The Allure of Colour and Patina

When assessing the suitability of pieces of antique furniture for their collections, it is very common to hear connoisseurs and collectors talking about the colour and patination of pieces they are considering and, in this
post, we hope to be able to explain these concepts in a little more detail.


Firstly, it is important to differentiate between the two concepts as they are distinct. It is possible to find a piece of furniture that is a lovely colour but has been over-cleaned and has subsequently lost any trace of patination.
The colour of a piece of furniture sounds like a very simple concept. However, even here there are areas that may require further explanation for those who are just beginning to become interested in antique pieces. Unlike diamond grading for instance, there is no scale that is used to
measure the colour of a piece of furniture and compare it to a theoretical benchmark. Some collectors will prefer to seek out pieces which are very faded in colour, others will prefer something much richer.

The pair of early Georgian sgabello hall chairs in our collection are an extremely good example of what many collectors will try to find:

They display a full range of tones from very dark to an orange tint, rather like the leaves on the trees in autumn. It is this variety of colour that makes them so attractive and desirable.

This sofa table is an equally excellent colour but is more faded and, some would say, mellow. It too demonstrates a great range of tones, particularly clearly demonstrated on the drawer fronts, but clearly the range of the highlights and lowlights is different. The figuring and colour of the top is also excellent:

A wonderful example of really rich mahogany is our pair of side tables, attributed to Archibald Simpson, from Crimonmogate:

Again the range of colours is clear to see but the overall effect is a very deep, rich surface. It is likely that these tables would have stood between windows underneath pier mirrors and, particularly with their marble tops, would not have been exposed to too much sunlight over the years. This has
led to them maintaining this particular colour.

Patina is a term that is traditionally used to describe an additional layer that forms on the exterior surfaces of some metals as a result of oxidisation. However the phrase has been used in relation to furniture for many years, largely as a result of the works of the highly influential furniture historian
and consultant Robert Wemys Symonds. In his seminal work English Furniture from Charles II to George II, 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”.

Symonds, and many others, refer to the most patinated pieces of mahogany in particular as possessing a surface akin to the finest bronzes. A pair of chairs in our collection illustrate this well:

This particular model is one of the most celebrated chair designs of the 18th century. These chairs were handled by Norman Adams in the 1990s and are attributed to Gillows. Norman Adams Ltd. was particularly regarded for handling pieces of magnificent colour and fine patination.

In his book 18th Century English Furniture: The Norman Adams Collection, Christopher Claxton Stevens writes a fine essay on the subject of patina on furniture. He describes how patina is a very difficult topic to explain to someone who is not familiar with a large range of antique pieces – it takes some time for most people to begin to appreciate obvious signs of age and
not see them as imperfections. The best way to learn about patina is to visit a gallery such as ours and view, and handle, the pieces in person.

We always strive to find pieces of furniture with wonderful patination. One example is a quite beautiful mahogany linen press:

This piece has plenty to recommend it, including fielded panels to the doors, cross banding and wonderful colour but it is the glorious patina built up over the years that really applies the finishing touch. This piece has a surface that any collector would dream about.

We also have a serpentine commode attributed to William Gomm that is veneered in yew-wood. Aside from the lovely proportions and superb carved detail, it is the surface finish that catches the eye:

The variation in colour and the quality and depth of patination is quite extraordinary. This is a piece that has lived many lives before and looks all the better for it. Fine furniture, like fine wine, improves with age.

Another final example of patination is provided by a bureau in our current collection. This piece is smaller than average – a desirable characteristic – but what really sets the piece apart from most others of its type is the wonderful quality of the surface:

If you would like to learn more about any of these pieces, or indeed develop your own understanding of colour and patination, please do come and visit our gallery. We would be happy to see you and discuss this in more detail.

All photographs in the above article represent pieces either in the Mackinnon Fine Furniture current collection, or from our archive collection. If you are interested in any of the pieces, please do not hesitate to get in contact with us: http://www.mackinnonfineart.com

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