Monday, April 16, 2018

Restoring an Old Rocker

QUESTION:  This rocking chair was left at our house by one of the previous residents. We live in a very old home (built around 1910) which makes me think the chair might be old too. Can you tell me it’s age?

ANSWER: Your chair probably dates to sometime in the early 20th century. I'm sorry I can't be more exact. It looks like it had been painted and someone tried to strip off the paint. They probably found it too much of a job, so they just abandoned it.

You’ve probably heard on the Antiques Roadshow that refinishing antique furniture can diminish its value. But in a case like yours, it can only improve it.

Before you do anything, take time to inspect your chair for any identifying labels or marks that may help you research its origin. Check the overall condition of the wood. If a piece looks to be valuable, leave it alone, or have a professional do the work. In this case, you can do the work yourself.

I would suggest fixing the chair. The part that seems to be apart on the left side of the seat can probably be pressed down and reglued. Use a generous amount of Elmer's wood glue and several C clamps. Let it set for several days.

Wash the chair using a sponge with a scrubby side and a mixture of anti-grease dishwashing detergent and water. You can use this on your chair because it’s been fairly stripped down, but you wouldn’t use the scrubby sponge on a piece with a varnished or painted surface, no matter how bad it looks. Don’t get the chair too wet. Do one part at a time and wipe immediately.

After the chair dries, you'll want to sand it---first with a 150-grit sandpaper wrapped around a block of wood or one of those sanding blocks. Follow this with a finer grade.

Finally, you'll want to select a good paint. Although Home Depot has some great
one-coat paints, in this instance you probably should use an undercoat and a final coat. The wood is dry and has been through a lot, so you'll want to seal it. Frankly, you can paint it whatever color you like. If you can see the color of the old paint, you could use that as a guide. Choose a semi-gloss finish. And give the seat at least two coats.

Even if a piece isn’t a rare antique, it’s best to take the path of least resistance. Sometimes, all a piece will need is a good cleaning. Murphy’s Oil Soap will do a good job while giving the wood back some of its much-needed oil.

The joints of older pieces of furniture tend to dry out over time. This causes them to loosen. Using a little wood glue and a special glue applicator syringe, it’s possible to leave the piece intact while re-gluing them. You’ll also need some C clamps and perhaps one of those fabric clamps to hold everything in place while the glue sets.

If you have a piece of furniture with parts missing, you can try to replace them. However, this may take more woodworking skills than you possess. The best advice is not to try gerry-rigging a part if you can’t find a replacement and just leave the piece as is. Finer pieces may indeed be worth the cost of professional restoration.

If you can fix up this old rocking chair, it will make a fine addition to your porch and give you pleasure for years to come.

To read more articles on antiques, please visit the Antiques Article section of my site.  And to stay up to the minute on antiques and collectibles, please join the other 18,000 readers by following my free online magazine, #TheAntiquesAlmanac. Learn more about the Victorians in the Winter 2018 Edition, "All Things Victorian," online now.  

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Colorful Elegance of Murano Glass

QUESTION: Last year to went on vacation to Italy. While there, I visited Venice. One day, I took a boat over to Murano, a group of islands where they make glass. I saw a lot of tacky souvenirs, but then I happened on the studio of one of the glass artists. His work was beautiful. I think I’d like to start collecting Murao glass, but I have no idea where to start. What can you tell me about it? How collectible is it?

ANSWER: While Murano glass has been made for several centuries, collecting those antique pieces may be out of your league. But you could start a collection of pieces from the 1950s or sooner.

Murano glass objects have gone up in price in recent years. Those items made in the 1950s are especially popular because of their reasonable prices. Typically, Murano pieces are low bowls and ashtrays with abstract shapes. Some are rounded or blobbed, kind of like an amoeba. Others have pointed "fingers" in the design which reach outward or up in many directions. A few stand higher, with fingers reaching upward to form a handle for a basket. There are also bud vases. All are have deep, vibrant colors, and all are heavy and have polished smooth bottoms.

