Vandalising our Past

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One of the most famous pieces of modern Chinese art is a set of 3 images from 1995 showing the artist Ai Weiwei intentionally dropping and smashing a 2000 year old Han dynasty urn. In fact he actually smashed two, since the photographer failed to capture the first drop successfully. Oops. As a cultural statement this seemingly mundane act somehow hit at the heart of many people’s sense of sentimentality and decorum regarding the care of our antiques and there was a public outcry against this all too blatant act of vandalism in the name of art.

High profile vandalism within antiques is an all too common story. Whether its the Taliban blowing up Buddhas, Militants destroying Iranian museums, the never ending debate over the Elgin marbles that were ripped from the Parthenon, infamous paintings slashed to make a political point or, as I read a few months ago, US immigration officials smashing ivory components from a host of antique treen because they had not been properly declared. When the Ivory story was reported in the press, I clearly remember the impassioned backlash that hit social media the next day. While the US authorities had merely followed protocol in upholding the tight anti-ivory laws that exist in the States, for antique lovers everywhere their actions were perceived as little better than Ai Weiwei’s.

The other week when collecting an object I’d purchased, I chanced into the owners workshop where a rather lovely Georgian rosewood card table was in the process of being permanently lost under a fresh layer of crackled gold leaf and black paint. Though the transformation was intended to make the item more saleable, to me it seemed like an unjust funeral for such a good original item.  I felt a 2000 year old vase smash inside me, but being English I said nothing. Only when I got home and looked around did the reality dawn. The truth behind most everyday ‘vandalism’ is that we all live with, accept and sometimes cherish elements of it in our own homes and that perhaps it only affects us when it openly rejects our own beliefs. From dressing tables cut down into bedside cabinets, wardrobes refashioned into bookcases, tables stripped, paintings over-restored, chairs recovered and a multitude of items repainted to the latest fashionable finish, we are all culpable perhaps for allowing the unnecessary destruction of our antique items.

The above are obvious examples, yet things can also be far subtler. I was surprised to learn the other day that nobody actually knows what an authentic 18th century finish was like on furniture. With a lack of written documentation, natural decay, over zealous waxing and pieces being refinished using 19th century shellac recipes, no-one still knows how 18th Century homeowners would have expected their new furnishings to have looked. Even without realising it, the most conscientious among us are still a little culpable of some light vandalism as well.

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‘Vandalism’ remains an emotive term because it implies not just the wilful destruction of the object itself but more importantly the wilful rejection of what it stood for.  The Chinese respect for tradition and ancestor worship meant it was not surprising a broken old vase upset people. Yet had the artwork happened in our own country over the last few years, I wonder if we would have reacted the same way?  In our world ‘upcycling’ remains the buzzword for savvy Millenials and countless television hours are spent teaching us that an old item is only really desirable now when refashioned into something new. Beyond just the physical change, we have also chosen to downplay many of the intentional meanings of the past in favour of our own modern far softer melting pot approach. Looking around at the hotch-potch of antiques I choose to live with, I see that I’ve also unwittingly vandalised the original meaning out of many of the objects I so love. For example a pure Cotswold cabinet that defined the virtue of traditional handicraft and rejection of mass-production holds our mass produced TV, a 16th century carving of a saint that is meant to evoke the higher unworldly place of God sits beside a 1920s Gramophone, an object for praying to the false idols of popular music. I could go on….

In 2014 Ai Weiwei’s controversial work was part of an exhibition in Miami. Displaying a series of ancient pots dipped in modern bright house paint, a member of the public walked over, picked up one pot and dropped it on the floor. This act of vandalism was reputedly a protest against the museum’s preference for displaying international over local artists, but the bitter irony was lost on the authorities who arrested the man, and also to Ai, who the man later had to apologise to.   While antiques remain so embedded not just into politics and ideology but the whirlwinds of fashion and novelty …….I wonder what wilful vandalism we will subject them to next?

Broken Mirror photo attribution: by Massimiliano Calamelli

What’s in a name?

Your name is often the first thing you learn as a child, the only thing you truly own throughout life, and the sole reminder of you centuries later. In this season of reflection I thought it fitting to explore just a few of the interesting names currently in use by antique businesses around the UK.

