Posts tagged ‘Clare Taylor’

February 19, 2021

Solving the puzzle: Unexpected findings inside A History of English Furniture

We have a guest blogger for this blog-post in the antique dealers blog – a fascinating investigation of the photographs of antique furniture published in A History of English Furniture (1904-08) by Dr Clare Taylor (Open University), one of my friends and colleagues (and collaborators).  You might know Clare from the BBC TV programme Secrets of the Museum: Behind the Scenes at the V&A, where she was academic consultant. Thank you to Clare for taking the time to compose a blog post for us – we hope you enjoy the read!

Mark

Clare Taylor’s blog-post:

‘Remember those heady pre-covid times when you could physically visit a library or a second-hand bookshop without an appointment, or indeed visit one at all? Reading the catalogue to the SOLD! exhibition recently reminded me about studying the four volumes of Percy Macquoid’s monumental History of English Furniture (1904-08) in the Sackler library in Oxford. They contained a puzzle which, at the time, I could not solve, but now SOLD! gave me some clues.

The volumes had revealed some unexpected contents. Three of the four contained loose black and white photographs of sets or individual items of furniture, and one sword. None were dated, but many had the photographer’s stamp on the reverse for Cooper and Humphrey of 71, Newman Street, with a pencilled 5-digit number. Others were stamped A. C. Cooper & Co, Fine Art Photographers of 10, Rose & Crown Yard, King Street, St James and one by F.A. Swaine, 146, New Bond Street, W.1 and Southsea.

Set of chairs upholstered in cut velvet, printed ‘Mallett 40 New Bond Street, London and The Octagon, Bath’, photographed by Cooper and Humphrey, inscribed in pencil ‘38763’. Photograph, Clare Taylor.

All the photographs looked as if they were taken for stock, as objects were seen against neutral backgrounds and carefully lit. Glazed cabinets were photographed with garnitures on top and more ceramics inside, while a lacquer cabinet was pictured both open and closed. Some, at least, were associated with Mallett’s. A set of chairs with fringed cut velvet seats, and a burr walnut bureau, were printed with the firm’s name and locations on the front; and an ‘Indian armchair’ with entwined splats, and a walnut card table, both had ‘Mallett’ pencilled on the reverse.

‘Indian armchair’, photographed by A.C. Cooper & Co, pencilled ‘Mallett’ and neg.6409. Photograph, Clare Taylor.

But there were more parts to this puzzle. As well as the photographs, tucked into volume II, with a few in volume III, were torn pages from auction catalogues, The Cabinet Maker, and Country Life including a settee pencilled ‘Mr[s] Astor’s’.

Torn page from Country Life, inscribed ‘Mrs Astor’s’. Photograph, Clare Taylor.

Other annotations were made on illustrations in the volumes themselves, often noting when and for how much the item pictured had been sold. For example, in the Age of Mahogany a ‘Bureau and China Cupboard’ illustrated as owned by H. Percy Dean was marked in ink ‘Bought and sold to H. Palmer Esq £200’. The annotations sometimes recorded condition, too; the same object was pencilled ‘The top and bottom of this piece have been made to go together’, and indicated with an arrow the location of a ‘secret drawer’. Yet other annotations recorded notes from eighteenth-century sources, for example references to Chippendale from the Gentleman’s Magazine next to an illustration of another Mallett’s chair.

Annotated page from the Age of Mahogany. Photograph, Clare Taylor.

A later cataloguer had helpfully compiled a list of all these loose items and photographs including ‘on exercise paper- a list of items, dates and prices’. This turned out to be a double-sided ruled sheet, tucked in next to Figure 98 in the Age of Mahogany. In a single hand, it listed twenty-five objects, followed by a name and a brief description. The numbered entries on the sheet matched up with the illustrations of the same objects in the Ages of Walnut and Mahogany, and many of these were also annotated in pencil or ink. For example, next to a bureau-bookcase listed as sold to Campbell Cory (147 in the list) was pencilled ‘Crest Surtees family for whom it was made’.

Sheet from exercise book listing some objects illustrated in volumes II (the Age of Walnut) and III (the Age of Mahogany), c.1904-08. Photograph, Clare Taylor.

Two final columns on the sheet marked ‘Date’ and ‘Price’ were written in a different hand. Whereas the (earlier?) left-hand entries seemed to be someone trying to recall owners, prices and dates, the hand which recorded the dates and prices from 1904-08 was much more precise and the prices recorded sometimes differed from the earlier writer’s, suggesting either gaps in records or possibly different sales. On the reverse, the earlier writer had also drawn in pencil the shapes of side-tables, perhaps as an aide-memoire.

Annotated drawings on reverse of sheet from exercise book, showing designs of ‘Adam’, ‘Hepplewhite’ and ‘plain’ side-tables, c.1904-08. Photograph, Clare Taylor.

Who then were the authors of the list and the annotations in the volumes? Unfortunately we do not know who the volumes belonged to before they came into the library’s possession. Nor are there any clues on the exercise book sheet. However, they evidently weren’t much interested in early oak, if the numbers of photographs had anything to do with it since the Age of Oak contained none, the Age of Satinwood just three, Walnut nine, but Mahogany thirty-eight (including one oak table, perhaps mis-placed?).

What we can tell is that both the volumes and the list were being used to track objects and sales. At least some of the names listed were aristocratic: ‘Lady Stafford about 1903 inlaid cabinet £200’ was sold on 19th May 1904, while ‘Lady Paget’s pair side tables’ cost £250 on 24th April 1908. Other entries including two against Ralph Assheton-Smith’s name in 1905 (a walnut cabinet, £50, and six marquetry chairs, £180), while ten entries for Campbell Cory dating from 1904-05 listed objects by room including the upper landing (Charles II table, three cane back chairs and a tallboy), hall (walnut stuffed armchair), morning room (the bookcase mentioned above), and dining room (Gothic side table and ribbon-back chair) and finally two ‘Burgomaster’s chairs’ at £150 and £100 respectively. It’s also tempting to speculate that the entry for ‘Crane’s six cane back chairs’ for £240 in 1908 referred to the artist and designer Walter Crane.

Reverse of sheet from exercise book listing some objects illustrated in volume III (the Age of Mahogany), c.1904-08. Photograph, Clare Taylor.

So, what does all this information tell us? I think it shows that keeping in touch with current scholarship was important to those who bought and used these volumes soon after they were published, a point reinforced by the inclusion in the Age of Satinwood of a flyer for the latest volume (by Margaret Jourdain) in Batsford’s ‘Lenygon Series’, English Decoration and Furniture from 1750-1820. It also reminds us that building up knowledge over time mattered just as much at the beginning of the twentieth century as it does now. And, of course, that it’s always worth checking for any loose papers. When you can get back in a library or bookshop, that is.

Clare Taylor

clare.taylor@open.ac.uk

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