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For me, I’ve always found the most interesting and intriguing aspect of antiques is not just the wonderful craftsmanship and beautiful materials involved, but the history that comes with each object. I think it’s important to remember that these items have passed through the hands of many owners: from person to person, from house to house, over many years. Sometimes I’m supplied with lots of information on the history of a piece, but frequently I come across things with no known ‘story’ so I can only imagine where it has come from and who might have owned it. Was it a cherished keepsake? Something used and forgotten at the back of a cupboard? I’m left with lots of questions and who doesn’t love a mystery? From my point of view, it’s isn’t the intrinsic value that gives an object its importance, but that ineffable quality that ‘speaks’ to me about what its history may have been that I find the most compelling.
For instance, I’ve always been fascinated by tea caddies. From the late 17th century through the 19th these little caskets were made to hold that rare and precious commodity, China tea. When I handle one, I can’t help but wonder at the long and tedious journey those hand-picked leaves made from the cool hillsides of China to the hongs of Canton , to be packed into the hold of a merchant ship to make a months-long journey to the other side of the world, then passing through a bustling warehouse in Britain, before going to a shopkeeper’s premises, and eventually ending up under lock and key in a small compartmented box to be brought out by the lady or gentleman of the house for the social ritual of tea drinking. A caddy can take so many different forms and be made from so many different materials. Some can be quite elaborate, made of silver, ivory or tortoiseshell; others made of walnut, mahogany or satinwood, even papier maché. They can be decorated with intricate inlays, sometimes painted, sometimes plain. My personal favourites are those whimsical ones made in the shape of an apple or pear.
So many things to consider and imagine. It’s these stories, whether real or imagined, that bring these objects to life for me, and every time I handle one I like to think that I am too, in my own small way, now part of its story as well.
Douglas Girton is our Head of Department for Fine Furniture & Works of Art and a senior specialist in European Ceramics & Glass and Antique Clocks.
A native of Pennsylvania, United States, Douglas earned a BA in English Literature from Muhlenberg College, spending a term studying in York which was his first introduction to life and travel in the UK and Europe. Always possessing a keen interest in history, art and material culture, Douglas furthered his studies by earning an MFA from Sotheby’s Institute, London, where he was awarded a first degree for his work on the furniture designs of Ford Maddox Brown.
Douglas worked in the English & Continental Furniture & Decorative Arts department at Freeman’s in Philadelphia before being offered a position with Lyon & Turnbull in 2010. He finds his adopted home of Edinburgh an inspiring location and can still be awed by its many charms. He is, however, still trying to get used to the Scottish weather.