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Though the use of a family name or location is still the most common choice for antique businesses, there are a growing band of people willing to buck the trend with innovative alternatives. Each tell a story and together reflect the quirkiness and individuality that makes the antiques industry so appealing. These unusual names mirror the wider trend in business for brandables. Brandables are words or names that are highly memorable (so great for marketing), but sometimes have little connection with the purpose of the business. Think of companies like ‘Orange’, ‘o2’, ‘Virgin’,‘Dave’ and ‘Purple Bricks’ as well known examples. A great business name not only keeps you memorable long after the public walk away, but as the dealers below attested to,  can be a great ice breaker too.

Some names used are clearly variations on a theme. ‘Inkredible Inkwells’ and ‘Simply Decorous’ do what they say on the tin. In other instances the name is more personal. ‘Antiques Twenty Four’ doesn’t have anything to do with 24 hours as I first assumed. “24 is a lucky number in our family” explains Andrew. “From birthday’s, weddings and important events the number 24 keeps running through our family as an auspicious number so it was an obvious choice for the business name as well”.   Russ Harrison who runs ‘Seventeen Twenty One Antiques’ in York explained that his numeric name referred to selling items from the 17th Century to 21st Centuries. Sometimes these easy names really are best. At ‘Diem’ a company specialising in high quality jewellery and retailing from Greys in London, the family surname of ‘Day’ was given its Latin form. That ‘Diem’ sounded similar to ‘diamond’ and ‘gem’ was also quickly recognised.

Some business names have more personal memories attached to them. ‘Mangled Tout’ Antiques of Stratford was a name that certainly needed explaining by owners John and Jenny. “Many years ago we were lost on the road somewhere north of Leeds when our young daughter spotted a posh restaurant called ‘Mange Tous’. When she asked us what ‘Mangled Tout’ meant the story stuck within the family and we now joke that its our own Yorkshire version of the word. We decided if we ever started a business that would have to be the name”. True to their word the couple held onto the name until they decided eight years later to open an antiques business.

At ‘Wigs on the Green’ Fine Art who specialise in historical portraits, it was a family connection also that appealed. “Its from a common Irish phrase dating back to the 18th Century and relates to a reputed brawl that took place on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin”, explained owner Cynthia McKinley.  “There will be Wigs on the Green means you think things are going to turn into trouble and strife, and I just fondly remember my grandmother always saying it”.

For James Gooch of ‘Doe and Hope’ in Bedford the name was inspired from things he loved. “I always liked seeing Deer in the woods when out walking and also liked the theme of hope in J.R.R.Tolkien’s stories. It was just a marriage that came to me. Originally I thought it was a good name for a bar or pub, but it was also the seeds of my own business”.

The company ‘Studiotic’ who trade in works on paper from the Arts and Crafts to Art Deco period owe their name to an article they read. The term ‘studiotic’ was originally used in a derogatory poem by the famous Arts and Crafts designer Robert Ashbee attacking the aesthetics of the Art Nouveau. The word stuck in their head and seemed to encapsulate the era they dealt in.

For Sue and Alan of ‘Scarab’ Antiques the South African roots meant they originally wanted to go with the name ‘Dung Beetle Antiques’. “The dung beetle is the hardest working animal of all,” explained Sue. “it is always foraging around the dung to improve their home which seemed to fit what we were going. We would happily have called ourselves Dung Beetle but our friends said we couldn’t possibly, so we opted for the scarab beetle instead!”.

An unusual and humorous name was chosen for Edd and Cassie’s antique shop in Bristol called ‘Dig Hauschizzle’. Its literal translation of slang and German alludes to loving a house full of crap. “We were sitting around with friends trying to come up with a name that reflected what we do and when someone said it, the name just made us break out laughing”. It was a similar story for Carol and Chris Bates from Kirklees in Yorkshire. When Carol asked what their new antiques business should be called Chris’ facetious response was “Past Caring”, and the witty name just stuck!

Finally some names are chosen with a far grander plan in mind. When Simon had the idea to set up an online antiques and crafts mall a few years ago he still wasn’t sure what exactly he wanted to sell. The name ‘Village-on-the-Green’ was chosen because it gave scope to create a virtual online shopping village (complete with a virtual church and playground!) where new dealers could inhabit shops on their village high street.

As for my own name ‘eddintheclouds’? Its written as one word to keep the pun and I started using it long before cloud-based internet services were around. I tell people that it reflects my state of mind, but the online internet reference has just been a happy co-incidence!

Antique Shop front Photo Credit: by Charlie Day

Repatriating our photographic past……

The other day I was reading about a new website that I wanted to share. The site  ‘View From This Side‘ aims to repatriate families (and society) with the endless mass of discarded photos that are out there.

