Whether it's the tiny florals and neat geometrics of Laura Ashley or the lush botanicals of F. Schumacher or the clean lines of a Windsor chair, there's something about English style that is familiar, comfortable and instantly recognizable.
And certainly in the mid-Atlantic states, there's plenty of it around. So when the Maryland Historical Society was considering themes for its 20th annual antiques show and sale this weekend at the Boumi Temple, a celebration of British design influence seemed right on target.
"When we pick a theme [for the show,] we have often turned to looking at different influences," said Gregory Weidman, assistant director of the historical society. "We knew there would be a lot of interest in things English this fall, because of what the Baltimore Museum of Art was doing" with its exhibit of objects from London's Victoria & Albert Museum.
"We also try to choose topics for which our collections are representative," Weidman said, "and we have fabulous collections of English items owned by Marylanders." Items on display will include a chocolate pot owned by Sarah Covington (1683-1755) and candlesticks owned by one of George Washington's lieutenants, Tench Tilghman.
The event begins with a gala Thursday night, and Friday more than three dozen dealers will begin offering 18th- and 19th-century furniture, porcelains, paintings, jewelry and more.
A highlight of the event will be a panel discussion on English design, fabrics and furniture on Friday morning. Panels will offer insights on the evolution of British style and how to use objects like those at the sale to re-create it at home.
The moderator of the panel will be Annette Stramesi, editor of Colonial Homes magazine. Panelists will be Chris Jussel, antiques consultant, former antiques dealer (Vernay & Jussel in New York) and now of the popular PBS series "Chubb's Antiques Road Show;" Mary Frances Benko, vice president of Schumacher & Co. fabrics; and Phyllis Koch, a Maryland-based designer who spent seven years with the hotel division of the Laura Ashley design firm.
The continuing popularity of English design is based on comfort, said Koch. "People are looking for things that are more personal and more natural -- we have answering machines, computers, voice mail, the fax, so many things that aren't personal" in our lives. The relaxed elegance of English style "is something people can do, it's attainable, it's affordable, people feel comfortable with it."
The Laura Ashley style -- the meticulous prints and coordinating colors and mix-and-match floral and geometric patterns -- epitomizes English style, Koch said. Before Laura Ashley herself began block-printing tea towels in her kitchen 52 years ago, the look was available only from such prominent Anglo-American decorators as Nancy Lancaster and John Fowler. Now it's available in malls all over America, Koch said.
Ashley's designs and fabrics were reactions against the synthetic fabrics and (to today's eyes) garish designs of the '50s, Koch said. Instead, they draw on nature, and the relationship of interior and exterior spaces, typical of British design of earlier centuries.
Even though there were many influences on early American life, the British were often the first settlers, said Stramesi, of Colonial Homes. "What most of us forget," said antiques consultant Jussel, "is that we were an English country. Every American has it in his head that we sort of parachuted here in 1775" -- when in fact, the Colonies were already 100 years old when they sought independence. "All of the influences were English, with certain obvious exceptions," he said. "Certainly here on the East Coast the greatest tradition of design has been Anglo-American -- and it still is."
"One of the other things many of us don't recognize," said Jussel, "is that after the Revolution, the British continued to trade with us -- in fact they tried to 'dump' their household goods here" -- meaning they sold them for less than the cost of producing them -- "because they didn't want our industries to develop and become competitive with them."
The British continue to influence American style. Benko, for example, will be showing fabrics that reflect the enduring themes of British fabrics and wallcoverings from centuries ago to today.
She points to Schumacher's Royal Retreats line, a contemporary series of textiles and wallcoverings based on designs and objects found in five country estates: Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, Burghley House in Cambridgeshire, and Easton Neston in Northamptonshire in England and Blair Castle in Perthshire, Scotland.
Among the designs are Woburn Epingle, a carpet-style weave whose design was taken from a piece of carpet at Woburn Abbey, and Woburn Meadow, with its tone-on-tone floral trellis with depictions of deer.
At Woburn Abbey, Benko said, the Schumacher designers were looking for something with a dog or a horse that could be used as a motif. But then they found that the owners of Woburn Abbey raise deer. So the deer -- each with its own little deer expression -- found their way onto fabric and wallpaper.
Curiously, she said, the new designs didn't come from old fabrics. "We didn't find as many of those as we hoped, and a lot of the things we did find, we already had," she added. Schumacher maintains extensive archives of designs dating from the company's founding by Frederic Schumacher in 1889 in New York, and specializes in documentary prints -- patterns that can be documented as coming from a particular place at a particular time. But there were plenty of decorative objects for inspiration.
The historical society hopes the panel's wide and varied knowledge will inspire visitors to the antiques sale. This year, for the first time, the society collaborated with the Antiques Council in Southport, Conn., in selecting dealers for the show. Sixteen of the dealers will be making their first trip to the show this year.
Jussel had some general advice for antiques hunters: "Buyers should be looking for an object that appeals to them for two reasons: one, because they like it, and two, [because] they can ** afford it."
Find out why an object costs as much as it does, he said; one that seems expensive may be a better value than one that is priced at half the cost. These days, he said, savvy antiques buyers are showing much greater concern for the authenticity of objects than ever before, and for these buyers, as for the professional buyers and museums, objects that have a verifiable history are more desirable.
But above all, he said, "Look for an object that is useful and beautiful to look at. Because if it's not beautiful, why bother?"
History for sale
The Maryland Historical Society antiques show and sale takes place this coming weekend at the Boumi Temple, 4900 N. Charles St. The show will run 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $8 per day; $7 for society members.
Events include a gala preview party from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday, with cocktails, food from Linwood's, advance browsing and buying opportunities, and unlimited daily admission to the show. Tickets cost $95 and must be bought in advance.
There also will be a curator's show walk at 9: 45 a.m. Saturday, a tour led by society curators. Tickets are $20 and include breakfast and admission.
The lecture and luncheon, "England's Influence on Maryland's Heritage," takes place at 10: 30 a.m. Friday. Tickets are $45, with reserved tables for 10 available. Reservations are recommended.
Call 410-685-3750, Ext. 321.
Pub Date: 11/02/97