It is easy to overlook what we would see now as the most essential of items. Yet, the first recorded process of making a mirrored glass plate was in Venice in 1507, through silvering – a complex and lengthy process in which mercury would be adhered to a sheet of glass. So difficult was the process that it wasn’t until 1621 that mirrors started to be made in England.
Ormolu, the technique for gilding bronze, used throughout the eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries, involved the application of a mixture of ground gold and mercury followed by a firing in a kiln to just over 1000 ºC. Sevres Porcelain, the most desired of which is from the 18th century, would be fired over 12 times to achieve the glaze on every colour used in the designs.
The knowledge involved to create what was the most precious of items emerged through decades, and sometimes centuries of experimentation. These discoveries were not without their risks and the creation of both ormolu and mirror gave off toxic gases which led to a number of terrible health issues which would lead to the early death of the craftsman.
These scientific methods used to create new manufacturing processes and materials document the development of modern Europe as well as the history of the decorative arts. Cartography and globe-making flourished in the Netherlands in the sixteenth century as the Dutch expanded their exploration and sea trade. Chinoiserie found its way into the 18th century taste as England travelled further around the globe. The flourishing trade in tea caddies, kettle stands and tripod tables emerged to accommodate the ceremony of tea drinking, something which again developed through the development of trade in Europe.
Alongside these technical advances were the skills of the makers themselves – for example, solid ebony furniture is very rare because of its expense and scarcity and also because as a very dense and hard wood, it can be temperamental and difficult for craftsmen. Thomas Chippendale embraced developments in modern printing to create an unsurpassed legacy, producing The Director for his furniture designs, and outstripping his competitors in lesser known areas, such as the ingenious method he developed for building into his furniture a method for transporting them.
Thomas Chippendale’s work can be distinguished from his particular style in the production of his furniture. Yet the maker’s mark or label gives a piece a certainty or a rarity that is further appreciated. Giles Grendey, for example, is notable for his particular style, of the form of the bureau plats which he designed but for which few maker’s labels survive.
The skill of the craftsman and the quality of the material is immediately evident in the very best furniture. What really gives the most important and valuable antiques their context in history is their provenance. To know that a set of twelve chairs was not only used in but also commissioned for Spencer House gives their design and form a meaning that can be understood in the history of the Spencer family, and of the Althorp Estate as well as the history of the decorative arts. To know that the Spencers were commissioning Francois Herve to design their furniture also gives us a better understanding of Herve’s workshop and their importance in the 18th century.
In some cases, provenance can lead to us developing new understandings of moments in history and rediscovering something forgotten for centuries. The giltwood wall trophy currently for sale at Mallett, was designed by Henry Holland for Carlton House, the residence of George IV when Prince of Wales. Four trophies are still extant at Buckingham Palace and Sir Geoffrey de Bellaigue’s research showed that eight were likely to have been commissioned in total. It wasn’t until the current wall trophy came to us from a private collector that we could begin to piece together more of the history of Carlton House and of the Prince Regent’s extraordinary life.
The depth of the history of the decorative arts can begin to be explored on our website in our detailed encyclopaedia which we hope will help to explain further the collecting value for comparable pieces of furniture, which are marked in difference purely by the quality of their wood. It is in this area that we have 150 years of experience: of supplying furniture to the world’s best museums and galleries, and to devoted collectors.
What one should take however from the value we place in antiques is one of personal enjoyment. That, as well as the technical skill and devotion of time expended on creating a bureau plat in 17th century Germany, it is knowing that the joy in finding a secret compartment in which to keep the most important letters and keepsakes brought the same satisfaction and appreciation of beauty to its owner400 years ago.