Gifted with an innate sense of refinement and a globetrotter's spirit, Burden's inventory is a repository of English, French, German, Italian and Chinese furniture from the 17th through the 20th centuries including select pieces by Mid-Century masters.
LuxPOP!: How did you become interested in fine furniture and restoration?
Jonathan Burden: My father was a vicar in the Yorkshire countryside and I was a choirboy. Spending time in the church, I admired the craftsmanship of the pews and vestry carvings. As a family, we would tour the countryside visiting churches, monasteries and castles in Yorkshire. Those trips instilled in me the appreciation of history and the wonders of country and stately homes.
My parents had antique clocks at home and over the years, they would need restoration and maintenance. There was a policeman in our village who restored furniture and I would go to pick the pieces up with my father. The smells of the wood and varnish drying got me hooked.
I earned an apprenticeship at the firm of Glue and Whittaker, where I was trained as a craftsman. Upon completing my apprenticeship, I was accepted at West Dean College for further restoration training.
LP!: Tell us about your journey from West Dean College to establishing Jonathan Burden Furniture and Fine Arts in New York.
JB: West Dean was the family estate of surrealist patron, Edward James. James donated the house and founded the school in order to train a new generation in the centuries-old skills that had, heretofore, been only passed down from master to apprentice.
After graduating, I worked as a restorer in London at Ronald Phillips. Later, I took a position in Zurich, and in eighteen months Sotheby's New York called. It was in New York that I established my own galleries, the first was among the earliest shops on Duane Park in Tribeca. After eighteen years there, we moved to our current location in Long Island City.
LP!: Please give us an example of how expert restoration can transform the value of a piece of furniture.
Generally, we think less is more in regards to restoration. It is almost better to under restore a piece of furniture rather than over-do it. Every piece is examined individually at our workshop and judged on a case-by-case basis. The Knight of Glin was a strong proponent of leaving Irish furniture untouched, which often showed the history of a piece of furniture. Many pieces were painted black during times of mourning and as the paint or varnished dried, it would leave a craquelure, which he favored for its historical value.
We often have pieces come in that have poor previous restoration, so we remove the thick finishes and replace them with a very fine thin finish that revives the wood grain or the etching in the marquetry. Something can come in very dull, but after some work, it can be a show-stopper.
LP!: I realize this is like asking a parent to name his favorite child, but what currently is your favorite piece of furniture in the store?
JB: One is a mirror designed and built by famed photographer Bill Cunningham during his early days as a milliner in New York. It is unknown exactly how many pieces of furniture he created, but they are very rare.
LP!: You have several pieces in your showroom that have illustrious histories and provenances.
We have another piece with royal provenance. It is a table by Holland and Sons that expands to thirty-eight feet. It was commissioned by Edward VII while he was Prince of Wales.
Another interesting piece is a small partners desk similar to the furniture made by Thomas Chippendale for Paxton House. The quality of the mahogany veneers is excellent as are the original fire gilt handles on the interior drawers. The desk was eventually bought by Eileen Ford, founder of Ford Modeling Agency.
LP!: What do you love most about your profession?
JB: The beauty of the decorative arts is its functionality. We live among these pieces—they interact with us and our environments. We found a rare Chinese robe stand that was sealed up behind a brick wall in the early 20th-century home of a famous industrialist. We carefully dismantled and then reassembled the stand, and sold it quite successfully. How and why the robe stand was put behind the wall is a mystery. We find stories like this alluring and appreciate how they offer us a scope on the human condition during another time and place. That is perhaps why we find the decorative arts so rewarding, fascinating and relevant.