Murano is a series of islands linked by bridges in the Veneto, or Venetian Lagoon, less than a mile north of Venice. Today, it has a population of over 5,000 and is famous for its glassmaking. This reputation as a center for glassmaking came about when the Venetian Republic, fearing fire and destruction of the city's mostly wooden buildings, ordered glassmakers to move their foundries to Murano in 1291. The glassmakers of Murano have specialized in fancy glasswares ever since.

They developed or refined many glassmaking technologies, including crystalline glass, smalto or enameled glass, goldstone or golden glass, mullefiori or multicolored filement glass, or milk glass, and imitation gemstones made of glass. Today, the artisans of Murano still use these centuries-old techniques, crafting everything from contemporary art glass and glass figurines to Murano glass chandeliers, as well as tourist souvenirs..

Murano's glassmakers eventually became the island’s most prominent citizens. By the 14th century, glassmakers could wear swords, enjoyed immunity from prosecution by the Venetian state, and had permission for their daughters to marry into Venice’s most affluent families. But there was a downside. Glassmakers weren’t allowed to leave the Republic. Anyone caught exporting professional glasmaking secrets was put to death. Many craftsmen took this risk and set up glass furnaces in surrounding cities and as far afield as England and the Netherlands. By the end of the 16th century, three thousand of Murano island's seven thousand inhabitants were involved in some way in the glassmaking industry.

The late 19th century saw a resurgence in the art of glassmaking on Murano. By the turn of the 20th century, they only produced special pieces for La Biennale di Venezia, the Venice Biennale, an international art exhibition that began in 1895.

Following World War I, the glassmaking factories began normal production of non-traditional pieces. By the 1930s, they began producing pieces in the Art Deco style. This continued until the Biennale of 1942, at which the Murano glassmakers outdid themselves by exhibiting pieces in exciting shapes and colors that brought a lift to war-weary Venice.

Some of Murano's historical glass factories, including De Biasi, Gabbiani, Venini, Salviati, Barovier & Toso, Pauly, Berengo Studio, Seguso, Formia International, Murno Gladst, Simone Cenedese, Alessandro Mandruzzato, Vetreria Ducale, Estevan Rossetto 1950, remain well known brands today,. The oldest glass factory is Antica Vetreria Fratelli Toso, founded in 1854.

Overall, the Murano glass industry has been shrinking as demand has waned. Imitation works from Asia and Eastern Europe have stolen an estimated 40-45 percent of the market for Murano glass, and public tastes have changed while the designs in Murano have largely stayed the same. The difficult and low-paying nature of the work has decreased  the number of professional glassmakers in Murano from about 6000 in 1990 to fewer than 1000 today.

Today, about 50 companies use the Artistic Glass Murano® trademark of origin. Regionale di Veneto Law Numero.70, passed in 1994, introduced this trademark and continues to regulate it. While glass factories on Murano aren’t required to apply for the trademark and many choose not to, works that bear it have their authenticity guaranteed.

One of the main characteristics of Murano glass is its bubble-free quality. By adding fluxes and stabilizers such as soda and lime to silica sand, glassmakers can melt the glass at a lower temperature, making the glass homogeneous and bubble free. While basic Murano glass is colorless, the addition of small amounts of minerals, oxides, and chemical derivatives to the base composition of the glass powder gives it its brilliant colors.

Today, the island of Murano is synonymous with glass. Everything imaginable is made from Murano glass: wine goblets, vases, candlestick holders, miniature animals, paperweights, chandeliers, lampshades, dinner services, tiny pieces of glass candy, beads, and every kind of jewelry you can imagine. There’s tremendous variety in quality, price, and style. When it’s quickly turned out for a cheap profit among the tourist trade, it can look hideous. When it’s well done, Murano glass is exquisitely beautiful.

Learn more about Venice by reading "Venice Sets the Stage for Magical Moments" in the Travel Article section of my Web site.

To read more articles on antiques, please visit the Antiques Article section of my site.  And to stay up to the minute on antiques and collectibles, please join the other 18,000 readers by following my free online magazine, #TheAntiquesAlmanac. Learn more about the Victorians in the Winter 2018 Edition, "All Things Victorian," online now.  


