MY FIRST encounter with the problems involved in the refinishing of antique furniture occurred many years ago and impressed me deeply. A friend of mine, while somewhat overzealously engaged in scraping a venerable mahogany table top with a fragment of broken glass, seriously lacerated his hand. At the gory moment I felt that he had suffered a serious accident. Subsequently, I came to realize that the damage which he had sustained was insignificant in comparison with the ruin which he had inflicted upon the table. Time cures most human wounds; but naught avails to heal the mangled surface of a time-mellowed piece of furniture.
That lesson far too many American buyers of antiques have yet to learn. They have reached the point of cherishing the idea of age in their possessions, but have failed to attain full appreciation of the charm and value of its aspect. In consequence, they are prone to subject their early furniture to a course of scraping, sometimes of planing, to remove from it every vestige of stain and every remnant of honorable scar —all, indeed, of those outward and visible evidences of genuineness which are the precious endowment bestowed by the patient years upon comely old-time things.
And yet the opposite extreme, while less disastrous, is perhaps equally to be avoided. There is no merit in superficial deposits of dirt, and none in obvious and dangerous states of dilapidation and disrepair. American collectors, in general, like to use their old furniture for its originally designated purpose. When the fulfilment of that purpose is impaired, both prudence and good judgment counsel the application of remedial measures. There is, I know, a school of collectors who maintain that what time has sundered man should not attempt to join. But their position seems hardly tenable. Things too far gone to respond to skilful treatment are certainly not worth having. Those which have measurably survived neglect and abuse deserve to be restored as nearly as possible to an estate normal to years of decent usage.
Briefly, in the restoring of antique furniture there is, or should be, an attainable golden mean, a sensible and temperate procedure, which, without countenancing misguided attempts at rejuvenation, will nevertheless accord to age its appropriate revelation of native vitality and inherent beauty. For those persons who would seek that mean and find it, I can think of no safer guidance—both philosophical and practical—than is discoverable in the pages of this book. For many years, the chief pastime of Henry Hammond Taylor, its author, has been the collecting and repairing of early American furniture. As a result, he is now possessed of an impressive assemblage of specimens, which he has himself dissected, analyzed, put together again, and, where necessary, restored and refinished. Some among his pieces have called for renewals in vital and conspicuous places. Yet, whether the required operation has been slight or extensive, it has, in every instance, been performed with such understanding, such sympathy—if I may use the term—and such rare combination of thoroughness and restraint as to afford no ground for criticism of things either left undone or carried to excess. And, not least important, the methods which he has employed are simple, straightforward, and quite within the comprehension of the average layman. His tools and apparatus are such as he has been able to house in a small workshop in his own home. Processes calling for more elaborate equipment he entrusts to professional hands. Judged by visible results, his methods are entirely adequate.
It was observation of these facts that led me to persuade Mr. Taylor to prepare for the magazine Antiques a series of brief articles on the restoration of furniture. Their publication met with sufficient success fully to justify their present expansion into book form. As now offered, their material has undergone essential amplification. An invaluable chapter on the philosophy of collecting has been added. Specific directions for the cleaning and refinishing of various kinds of wood have been made more specific, and have been clarified in matters of detail. The number of illustrations, all of them carefully prepared for this one treatise, has been greatly increased. The chapter on the proper choice of hardware is virtually new, and should remove many of the perplexities which beset amateur collector and professional cabinetmaker alike.
Perhaps relatively few of those who read this book will themselves attempt furniture refinishing on their own account. However lucid the given directions, they yet involve the expenditure of a good deal of time, labor, and patience, and a closer communion with unpleasant liquids than is calculated to rejoice fastidious noses or delicately nurtured hands. Nevertheless, knowledge of how such work should be performed, and of the results to be expected from it, is an essential part of every collector's equipment. Only with its aid may the owner of fine old items hope to safeguard them from mishandling by workmen brought up in the late tradition of flawless and highly polished wood surfaces, and of unnecessary substitutions of new parts for old.
Incidentally, too, the collecting neophyte who is at pains not only to absorb Mr. Taylor's direct comments but to realize their implications is likely to find himself, in the end, possessed of an unexpectedly fresh and penetrating critical vision. It is a fault of much writing on ways to detect fraudulent antiques that major emphasis is laid on the search for flaws, while training in the recognition of excellence is neglected. As a matter of fact, success in the collecting of antiques—as in all other of life's activities—lies not so much in avoiding the bad as in cleaving to the good. He who establishes an intelligent standard and rejects whatsoever falls below its level is in little danger of committing serious errors. In this book Mr. Taylor does not devote so much space to considering the specific earmarks of fraud as to steadfastly demonstrating the insignia of genuineness and quality; and he drives his points home not only with words, but with pictures so presented as to make them an inescapable part of the reader's visual memory. In thus enabling the beginning collector to acquire an affirmative rather than a negative point of view, he has performed an unusual and highly valuable service.
Of general works on period styles in furniture, and on the historic backgrounds of furniture, there are already a sufficient number to meet the normal requirements of both novitiate and veteran collector, and these are mentioned in the present volume. For some time, however, the need for a supplementary work of a semi-technical nature has been apparent. Thanks to the efforts of Mr. Taylor and his publishers that need seems now to be met. Various circumstances have pleasantly conspired to give to "Knowing, Collecting and Restoring Early American Furniture" a textual completeness and a fullness and aptness of pictorial illustration such as are seldom permitted to books intended primarily for popular consumption. They should insure its deserved occupancy of a permanent and honored place in the collector's library.
Homer Eaton Keyes new york city february, 1930
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ABOUT fifty years ago, when the subject of English furniture first began to be studied and to be written about, it was divided conveniently into four distinct types. One writer called his books on the subject The Age of Oak, The Age of Walnut, The Age of Mahogany and The Age of Satinwood. It is not really quite as simple as that, for each of the so-called Ages overlaps the others and it is quite impossible to lagt down strict dates as to when any one timber was introduced or when it finally, if ever, went out of favour.