of furniture, and surely far from indefinite or trivial.
Antique furniture might sit just below DVD players and (meat) sausage rolls on millennials’ shopping lists but veteran antique dealer John Bly and his son James are on a mission to change that.
The Blys, fifth-generation antique experts, run a richly stocked emporium of 18th- and 19th-century pieces on King’s Road in Chelsea, attracting everyone from Kylie Minogue to Rod Stewart with its offering of Georgian bookcases and mahogany armchairs.
Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts is another regular who pops into the shop on occasions, perusing antique silver.
“He is the smartest around,” says John Bly. “He has the most beautifully cut coats and jackets and I said any cast-offs, you’ve got to let me know.”
The father-and-son team, who opened the store in 2013, are keen to hook in younger buyers, with their Etsy, eBay and Ikea-shopping ways, to the lustre of antiques and attract wealthy types in Tech City and Canary Wharf.
They plan to host a programme of workshops for people “not interested” in the topic to help open their eyes to a different type of luxury brand.
Bly the elder, a sprightly 79-year-old who has the ringmaster’s charm of someone comfortable on TV (he was a regular on BBC Antiques Roadshow for many years), gives me a lesson on cabriole chairlegs and the history of the dumb waiter. It’s part design course, part social history.
James Bly, who joined his father’s business in 1995, says: “There is a generation of people who went antique shopping that had a vague understanding of antiques but that has skipped two generations now and part of our job is to put that right.”
The Bly business turns over more than £1 million a year and is as much steeped in the social history of England as some of the goods it sells.
Started in 1891 by Bly’s grandfather but with roots stretching back to the 1820s, it originally sold rare items of furniture and hard to find imports to the Rothschild family, who had their Tring Park Mansion in the Blys’ Hertfordshire village (the family workshop, where Bly was born, sat opposite the banking family’s country house).
The firm moved to London in 1991 with a small showroom — “located conveniently and expensively close to Wilton’s restaurant” — due to another major social shift of the period: changing dining habits.
The business had originally served middle-management types who had to furnish their country homes but rapid gentrification in London during the late Eighties meant more pied-à-terres and people eating out rather than entertaining at home, ending the need for fancy dining tables, chairs and sideboards.
They increasingly tapped into the influx of wealthy European elites and put their wares on the High Street for customers to browse.
Bly senior, dressed today in a double-breasted jacked and colourful cravat, says the antiques business is all about “theatre”, comparing it to going to a “good restaurant” and saying it’s “fun” selling to buyers who like to haggle.
He lets me sit down in a £68,000 chair from the 1740s while giving me a quick social history of chairs made in China during the 18th century, offering a glimpse into his art of the deal.
At the same time the antiques business is much like any other retail industry, prone to swings and tough times.
American buyers — the biggest cohort of antique shoppers — dried up after the Gulf War and 9/11, and the firm was forced to leave London and regroup in Tring in 2005 due to rising rents.
Sales can also be unpredictable and the Blys confess that trading in the industry at the moment is “patchy” despite picking up a bit towards Christmas and then there’s online.
James Bly, who is driving many of its new initiatives, sells through antique portals like 1stdibs.com and onlinegalleries.com but maintains getting people through the door is still the key.
“It comes down to enticing people into the gallery. Nobody has the story or the stock we have,” says the 45-year old.
Rare antique shopping isn’t immediately obvious as a must-do weekend activity compared with a trip to Westfield. Has it gone out of fashion?
“You could argue that,” says James, “but again this comes down to a generation of people who have not been immersed in antiques shopping.
“Even if you have a modern interior one or two antiques would look spectacular. A London wharf apartment, one or two bits would stand out and look amazing.”
There is nothing in the world to equal candlelight to create a magical atmosphere anywhere and at anytine throughout the year, but at Christmas time it is an obligatory addition to every festive occasion and display. Even more so when seen through a cluster of cut crystal glass lustre drops, prisms, icicle pendants, faceted spires, branches and festoons hanging from chandeliers and candelabra. It is the latter which have the most immediate effect, for as they stand at eye level on tables and shelves the ever moving reflections create a constant changing sparkle. The use of such cut glass ornamentation really came into its own with the combination of developments in the decorative glass industry and the fashion for what we call 'classical' form, both of which occurred during and after the 1760's. Candle holders of some significance suspended from the ceiling - later known as chandeliers -have been recorded in inventories from the 14th century being made of wood, brass and other metals, but it was not until the eighteenth century that important examples of glass appear. On the finest the wood was carved and gilt, the brass cast and also gilt and by the the early 1700's several dozen branches held the candles. The Coronation Banquet of George II was illuminated with 1,800 candles plus those on tables and all were lit within three minutes. Candelabra with two or more branches made for the tables of the gentry are rare before the mid 17th century and were mostly of silver. However, by the end of the 18th century they were made with bases of marble, semi-precious stones, malachite, Derbyshire Spa otherwise known as ‘Blue John' and fixed with up to four or five branches of gold, silver, ormolu and of course, glass. Whereas any fine eighteenth century light fitting is as expensive now as it was when made, those of glass can be the best value in terms of glamour and effect, and because of their visual appeal they have never been, nor are they ever likely to be, out of fashion or demand.