We have all seen it: family members pass on or move and their photos (objects intended to immortalise their life and best experiences) just dissipate into the wider world via auction, boot sale or skip. Once released these images go from being a testament to someone’s life, to just become another nameless visual comment on society at the time (via fashion, geography, technology).

The website is still in its infant days so don’t expect thousands of photos yet. The majority have been taken from discarded/ found 35mm slides from the 1950s to 1980s. The justification is that unlike today where we whip out our mobile phones for a quick snap without really thinking twice, photos of the past by their nature required much more care and thought to take and process. Even if you are unable to shed light on any of the images in the website itself, it’s still a fascinating few minutes spent peering into the world of everyday individuals just like us.

Usually when we view the past it is through books, exhibitions and museums where the content has been carefully curated for us. Here, in contrast, the randomness is the appeal as everyday shots, fuzzy, disjointed and largely nameless scroll through the slide show. These photos are not intended to be testaments to political or social upheaval, but the softer more personal moments of life captured and stored, that actually make life beautiful.

I wish the owner of the project well. Go on view the site, add more images, tell your friends. Its a brave stand against an endless topic, yet if successful how may more pieces of our everyday past could we repatriate? Gold wedding bands, dedicated books, bespoke clothes, naive paintings, toys with names scratched on…….the list is endless and exciting.  So do check it out……..

www.viewfromthisside.com

Boy with Camera Photo attribution: by Homini

The modern lives of Antiques………

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Antiques are almost always misunderstood. Indeed, how many of us ever really get past the date that object was made and its relevance to us right now. But objects, like humans, hold a continuous story. One that starts at its birth in a certain era, by a certain maker, for a certain client but that over time gets passed on: sold, bartered, donated, bequeathed, until it finally enters our possession holding a log of untold stories written (sadly) in invisible ink.

A small number of objects lead very static lives. They live in national collections or on walls of stately homes that never pass them on. On one page you can plot their life story…..but this is not the norm. Most objects enter instead a tireless circle of adoption, and readoption, passing from one hand to the next in relatively quick succession. Each owner invites it into their life, however briefly, because it speaks to them in some way or fits some need, before being passed on again.

To give you a real example let me tell you the story of a box. I have a client dealer whom I sometimes supply with 19th Century campaign boxes and because of this I make a point of picking them up when I can. Last year I came across a suitable box, reasonably priced and not far away. I drove over. The owners told me they’d picked it up from a dealer some months back but were selling to make way for a better example. I thanked them, brought it home and within a week or two duly sold it to my client. After a short time he too passed it on, then low and behold only a week or two ago, I see that self same box reappear and sell on ebay (having tidied it I know it was the same one).  Presuming the initial dealer had purchased it also, within the space of about 12 months that poor box had been rehoused 7 times! Each owner, including myself, had seen something worth investing in it before moving it on again. Yet for the item, which had been made back in the 1880s, this short episode may have been an all too common occurrence meaning it had already experienced dozens of owners and countless rooms! If there were psychological counselling offered for antiques, my box may have been a contender.

Just like you register ownership of your car and dutifully keep a log of its services and parts (so the new owners can see its history) wouldn’t it be great if people kept a common log of their treasured antiques!  I used to collect early books and my excitement for finding someone’s 17th century annotations in the margin often outweighed the printed text. Even now, when I remove a drawer from a table and find someone’s name or address scrawled in pencil- it reminds me I’m just another link in the chain for that object.

If a log book is too troublesome, at least be bold and learn to deface. Take your prized object and a pencil and scribble your name somewhere. As in the future another owner may just stop and consider you for a moment or two also.

Ettore Sottsass’ Groundbreaking Synthesis 45 Office System

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The Olivetti Synthesis 45 Desk System

Think of Ettore Sottsass and understandably most will think of his wild and wacky post modern designs of the early 1980s. As the driving force behind the Memphis Milano group who sought to parody and bring into question the self-assurance of Modernism, Sottsass was indeed an offbeat genius. But his career as a commercial designer started many years earlier and just like his contemporaries he too had been dedicated to the functionality of modern design.

In 1959 the 42 year old Sottsass was approached by the office company Olivetti and asked to design for them. His first work was on the Olivetti Elea 9003, an early mainframe computer. This was followed by a series of (now iconic) typewriters during the 1960s. While Sottsass was interested in efficient machine design, he knew that was only part of the picture.

