Many picturesque ruins of medieval buildings throughout Europe would still be habitable if the local landowner had not purloined their expensive lead roofing to use on his own castle. The sparkling white villages of the Greek islands owe their brilliance to a coating of lime, some of which was produced by burning ancient Greek marble statues and architectural fragments unearthed by the local peasant-farmers’ ploughs.
‘Antiques are green’ is the catch-cry of the day. The focus has been on two very positive aspects of the antiques industry. The products in antiques shops are indeed green as they can be used without having to be smashed up, melted down and recast in a new form, using considerable energy in the process than even conventional recycling.
The carbon footprint of most of Roy’s Antiques stock has been amortised over at least eight generations! More significantly, antiques shops use insignificant amounts of packaging compared with shops selling new products. How many of us return from a shopping trip to find ourselves faced with a vast mountain of packaging that will challenge the weekly bin’s capacity, and a pathetically tiny pile of actual goods. Mentally, add to this a comparable pile of rubbish that the shopkeeper has already discarded. One is aghast!
The antiques industry was already well established 2000 years ago in ancient Rome. It has always been involved in the conservation of materials and energy, albeit accidentally. This is particularly evident in the furniture made over the last 400 years: the things you will find in Australian shops. Almost no pieces are in their original (and consequently much prized) condition. Daily use has necessitated re- polishing, re-upholstering and replacement of handles and casters, etc.
Practicality and fashion have also intervened. Double-heighted pieces have often been separated into two pieces of furniture. The chest on chest becomes two chests of drawers. The bookcase becomes a sideboard and a china cabinet. Outmoded washstands become desks. Even in altered condition, they represent carbon capture in its most elegant form.
In our own shop, we have a wide variety of recycled or up-cycled (current buzzword) objects. I see no problems with such stock as long as it is properly labelled and understood. There are no real pairs of Georgian period bedside cabinets, despite public optimism. However, we have a pair of bedside cabinets of entirely Georgian construction, complete with original handles and inlay. That they were originally part of a Regency sideboard is not obvious.
There is a particularly charming example of historic recycling. It is a chest completed in circa 1810, but the drawers, complete with handles, are circa 1750. Clearly the cost of an up-to-date chest of drawers for a Regency beau was ameliorated by reusing the drawers from grandma’s old fashioned Chippendale chest.
Jane Austen would find much of Roy’s Antiques’ furniture quite familiar. We generally stay before 1840, partly so our furniture is artisanal, handmade by a craftsman, as opposed to being mass produced with steam powered machines in Victorian factory conditions. Nevertheless, we seldom stock ‘Wardour Street specials,’ recycling well known to the famous author. In her novel Northanger Abbey she lampoons early 19th century obsession with the Gothick past.
The mania for building half ruined castles produced a demand for genuine and spurious medieval furniture. To satisfy the demand, cabinetmakers cobbled together Dracula castle-style furniture out of old broken bits and from the recycled oak beams of demolished barns. These faux medieval pieces, now genuinely antique being 1820s, are known traditionally after one street specialising in the supply of such domestic props. There are many shops today proudly selling tables that last week were floorboards in Victorian houses, so the tradition flourishes.
While many historic examples of recycling were undertaken by the frugal and prudent, even royalty could enjoy participation. The famous set of much altered library furniture now in Windsor Castle was made by Marsh and Tatham in 1806. This includes a table substantially remade in 1836. Holland &Sons added a glazed cabinet top to it in 1863, and the base was completely remodelled from square to octagonal sometime after 1866. In the face of such enthusiasm for renovation, it is remarkable any furniture survives 200 years in its original state.
Sometimes recycling leads to bizarre and comical results. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries the aristocracy would express their wealth through their lavish, breathtakingly expensive clothes. When these were too worn to remake in the latest fashion, the clothes were given to servants and poor relations. In this way the landowner demonstrated his wealth by having servants arrayed in expensive though unfashionable finery.
Throughout the 19th century and up until WW I, this led to the aristocracy customarily being attended by armies of servants identically dressed in 18th century style costume complete with knee breeches and powdered wigs.
One vital resource for the antiques industry is an accident of recycling. Precious metals have been endlessly recycled throughout history, so that the few survivors from the remote past come from burials of some kind. Even the fabulous silver furniture commissioned by Louis XIV for Versailles was melted down within his lifetime to finance his military imperatives.
However this constant recycling of silver and gold has given antiques collectors a great treasure: hallmarks and silver marks. Hallmarks are the marks applied by the government under strict controls, and existed in Britain, Russia and most European countries. This contrasts with the silver marks applied directly by the makers in countries where the industry was self regulating: Australia and America being notable examples.
These wonderful marks enable us to identify the time and place of manufacture, as well as the maker, of many silver items. For 700 years, however, they performed a purely pragmatic service. As silver was constantly being transmuted back and forth between coinage and domestic silver, the silver in household jugs, teapots, cutlery and even chamber pots had to be at least the purity of the nation’s coin.
If the coinage became polluted with substandard silver the economy would collapse, with the sort of consequences we have recently seen with the GFC. The marks ensured the accountable public servant was identifiable, should the unthinkable happen. Hence, the virtue of recycling can have benefits far beyond those immediately apparent.