Thursday, April 5, 2018

Idealized Scenes from Life

QUESTION: I’ve grown to love the scenes on English transferware. I’ve got a small collection that I add to from time to time. How did the makers of these wares know what sort of scenes to use to decorate their wares? Were they trying to illustrate stories or myths? Nearly all of the scenes on my pieces are rural. Is there a reason for that?

These are all good questions. The Victorians had a method to their madness, as the old saying goes. As it turns out, the scenes on your Staffordshire transferware pieces were a direct result of historic events and the lifestyles that people led at the time.

During the 19th century, Victorians began exploring the world around them.  Technological advances enabled them to make more ambitious voyages of discovery. And as they journeyed farther from home, their views of the natural world changed. This changing perspective reflected in the decorations of 19th-century ceramics ranging from early historical and romantic Staffordshire transfer printed wares to late 19th-century majolica. Idealized wilderness and pastoral scenes could be found on all types of vessels and dishes.

By this time Americans had begun to develop a different view of the land. To the Puritans, wilderness had been considered a land of devils and demons, a domain to be feared. But the Victorians reveled in the beauty of nature.

The American frontier had been pushed westward. Following this trend, Staffordshire potteries began producing transfer printed landscapes illustrating the popular, romantic ideal of nature. Favorite spots such as Niagara Falls and Newport, Rhode Island, began to accommodate sightseers. And the Romantic Movement of the first half of the 19th century influenced the images on ceramics, from country scenes to floral motifs.

The Victorians developed a passion for natural history. They chronicled what they found in journals--the world's flora, fauna, and sea life—and created museums for their discoveries, erecting home conservatories, and published illustrated volumes on the natural sciences. Staffordshire artists thumbed through botany texts and visited botanical gardens and zoos, sketch-pads in hand, for inspiration. Some of this fascination may be seen in the border designs created by several of the potters of  Staffordshire wares and the floral motifs seen in Flow Blue.

Another reason for the popularity of a romanticized image of woodlands, mountains, sandy shores, and even idyllically situated American towns may be traced to the actual dirtiness and difficulty of life in both rural and urban landscapes.

Scenes on dinnerware were pristine by comparison. Several of the city views do show cattle and sheep in the foreground, but the cleanliness even of those scenes provided at least temporary escape from the dirtiness of the real world.

Another result of the Victorians’ fascination with nature, plus the Victorians’ obsession with death, was the Garden Cemetery Movement, born in Boston. In 1832, a group created the Auburn Cemetery, a large rural cemetery in rolling countryside with plenty of room for adequate burials. The site was also far enough away from the city to make grave robbery difficult. They adorned the  garden cemetery landscape with sculptures and artful groupings of trees and flowers to combine a necessity for more burial land with a desire to revel in nature.

The sylvan burial plots brought families to the large, rural cemeteries on picnics. Young couples took long strolls and individuals wandered among sepulchers and statuary to seek out moral lessons and inspiration. In essence, the new cemeteries became the first American public parks—places to commune both with nature and the dearly departed.

This combination of movements explains several unusual historical Staffordshire prints. Neither George Washington nor Benjamin Franklin would have ever expected anyone to spend time ruminating over his grave. Yet Enoch Wood & Son in both the illustrations of “Franklin's Tomb” and `Washington's Tomb” depict General Lafayette reclining by urn-capped tombs drawing inspiration from the resting places of his departed allies. Edward and George Phillips, two other noted artists of the time, show a young couple gazing at a tomb in an open glade in their print “Franklin.” This example appeared on a handless tea cup. Enoch Wood & Sons produced the most unusual print and the one that illustrates romantic death, titled “Washington Standing by His Own Tomb With a Scroll in His Hand.”

So the illustrations on pieces of Staffordshire aren’t random but related to the everyday lives of the people who used those dishes and other ceramic vessels.

Learn more about the Victorian obsession with death by reading "When Death Came A-Calling" in The Antiques Almanac.