When Laurie McRae asks which members of the audience at her antiques seminars have seen a Chippendale chair in person, most of the attendees raise their hands.
Not so fast.
As it turns out, Thomas Chippendale was more than an excellent designer. He was also a consummate marketer who published a book of his designs that gained him vast popularity. In truth, he actually produced very little furniture. Most of his pieces are in the possession of museums.
“The study of antiques is as much a study of what was socioeconomic history as anything,” McRae said. “What was happening in the world that made them desire for, say, neoclassical lines as opposed to what they wanted before?”
Along with independent collector and appraiser David Towles, McRae will present a seminar on the telltale designs of period furniture at the Morris Museum of Art on Sept. 6.
McRae specializes in “period” furniture, which is to say what was produced at a point in time when the design was new. Chippendale, for example, incorporated simplified French rococo styles with some Chinese influences thrown in. He practically invented breakfront bookcases and serpentine-back sofas. But a chair cannot rightfully be called a Chippendale chair unless it was produced by his firm between about 1740 and 1779, the year he died.
These details are what antique experts use to separate pricey wares versus worthless ones. The classes that McRae teaches are eight-and-a-half hours long, but she’ll present a condensed version of her extensive knowledge to attendees of the Morris event.
“I can give them enough to make them dangerous,” she laughed.
The basics of identifying period furniture are to look at the primary and secondary woods used in construction, and the basic lines of the furniture.
For example, tiger maple indicates that a piece was constructed in New England. Walnut can date a piece to the 17th century, because a blight wiped out much of the walnut after that time, and the wood was not used again until the young trees grew back up. Mahogany began to be used in the 18th century, because it was resistant to insects and could be shipped long distances.
But it’s not all about furniture. Decorative accessories are very popular, and McRae and Towles will offer their knowledge in identifying those that can be carried into the seminar. No pianos, please.
But if, for example, someone in your family has uncovered what he thinks is a Native American clay horse sculpture while tearing up the back yard to build a fire pit, McRae and Towles might be able to help identify the piece. Looking at the manner of construction and material used, as well as wear patterns and other markers, they can often give the approximate age and place of origin of a piece. The clay horse is more likely a child’s toy from the ’50s, but one never knows for sure until an expert gives an opinion.