The man in front of the fire was telling us a story about his wife and a bottle of claret. He had taken her to the best restaurant in Paris and had introduced her to a bottle of the famous Chateau Whatsitsname, 1320 (or thereabouts), a wine absolutely priceless–although the management, with its customary courtesy, had allowed him to pay a certain amount for it. Not realizing that it was actually the famous Whatsitsname, she had drunk it in the ordinary way, neither holding it up to the light and saying, “Ah, there’s a wine!” nor rolling it round the palate before swallowing. On the next day they went to a commonplace restaurant and drank a local and contemporary vintage at five francs the bottle, of similar colour but very different temperament. When she had finished her glass, she said hesitatingly, “Of course, I don’t know anything about wine, and I dare say I’m quite wrong, but I can’t help feeling that the claret we had last night was better than this.”
The man in front of the fire was rather amused by this, as were most of his audience. For myself, I felt that the lady demanded my admiration rather than my amusement. Without the assistance of the labels, many of us might have decided that it was the five-franc vintage which was the better wine. She didn’t. Indeed, I am inclined to read more into the story than is perhaps there; I believe that she had misunderstood her husband, and had thought that the second bottle was the famous, aged, and priceless Chateau Whatsitsname, and that, in spite of this, she gave it as her opinion that the first wine, cheap and modern though it might be, was the better. Hats off, then, to a brave woman! How many of us would have her courage and her honesty?
But perhaps you who read this are an expert on wine. If so, you are lucky. I am an expert on nothing–nothing, anyhow, that matters. I envy all you experts tremendously. When I see a cigar-expert listening to his cigar before putting it in his mouth I wish that I were as great a man as he. Privately sometimes I have listened to a cigar, but it has told me nothing. The only way I can tell whether it is good or bad is by smoking it. Even then I could not tell you (without the assistance of the band) whether it was a Sancho Panza or a Guoco Piano. I could only tell you whether I liked it or not, a question of no importance whatever.
Lately I have been trying to become a furniture-expert, but it is a disheartening business. I have a book called Chats on Old Furniture–a terrible title to have to ask for in a shop, but I asked boldly. Perhaps the word “chat” does not make other people feel as unhappy as it makes me. But even after reading this book I am not really an expert. I know now that it is no good listening to a Chippendale chair to see if it is really Chippendale; one must stroke it in order to find out whether it is a “genuine antique” or only a modern reproduction; but it is obvious that years of stroking would be necessary before an article of furniture would be properly responsive. Is it worth while wasting these years of one’s life? Indeed, is it worth while (I ask nervously) bothering whether a chair or a table is antique or modern so long as it is both useful and beautiful?
Well, let me tell you what happened to us yesterday. We found a dresser which appealed to us considerably, and we stood in front of it, looking at it. We decided that except for a little curley-wiggle at the top it was the jolliest dresser we had seen, “That’s a fine old dresser,” said the shopman, coming up at that moment, and he smacked it encouragingly. “A really fine old dresser, that.” We agreed. “Except for those curley-wiggles,” I added, pointing to them with my umbrella. “If we could take those off.” He looked at me reproachfully. “You wouldn’t take those off—-” he said. “Why, that’s what tells you that it’s a Welsh dresser of 1720.” We didn’t buy that dresser. We decided that the size or the price was all wrong. But I wonder now, supposing we had bought it, whether we should have had the pluck to remove the curley-wiggles (and let people mistake it for an English dresser of 1920) in order that, so abbreviated, it might have been more beautiful.
For furniture is not beautiful merely because it is old. It is absurd to suppose that everything made in 1720–or 1620 or 1520–was made beautifully, as it would be absurd to say that everything made in 1920 was beautiful. No doubt there will always be people who will regard the passing of time as sufficient justification for any article of furniture; I could wish that they were equally tolerant among the arts as among the crafts, so that in 2120 this very article which I write now could be referred to with awe as a genuine 1920; but all that the passage of time can really do for your dresser is to give a more beautiful surface and tone to the wood. This, surely, is a matter which you can judge for yourself without being an expert. If your dresser looks old you have got from it all that age can give you; if it looks beautiful you have got from it all that a craftsman of any period can give you; why worry, then, as to whether or not it is a “genuine antique”? The expert may tell you that it is a fake, but the fact that he has suddenly said so has not made your dining-room less beautiful. Or if it is less beautiful, it is only because an “expert” is now in it. Hurry him out.