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Aging with Style – Appearance Isn’t Always the Best Indicator of Age

by Fred Taylor (11/23/09).

This is a period Chippendale chair, circa 1770.

This is a period Chippendale chair, circa 1770.

Aging with style is almost everyone’s ultimate objective, immediately behind not aging at all. But in this context the word “aging” is being used as a verb as we try to answer the most often asked question about most antiques and collectibles, especially furniture: “How old is it?”

The most tempting thing in the world is to grab a book with pictures of old furniture and find one that is “just exactly like” the piece you are considering purchasing. There it is right there in living color. That proves it, right? Not exactly.

A quick look at a “Chippendale” chair immediately identifies it as a Chippendale chair. It has a pierced splat, a dog ear-eared crest rail, cabriole legs with acanthus carving on the knees and claw and ball feet. All the elements of classical Chippendale styling are present. And what have you learned about the chair from this observation? Nothing except that the elements of a particular style are indeed present. Since Chippendale is one of those classical styles that seems to fit in a great many situations, it has been in more or less continuous production since its introduction in the mid 18th century. Thomas Chippendale basically added some embellishments, piercings, ruffles and flourishes to a Queen Anne-styled background and produced his own namesake characterization.

But that doesn’t tell us anything about the age of a given chair. Granted there are people, mostly art historians, who purport to be able to tell the age of a chair by the angle of the foot or the rake of the back, but when you get right down to it, they, like the rest of us, have to do it the old-fashioned way. We have to look for a series of clues like tool marks, joinery, oxidation, patina, etc. to tell us how old the piece is. In most cases, style is just the pleasing arrangement and decoration of the parts, nothing more.

This is a reproduction of a Chippendale chair, circa 1940. Chippendale has been continuously copied through the years to the point where they are not indicative of age

This is a reproduction of a Chippendale chair, circa 1940. Chippendale has been continuously copied through the years to the point where they are not indicative of age

It is entirely possible that a talented woodworker of any era could look at a picture of a given Chippendale chair and reproduce it exactly, right down to the finest detail of angle of the foot and rake of the back. What he can’t reproduce is all the little things that occur randomly in the building of a chair from a different time. The sharpness of a chisel cut made by the honed edge of an 18th century blade is hard to recreate. The oxidation pattern of a partially exposed inside rail is difficult to duplicate with stain. The random strokes of a tired apprentice with a jack plane are indeed random.

After the initial glance at the Chippendale chair, what we can say for sure is that the chair is made “in the style of” Chippendale. That says nothing about the age, addressing only the form. “In the style of” is not the same as “of the period,” which means it comes from the original period when the style or form was introduced.

This nice little end table looks like a subtle mixing of Empire and Rococo Revival, a frequently seen combination in the 1850s. However, this table is a reproduction piece, made in the 1960s.

This nice little end table looks like a subtle mixing of Empire and Rococo Revival, a frequently seen combination in the 1850s. However, this table is a reproduction piece, made in the 1960s.

Does that mean that style can never be of service in determining the age of a piece of furniture? No. It only points out that many of the traditional styles—Chippendale, Queen Anne, Federal, Regency and even Arts and Crafts, among others—have been continuously copied through the years to the point where they are not indicative of age. Certain other styles however, are unique to a given period or have been more selectively reproduced.

Most of these more-or-less-unique styles came from the 19th century, which, interestingly enough, was the time of the great revival styles. Ideas from centuries past regained popularity in the Victorian era. Among these was Gothic Revival, recreating the trefoils and arches of the 16th century, and Rococo Revival, emulating the French court of the 18th century. This revival of styles produced some variations of the styles that became unique to themselves and have not been reproduced in significant quantity since their original popularity waned.

This is a style that has seldom been reproduced since 1900.

This is a style that has seldom been reproduced since 1900.

Among these is the medieval simplicity of the designs of the English architect and early proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement, Charles Eastlake. His original straight-line designs and simple chip-carving decorations were extremely compatible with the integration of furniture making into the machine driven factory system of post Civil War America. His designs were taken to wanton excess and reproduced endlessly in the late 19th century. The result has been that they have not been extensively reproduced in the intervening 100 years, and it is safe to say that a piece “in the style of” Eastlake is also “of the period.” A useful concept in aging with style-

Another instance of a style standing on it own is Renaissance Revival. This was a mid-19th century resurrection of mostly Italian Renaissance themes from the 15th and 16th centuries. Again, the factory system played a major part in the popularity of this style, making it the predominant theme of the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. This “battleship” furniture, so-called because of its size, featured large-scale architectural elements like pediments and columns and furnished many of the grand hotels and palaces of the Eastern industrial/financial complex. It also has not been reproduced and can be considered “of the period.”

The style of this bed, Renaissance Revival, circa 1875, has seldom been reproduced since the period.

The style of this bed, Renaissance Revival, circa 1875, has seldom been reproduced since the period.

Style can be useful when used as one of the clues to determining the age of a piece of furniture but only in rare instances can it be used as the only clue.

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Fred Taylor is a antique furniture Worthologist who specializes in American furniture from the Late Classicism period (1830-1850).

Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or info@furnituredetective.com.

Visit Fred’s website at www.furnituredetective.com. His book “How To Be A Furniture Detective” is now available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques,” by Fred Taylor ($25 + $3 S&H) are also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, or e-mail info@furnituredetective.com.

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