THE PEDESTAL IN CONVERSATION WITH OUR EARLY OAK FURNITURE AND OBJECTS SPECIALIST, SIMON GREEN
The Pedestal: You pioneered and developed specialist sales of Early Oak, in the early 1990s, tell us a bit about this market and why oak was so prevalent as a material for furniture and other objects?
Simon Green: Oak furniture certainly enjoyed a boom period during the 1990s. It was the era of the distinct catalogue for every specialist category and Christie’s created Oak & Country Furniture together with associated treen, sculpture, objects and Folk art the year after I joined South Kensington. Everybody thought oak belonged in the provinces, but the concept was a success for London and there were auctions three times a year.
Oak furniture is after all plentiful, surviving in vast numbers from the 17th and early 18th centuries, although in smaller numbers pre-1600, but often more interesting. It works for furnishing early properties (naturally), smaller cottage interiors and for city homes, for serious collectors and those simply furnishing, as well as sitting very comfortably alongside 20thc art and the minimalist setting (picture a fine 17th century chest below a Kyffin Williams painting, for example). Collectors may choose to buy items with a distinct regional flavour (eg Yorkshire or Gloucestershire) or have a collecting theme. The variety is enormous and personal preference plays a big part, some will like busy carved decoration, others more restrained decoration, with or without marquetry, well-patinated, simple lines.
After the year 2000 the market levelled out and today, like many areas of the decorative arts, the market tends to somewhat polarised between the ordinary furniture and the best with a wide price differential. Some items seem to be such good value, for example the ubiquitous dresser, regularly hitting five figure sums back in the 90s, whilst today they are much more subdued and even inexpensive. But the unusual and quirky still hold their appeal and a 17th century marriage chest (named and dated) in November 2017 jumped into five figures in one of our auctions at The Pedestal.
TP: Some of the pieces from this area were created as early as 1500, how is it that they have survived for so long?
SG: I think it is fair to say that the oak tree is generally held in high regard, a symbol of strength. The reason why oak furniture stands the test of time is that it is tough and durable. It is also generally very resistant to woodworm which is important. In the 17th and 18th centuries it was the timber of choice for ship-building and house building and the domestic furniture market, used plentifully by provincial cabinet-makers and joiners. British oak was plentiful but oak was also imported from Europe. It was usually referred to as wainscot, was more expensive and was used extensively in panelling.
Much oak is rich in tannin (tannic acid) which over time corrodes any ironwork, including nails, hence the stain found around hinges and locks, particularly if the furniture has been in damp conditions.
TP: Tell us how you got into the auction world and what attracted you to furniture as a specialist area?
SG: Although I started my career in the mid 1980s in a completely different department at Phillips Son & Neale in London, I soon realised I wanted to join the Furniture department. Apart from being very practical, the sheer volume and variety of both English and Continental furniture on the London market at the time was phenomenal and I was fascinated by all the different styles, timbers and surfaces. I became a saleroom porter for a year (best way to learn) and then a junior cataloguer. I joined Christie’s South Kensington in 1992. I knew very quickly that furniture of the 17th century held a particular interest for me.
TP: How easy it is to recognise woods and other than oak what are your favourites?
SG: Knowing your timbers well comes with time and the experience of handling many items each year. Sometimes you can still be stumped. Oak can, at times, resemble chestnut or even ash, but knowing a little about the biological properties of woods and how it behaves can be very helpful.
Elm and yew are two other favourite timbers of mine. Elm has strong figuring and it is the preferred choice for Windsor chair seats.
Yew, especially a burr, can be so attractively knotty, tightly-grained and uneven and can have a wonderful patina. Again, used in the best Windsor chairs, or for smaller objects, but occasionally as a table top when it can positively glow.
TP: Tell us about a few of the interesting and unusual pieces you have seen?
SG: Two items spring to mind.
One was the earliest oak chest I have offered at auction, known as the Boughton Monchelsea chest, (named after the house in Kent), dated to circa 1450, English or Flemish, a wonderfully patinated large chest with a beautifully carved front panel depicting buildings and a hunting scene. It sold in 1999 for the princely sum of £24,000.
A second is the unique set of three large carved oak panels dated to circa 1550 depicting King Edward VI, King Solomon and the Motto of the Order of the Garter, encircling a Tudor Rose – they are extremely finely carved. The panels are illustrated in Victor Chinnery’s book Oak Furniture, The British Tradition (1979 & 2016). They came to auction with The Pedestal, lot 270, in The William H. Stokes Collection, 4th March 2019 and sold for £15,000.
TP: Other than the UK, where are the other markets for Early Oak?
SG: The main market for oak has always been the domestic market in the UK. It is appreciated by buyers in Northern Europe and at times this market has been important and remains so for early oak, sculpture and works of art. The American market is not quite as strong as it used to be, but is still very active.
TP: You are on the vetting committee for several fairs, Olympia, Battersea and Masterpiece, what is involved here and what are your duties?
SG: I have been involved with vetting at the London fairs for many years. This is basically ensuring that an item is what it says it is on the ticket. It gives re-assurance and confidence to buyers who may not have the detailed knowledge to know precisely what they are buying. It’s also about quality control, to ensure items of furniture are not adapted, altered or a marriage. The process is straightforward, every stand at a fair is visited the day before the fair opens and every item in your own discipline is reviewed.
TP: What have you been up to most recently?
SG: I have been working on a project at the National Trust, re-assessing and re-cataloguing the furniture across their collections. It has been hugely enjoyable and a real privilege to examine the furniture at close quarters in houses up and down the country.
All the NT updated information and new research is available online here.
TP: If one were to own just one piece of oak, which item would be quintessentially oak and why?
SG: A quintessential item of oak is perhaps difficult to define, as personal preference will always play a part. It may be that chest positioned beneath a favourite painting or a joined stool for your coffee cup as opposed to sitting on, an evocative tester bed, or a well-patinated table, but for me it would be a good solid oak armchair to relax in.
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