By Guy Apter
1700 to 1850: one hundred and fifty years of furniture manufacture in England. Yet we blithely describe ourselves as dealers in 18th & early 19th century antiques with no mention of the monumental changes that took place in both the design of, and the materials used, in furniture making during this period.
The furniture of the 1700s was generally made of native woods like oak, elm, ash and walnut, and looked entirely different to the furniture made out of a multitude of imported woods in the 1800s. And between those years there were two neo classical periods, a rococo period, and smattering of Egyptian, Greek, Chinese and French influence to say the least
With the exception of farming, the furniture making industry employed more people than any other occupation at this time. It was big business. It was dynamic and it was driven by a clientele who were exacting, educated and wealthy. Like today, there was the desire for the latest trend, the newest material, the one of a kind and, of course, the showing off.
It is hard to imagine how shocking it must have been to have entered a room in the first quarter of the eighteenth century and to see for the first time a table entirely covered in gold. Where before there was dark wood in a candlelit house, now there was a ‘reflecting beacon’. I imagine as many people would have been repulsed by this as liked it, but it certainly prevailed.
Furniture went from utilitarian to decorative in a very short length of time. The chest of drawers is a marvellous example. Originally a trunk, it moved from that to a chest, but a chest with little ornamentation until the very end of the 17th century. Then in the eighteenth century, its status had so improved that it was quite literally “elevated” – given legs – and thus became a focal point in the room.
By the late 1730s indigenous walnut furniture began to be superseded by imported mahogany, a dark rich red wood. Whilst walnut was soft and structurally weak, mahogany was the antithesis and changes in style were certainly assisted if not partly led by this stronger timber allowing for lighter designs to be made. Put simply, friezes and even legs could be pierced with fretwork and still be structurally sound.
By the 1740s classicism was all the rage due to the clients, architects and artists returning from their Grand Tours. The ancient world had captivated not just England but the whole of Europe. However, these were early days and the language and motifs brought back by the likes of Lord Burlington and William Kent were not fully understood.
The resulting furniture was of a bolder and grander scale than we would see in the second wave of neo classicism some twenty years later – so superbly displayed at Spencer House for example, and in the work of architects like James Wyatt and Robert Adam.
By the third quarter of the eighteenth century, under the reign of King George III, one could say that furniture making in England had reached its zenith.
The work of famous cabinet makers such as Thomas Chippendale, Mayhew & Ince and Vile & Cobb includes many of the greatest pieces of furniture ever made in this country. However, within the oeuvre of Chippendale and his contemporaries, their work and style changed dramatically over the years from carved mahogany furniture of the 1750s to inlaid and ormolu mounted furniture of the 1780s.
As the century drew to a close, so the foreign influences came thick and fast, sometimes in one project. Nothing illustrates this better than the Prince Regent’s Pavilion at Brighton. From the outside it has clearly been influenced by Indian architecture, whilst on the inside it is very strongly Chinese in style. Now whilst the Pavilion might be regarded as a rather extreme example, it is nevertheless fair to say that furniture in the Regency period drew inspiration from a multitude of sources. A French interpretation of classicism was propagated by one the most successful architects of the period, Henry Holland, but equally influential was the work of Thomas Hope and his Greek revivalist style. The list could go on but suffice to say it was a fast moving designer or cabinet maker who could keep abreast of taste at this time.
Our role is to guide clients and to explain the merits of one example from the period over another, which is distinct from selecting one style over another. When I first joined the business I would wonder why my father had bought table A over table B, they seemed so similar and yet the difference of a half inch in the depth of the drawers would determine his decision. That sort of eye for detail can be inherent, for others it can take time and guidance to develop. It is our role to help.
When it comes to what to buy, only our clients can decide which roads they want to go down. All styles can be appreciated in their own right and crucially a plain table can be every bit as beautiful and artistically valuable as a highly ornate piece. Thus one’s desire to own these two different forms might be poles apart, but one can appreciate both for the artistry involved throughout this fascinating period of furniture history.