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Patina: A Record of Time in The English Interior

In the Dictionary of The Decorative Arts by John Fleming and Hugh Honour, the formal definition of the word ‘patina’ reads, “The effect produced, either naturally or artificially, on bronze by oxidation which turns the surface green; or, by extension, any lacquering or finishing other than gilding applied to bronze objects, especially statuettes. The term is also used figuratively for the surface texture of old furniture, silver, etc.” This explanation, designating the influence that each material can have on the commonly used term, is a tidy description compared to the variety and influence that patination can have on any given object. The color and patina of a piece of antique furniture make a significant impact on its desirability and are also subject to different taste preferences and collecting trends.  

When looking at furniture, the term ‘patina’ references the naturally occurring surface effects that give antique furnishings their gracefully aged characteristics. In his influential work, English Furniture from Charles II to George II, furniture historian and consultant Robert Wemys Symonds describes patina as something that, “endows (a piece) with an artistic merit and one that is inimitable, since it can only be produced by natural means-by long exposure to the atmosphere, bleaching by the sun, and the rubbing, polishing, dusting, touching and handling of generations during its many years of usage.” It is useful to note that antique furniture can still have a wonderful color quality but, due to over-cleaning, would substantially lose its patination. It is also true that “good” patina can be subjective. Some collectors may desire dark, rich tones that develop over time on hardwoods such as walnut and mahogany, while others look for distinctly faded finishes. If left to develop over time, patina can occur through happenstance determined by where a piece was placed in relation to a sun-drenched window, if financial circumstances prevented decades, even centuries, worth of surface cleaning, or how often a piece was being used in daily life. An antique dining table, for instance, can obtain marks akin to records of life, documenting generations of conversations, meals, and mishaps. 

To the untrained eye, patina can be as glaringly obvious as it is elusive, but recognizing key aspects of a true patina, or a lack thereof, becomes clearer with practice and up-close inspection. When an original or well-preserved patina is present, running one’s hand across the surface of the piece offers a wealth of additional knowledge. The edges, tops, and sides of an antique can speak volumes about its age and patinated history. Smooth edges, an uneven topography, and indentations consistent with age uncover hints and lovely imperfections. 

Included in our upcoming auction, The English Interior on March 9th, a George III Mahogany Serpentine-Front Chest of Drawers exhibits a handsome patina with an understated finish. A range of colors is present along the front of the drawers, complementing a well-carved serpentine bend. Lighter areas are especially noticeable where much of the activity would have taken place around the handles and escutcheons. Tracing one’s hand along the entirety of the piece allows us to feel the physical memories of use that add to its charm, from a symphony of small nicks across the bottom up to a well-lived, harmonious top.  


Time & Location

The English Interior on Thursday, March 9 at 11am

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