The Expert’s Guide to Collecting English Furniture

The Expert’s Guide to Collecting English Furniture

Were you seduced by the interiors in Bridgerton? Do you know your Georgian from your Regency? Here, a Sotheby’s specialist walks you through the definitive guide to a category gathering momentum amongst collectors.
Were you seduced by the interiors in Bridgerton? Do you know your Georgian from your Regency? Here, a Sotheby’s specialist walks you through the definitive guide to a category gathering momentum amongst collectors.

A Short History of Collecting English Furniture

It is no exaggeration to say that today we are living in one of the best ever periods to buy English Furniture. As has been widely reported, prices for English furniture have dropped after reaching a peak around 2002 and in recent years have stabilized, with a modest rebound for exceptional works. On average, prices for the majority of items are still at a level not seen for a generation or more – certainly not something that can be said for many markets, and a situation we view from the glass half-full perspective as it represents an unprecedented buying opportunity! In many cases auction prices for antique English furniture compare highly favourably to retail prices for modern and reproduction furniture.

A sustainable way to buy

Although it’s been said many times before, antiques truly do have impeccable green credentials. One 2010 study estimated that a typical 18th century chest of drawers has a carbon footprint one-sixteenth that of a brand new flat-pack equivalent, whose average lifespan is fifteen years from assembly to the landfill. Antique furniture was constructed with quality materials, many of which are difficult, expensive, and either impossible or environmentally unfriendly to source today, and it was handmade locally by highly trained professionals with technical skills often passed down directly between generations. The result was solid pieces built to last, which explains why such an abundant supply survives.

Do Your Research

To start building a collection, the first step is research, more research, and then research again – but it’s immensely enjoyable research. And like everything these days, so much can be found online, especially on auction house websites of both large international companies like Sotheby’s and myriad regional houses in the UK, US, Canada and Australia. Lists of these can be found on price guide sites like Invaluable, Artnet, the Saleroom, Live Auctioneers, etc. There is a huge body of literature about antique furniture as well discussing different periods, styles, and makers that can be bought or consulted in a reference library.

Highlights from Provenance & Patina

Important English Furniture from a West Coast Collection

Study Past Auctions

Studying recent and older auction catalogues both print and online is an excellent and very quick and easy way for a novice to become familiar with different categories, styles and major players in English furniture and learn about different price levels, and how these have evolved. One should visit museum collections and as many historic houses as possible, not only to see the furniture itself but also the context of its setting and its arrangement within a space.

There is also no substitute for visiting auction viewings, which are always free and open to the public - even if you aren’t interested in bidding in that particular sale - as nothing is better than first-hand inspection to train the eye. The same image of a piece of furniture can appear visually dissimilar on different models and sizes of computer monitors, tablets and smartphones as well as in various print media, and our own perception of the colour and scale of furniture can sometimes vary significantly under different types of light and its placement in a room surrounded by other objects, compared to an image taken on a photographic studio set.

Know your Georgian from your Regency

Although the antiques trade and auction houses have long referred to furniture from the British Isles generically as ‘English’, the category does in fact include furniture made in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Because it’s such a vast subject covering over two centuries with a kaleidoscope of forms and media, it’s important to pinpoint a sense of one’s own personal taste. British and Irish furniture is traditionally categorized by the timeframe in which it was made and associated with the name of the reigning monarch, which establishes a date range. The most desirable periods tend to be the Georgian era of the mid- to late 18th century (George II and George III), as well as the Regency (officially 1811-1820 but commonly used to describe the years 1800-1830; think Bridgerton), but quality luxury furniture was already being produced during the reign of Charles II in the second half of the 17th century, and important workshops thrived well into the 19th century.

Stylistically, furniture tended to follow wider contemporary trends in architecture and the Fine Arts, and depending on when it was made English furniture can be described as baroque, Palladian, rococo, neo-gothic, or neoclassical. Unlike in France, in Britain there was no statutory requirement for a furniture maker to stamp his work, so although a few pieces are recorded with a maker’s mark or label, this remains the exception rather than the rule, and the vast majority of English furniture production remains anonymous or only attributed to a specific maker based on stylistic similarities to surviving documented works.

British Furniture: The Pinnacle of Practicality

Antique British furniture is known for its emphasis on comfort and practicality and was meant to be used, reflecting the growing prosperity of an industrial trading nation with an expanding overseas empire which gave rise to a wealthy but pragmatic urban merchant class, in addition to the more traditional aristocratic patrons of luxury interiors. Almost all the different types of furniture we live with on a daily basis were invented hundreds of years ago and haven’t been improved on since.

Broadly speaking British furniture is regarded as more restrained than French and Continental furniture, relying more heavily on the beauty and colour of the grain of wood to achieve aesthetic effect rather than more elaborate embellishments like gilt and lacquered surfaces, marquetry inlay or gilt metal mounts – although British cabinetmakers could and did practice these techniques as well for more important commissions. So it’s possible to acquire simpler functional pieces that fit well in any modern interior as well as grander signature works to make a bold statement in a room. Types of wood used include both native and imported tropical species and tend to be categorized as darker woods like mahogany, oak and rosewood or lighter coloured woods like walnut, satinwood and maple.

Condition is Key

Condition is obviously key to desirability and price, and it’s a case of finding the right equilibrium between being ‘in good condition’ (i.e. ready to take home and place) and not being overly restored or altered. Furniture, like people, is constructed of organic material, and with time will also suffer a bit of understandable wear and tear. It is exceptionally rare to find an authentic piece of furniture several hundred years old in completely ‘untouched’ condition, as such a piece would likely be visually unattractive, structurally unsound and possibly unusable.

It is perfectly normal for a working piece of furniture to have experienced varying degrees of cleaning, repair and replaced parts in its history. Ideally such interventions would have been kept to a minimum, undertaken out of strict necessity and expertly done so as not to be outwardly visible or detrimental to the colour and patina of the surface. Such pieces are the most sought after and will always generate competition - and higher prices.

Importance of Restoration and Conservation

That said, one shouldn’t reject a piece outright if there have been repairs to a broken leg, a few patches to veneers or filled-in age cracks, a replaced foot, or later handles or locks, as these all qualify as reasonable conservation remedies to a historic piece of furniture that ensure its continued survival and use for future generations. If the work is of high-quality design and materials, well suited to its chosen destination and something that appeals, it’s worth bidding on as it can often be acquired at a more accessible price level and enjoyed for a lengthy period, with the possibility of trading up if an even better-preserved example appears on the market.

The Value of Royal Provenance

Provenance also plays a key role in the value of English furniture, and if a work can be traced to a particular historic figure or specific house that will always add a premium, especially if royal or aristocratic and/or from one of the major British or Irish country houses that survives and is still inhabited by its original owners today.

Many people don’t realise that Provenance also means previous sale history at auction or purchase from an antiques dealer, and this can also enhance the price, particularly if the piece was acquired from one of the more prestigious London firms of the latter part of the 20th century. They enjoyed a solid reputation for their eye, expertise and connoisseurship and exhibited at vetted art fairs like Grosvenor House in London or the Winter Antiques Show in New York, thus adding a reassuring imprimatur of quality and authenticity to the work. Good old dealer provenance plays a similar role to that of a successful influencer today.

English Furniture

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