The Architecture of the Trade – antique, second-hand, and reproduction furniture

A longer than usual Blog entry – but the issues are complex! – I recently visited Tyne & Wear archives (at the Discovery Museum in Newcastle) to have a look at the archive of an antique dealer named Robertson, trading in Newcastle in the 1960s and 1970s. Unfortunately we couldn’t find the archive! I did have a reference (1556) from the National Archives site (honest!) and it suggested that the archive was in Newcastle, but there’s no record of it at T&W archives – more digging is needed.

Anyway, I didn’t waste the day, I had a look at the archive of George Hobbs Limited, which dates from c.1921 up to 1967. Investigating the Hobbs archive has directed attention again to key issues we are dealing with in the research for the project – we’ve had endless discussions about this! And that is who/what we include in our ‘cultural geography’ of the antique trade. The main point here is that any history of the antique trade needs to address both the mutability of the term ‘antique’ (more on that in a future blog entry), and the hybridity of antique trade itself. Historically the ‘Antique Trade’ has involved a complex overlapping of practices and initiatives. Hobbs is a good case in point.

George Hobbs is not listed under ‘antique dealers’ in the trade directories in the period 1920s-1950s, but is firmly categorised under ‘Furniture Dealers’  or ‘Furniture Brokers’- in the period in question this would normally indicate that Hobbs was a ‘second-hand’ furniture dealer.  You’ll already see a key point here…when does ‘second-hand’ furniture become ‘antique’ – the notion is too complex to deal with here in a short blog entry, but it’s worth holding that thought for now.

What is interesting about the Hobbs archive though is how it illustrates how ‘trade directory’ classifications are themselves a meta-classificatory form, one that smooths out, elides and indeed often obscures the complex nature of antique trade.  The stock books of Hobbs clearly demonstrate this (to me anyway!) –  the early stock books of the firm (dating from 1930s) clearly show that the majority of the furniture that they sold was described as ‘antique’ – here’s a few examples:

‘Old Chippendale armchair’ which was listed as valued at £1.0.0. [this is pre-decimal currency] in January 1939. Again, there’s not space here to deal with the semantic field but it’s worth noting the descriptive term ‘Old’….

‘Antique Mah[ogany] Bow Chest’, which was bought for £7.0.0. [this is pre-decimal currency) in August 1944, and sold for £29.10.0 [they did quite well out of this transaction!] in September 1945.

‘Antique Mahogany DL [drop leaf] table’ which was bought at the auction house of Anderson & Garland in September 1944 for £3.5.0. and following some restoration costing £3.19.0, was sold in January 1945 for £22.0.0.

There are many more examples in the stock books in the 1930s and mid 1940s of the sales of ‘antique furniture’, alongside quite obvious ‘second-hand’ and household furniture – things such as ‘4ft Hair Mattress’ bought for £5.10.0. in May 1945, and sold later that same month for £8.5.0. What is striking is that by the early 1950s the stock books clearly indicate that the selling of ‘antique’ furniture by Hobbs was much less common and second-hand furniture seems to have become much more the main trading activity of the firm. There may, of course, be some very specific reasons for the gradual change in the trading activities, but the point is that all the while that Hobbs was selling ‘antiques’ the firm remained in the trade directories at least, as ‘furniture brokers’.

Searching for ‘Hobbs’ in the trade directories in the archives at the Discovery Museum also illustrates a, by now, familiar pattern of practices that form, morph into, the ‘antique trade’ (if you’ve read my Dictionary of 19th Century Antique & Curiosity Dealers (2009/2011) you’ll read about this formation – (sorry for the plug there…I still have some copies btw if you’re interested!…).

Anyway, the firm of ‘George Hobbs Limited’ was incorporated in 1925 (as ‘Cabinet Makers and House Furnishers’…yet another practice!) – they appear to begin with ‘James Hobbs’ listed as ‘Chair Manufacturer’ at 14 Pilgrim Street, Newcastle, in trade directories in 1874; James Hobbs is then listed as ‘Cabinetmaker’ in 1886, before a listing as ‘Furniture Broker’ in 1889, when his son, George Hobbs, was also listed at 88 Pilgrim Street, as ‘Furniture Dealer’.  George Hobbs continues to be listed in the trade directories in the early 1900s to the 1920s as ‘Furniture Broker’.

This ‘problem’ in terms of classification is helpful though, as it directs attention to the complex nature of the history of the antique trade. Indeed, here’s another example to reinforce (and complicate) the point – it’s also an opportunity to show some photographs of another archive that I recently acquired, and that will be a useful resource for the research project of course!

The archive is from the firm of W.W. Hawkins, St. Michaels Tudor Works, Bond Street, Ipswich, Suffolk, and is composed of a number of albums of photographs and working drawings of furniture designs, and dates from c.1917 to to c.1960. Hawkins supplied ‘handmade, hand-carved’ reproduction furniture – the ‘Furniture of Old England’ as the livery on their vans indicated:

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W.W. Hawkins delivery van, c.1950.

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Reproduction furniture made by W.W. Hawkins c.1950.

And here’s an example of the kind of oak furniture (sometimes described as ‘Jacobethan’) – for those that are interested, the descriptions, left to right, are: ‘Tallboy, £34.19.0; Dressing Table £22.7.0.; Mirror £14.13.0. Stool £4.6.0.; 5ft Wardrobe £72.3.6.; 4ft Wardrobe £37.10.0.’

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Design for a chair: W.W. Hawkins – design dated 1953.

Here’s also a design for a late 17th century style armchair. The archive is a fascinating insight into the fashion for reproduction antique furniture in the period.

I can’t categorically say that Hawkins sold ‘antique’ furniture as well as manufacturing reproduction antique furniture, but one of the photograph albums certainly appears to have illustrations of genuine antique furniture – they may have been models for the craftsworkers at Hawkins of course – this example (below) is one of a number of pieces in an album dated c.1917-1927 that appear to be genuine examples.

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But even if Hawkins did not actually retail antique furniture there are plenty of examples of ‘antique furniture manufacturer’s’ also selling genuine antique furniture alongside the practice of furniture making, and, as I’ve suggested above, this was a practice through which the ‘antique trade’ as we now understand it, emerged. There are many other hybrid forms of course, ‘Interior Decorators’ is just one that automatically comes to mind, and part of the objectives of the present research project is to ‘unpack’ (as we say in academia!) these complex practices….

Mark

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