München :: Valentine Portable Typewriter by Ettore Sottsass and Perry King

Efficient office management through design had always been a popular field of study even from the late 19th century, but the focus was more on the practical positioning of existing pieces rather than redesigning the objects themselves. When Sottsass suggested his idea for a fully integrated office range to Olivetti it was to become a pioneering project.

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Synthesis 45 Range

Released in 1973 as the Synthesis 45 range (a reference to the 45cm base measurements used) the pieces and concept became an instant success. By deconstructing the tasks and tools of the office and redesigning each component to give it the space and ease of use it needed, the effect was a fully adjustable office environment that could be adapted to fit in any room. Importantly the desks were designed to accommodate early computers, typewriters and printers. Adjustable side tables and underside drawers could be easily swapped from left to right for the users preference, paper trays were raised and mounted on swivel joints to allow them to be angled for efficiency of use and smaller items such as pen trays were redesigned to interlink with one another as desired.

Looking back on the promotional images now it is easy to overlook how radical this all was in the early 1970s. The minimalist designs in plastic, steel and laminate look to our 21st century eye like every other late 20th century office around the world, and therein lays its importance. The Synthesis 45 concept was so successful an idea that it was quickly taken up by many other office furniture manufacturers since. Perhaps more important to its commercial success than its efficient but querky design was the fact that the desks were one of the first to actively accommodate the very machinery of business, and in particular computers. As office and home computers began to fully burst onto the scene in the late 1970s to early 1980s the Synthesis desks were already designed to accommodate them.

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Practicality

Finally, the success of any industrial product must be down to its practical use. This Synthesis 45 desk set which I have offered for sale was all purchased brand new by the previous owner during the 1980s and was in continued use in their busy office until just a few weeks ago. That a set of office furniture can withstand 30 years of everyday business use in excellent condition, and then be fondly missed by its owner once sold says more about the success of Sottsass’ vision than any review ever can!

Objects of Defiance- Two Blitz related items

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I’ve just picked up two great items that I think are reflective of the British sense of defiance during the Blitz of WW2. From Napoleonic prisoner of war straw work  to trench art objects of WW1, the desire to memorialise acts done during war is nothing new. Most pieces like these tend to be reflective as they are constructed either sitting prisoner in another land or created after the event from the very debris left behind.

IMG_8312The first item is a coffee table constructed by David Joel Ltd in 1946. Made from timber salvaged from the old Waterloo bridge it is laminated on top with a view of London by Kerry Lee called ‘The Bastion of Liberty’ incorporating Churchill’s  words: “we would rather see London in ruin and ashes than that it should be tamed and abjectly enslaved”.

David Joel was the husband and joint partner in the highly successful Betty Joel furniture company that dominated high end society in the 1920s and 30s. By 1937 at the height of her career, Betty Joel decided to retire. David, obviously not ready to hang up his boots yet, decided instead to continue in the industry and founded a new company under his own name in 1938.

This little table, dating to 1946 is somewhat feebly constructed due to the rarity of the timber. Also according to David’s own account in his 1953 book, it was also one of the few items of solid wood furniture permitted to be sold under the rationing scheme at the time. During the post war years David Joel would gain his own well-deserved recognition for his designs and receive patronage from influential retailers such as Heals of Tottenham Court.

IMG_8311The timber Joel used for this table, it should be noted, was not directly a result of the war itself. A new Waterloo Bridge had been on the cards for most of the 1930s but work did not begin on deconstructing the old one (that was 125 years old at the time) until just before the war. While the builders worked away throughout the war, donating the old timber and stones to companies for memorial purposes, work had to be stopped several times due to direct hits from German bombs. A new bridge was finally opened in 1945. As a revered and local company based in Kingston, David Joel Ltd would have been a perfect donor for some of the timber of the old Waterloo bridge.  What makes this table special is, instead of just commemorating the past heritage of this iconic bridge, Joel is choosing through his mixture of timber and map to bring the story right up to date and offer a very British message of heritage and defiance.

The second item is a pIMG_8308air of oak bookends that originated a short distance from the table above. The houses of parliament were bombed 14 times during the war, with the worst being in 1941 when the house of Commons  sustained a direct hit from German incendiaries, blowing out the windows  and destroying the main chamber inside.

These simple little bookends were created from some of the bombed out timber from that raid as well as incorporating lead roundels depicting St George and tIMG_8306he Dragon remoulded from leading salvaged from the destroyed windows.  Although probably commercially sold, the choice of bookends is apt and perhaps symbolic of cultural learning. What makes these objects more personal is the little bit of charred damage on one side that would have occurred from the immediate fire caused by the incendiary bombs.