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English Furniture Wood

About fifty years ago, when the subject of English furniture first began to be studied and to be written about, it was divided conveniently into four distinct types. One writer called his books on the subject The Age of Oak, The Age of Walnut, The Age of Mahogany and The Age of Satinwood. It is not really quite as simple as that, for each of the so-called Ages overlaps the others and it is quite impossible to lay down strict dates as to when any one timber was introduced or when it finally, if ever, went out of favour. However, these clear-cut divisions do make it easier to deal with the subject, and it may be as well to keep to them; bearing in mind that the dates given are no more than very rough guides.

Oak is the traditionally English wood and while it alone was almost solely used for the making of furniture from the earliest times until about 1650, it has actually continued along with other woods right down to the present day. Old oak furniture is solidly made-the wood is very hard, and not only resists decay and woodworm but calls for time, patience and strength to fashion it-and many surviving pieces are of large size and noticeably weighty. At the time when it was popular, the houses of those who could afford furniture (other than plain and simple pieces) were large and the principal room, the hall, was quite often vast in size. Tables and cupboards were correspondingly big, and to find a small and attractive piece of English oak furniture of sixteenth-century date today is thus not at all easy. The surviving specimens are eagerly sought and fetch high prices. Whereas a seventeenth-century chest may be bought for twenty pounds or so (on the whole, the larger the cheaper) a small cupboard of earlier date will cost several hundreds.

Oak furniture was made also on the mainland of Europe, and in appearance it is not unlike that made in England. Much was imported at the date it was made, and a further quantity of it was sent to London during the course of the nineteenth century.

As has been said above, oak continued in use for making furniture long after the wood had gone generally out of fashion. Pieces were made from it throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; pieces one would expect to find in walnut or mahogany which are discovered to be of oak. This was done mostly in the smaller country towns, where local craftsmen used timber that was available readily. While transport was both difficult and expensive, imported woods like walnut and mahogany would have been obtainable normally only near a seaport or a large town.

Walnut, an attractive light brown wood with distinctive dark patterns, came into use in the later years of the seventeenth century. Much of it was grown in England, but the imported French variety was usually preferred because it was better marked. The esteemed markings or figurings are to be found when a tree is cut across the base where the roots start to spread, and at the point (the crotch) where a branch springs from the main stem. The equally popular burr wood (marked with innumerable tiny dark curls) is found near burrs or lumps by clusters of knots.

Although a certain amount of furniture was made from walnut in the solid piece, it was used mainly in the form of a very thin sheet-veneer. This was glued down on to the main carcass of the piece; the carcass usually being constructed of pinewood (deal) or oak. The use of veneers enabled the craftsmen to select the best-marked portions and arrange them in patterns; a familiar form being known as 'quartering', where four successively cut rectangular pieces are laid on a surface so that their markings coincide evenly. Equally popular were 'oysters', circular pieces cut across a branch.

A severe winter in 1709 was responsible for the destruction of a great number of walnut trees in Europe, and was followed by the French prohibiting the export of the wood. To replace this source of supply, the American variety of the tree, which was already being sent to England in increasing quantities, was used instead. American walnut is not unlike European, and often cannot be distinguished from it. Some of it is quite free from markings, and this variety is often mistaken for mahogany when used in pieces of furniture made at the time mahogany was being introduced-about 1730-40.

The use of walnut declined quickly when the merits of mahogany were brought to notice, and it is rarely found in furniture made after 1740 until it came into fashion once more about a hundred years later. Then, it was used, as before, in the form of veneers on cabinets, tables and other pieces, and in the solid for chairs. These latter have come into rapidly increasing favour during the past fifteen years, and while pre-1939 they could be bought for a matter of a few dollars a set, will now cost something nearer $100 for six.

Walnut furniture of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries is not easy to find. Veneered pieces were extremely popular in the late 1920's and fetched high prices. This fact proved an irresistible temptation to a large number of skilful cabinet-makers, who attempted to make the supply meet the demand and poured out large quantities of fakes of varying merit. The best of them are very difficult to detect; the poorest were so badly made (in a vain attempt to make them look as though they had suffered 200 or more years of handling) that they have mostly fallen to pieces. Apart from making fakes entirely from new timber, much ingenuity was exercised in making them from bits of old furniture that were then worthless. This deception calls for a lot of knowledge to detect it. Walnut furniture must be bought with caution, and, preferably, from a trusted source.

At one time Queen Anne walnut furniture was very popular in the United States, but it was soon found that central-heated rooms caused glue to dry up and veneer to fall off in an alarming manner. Consequently, veneered furniture is no longer looked on with affection in America.

Mahogany is such a well-known timber that it is scarcely necessary to say much about it in the way of description. To most people it is a familiar reddish-brown wood, and it has been used for making furniture since about 1730. The timber was imported from the Bahamas, from San Domingo, from Cuba, and from Honduras. Strictly speaking these different places produced trees that were not usually true mahogany, but the use of the word spread to cover all timbers of a red-brown colour that resembled it closely in appearance and could be worked in a similar manner.

It is the Cuban variety that has the very distinctive markings beloved of cabinet-makers in the second half of the eighteenth century. This variety was used often in the form of veneers, as was walnut, in order to show the light and shade of the figurings to the best advantage.

Mahogany is very strong, seasons quickly and does not tend to warp and split, is seldom attacked by woodworm, and is a good timber to work. It could be obtained in large enough pieces to make large table-tops without joining, which had not been possible before, and not only does it take a pleasing smooth finish but is excellent for carving. It is therefore not hard to understand why, once it had been introduced, it quickly became popular and stayed for long the principal timber used in cabinet-making.

Satinwood came from the West and East Indies, and was in use for furniture-making from about 1780 until 1810. It is a wood with a warm yellow colour, and has a close grain that takes a high polish. It was used mainly as a veneer, but unless handled carefully by the cabinet-maker it has a tendency to split. Towards 1800 it was used in the solid for making chairs and for the legs of veneered tables. Satinwood was an expensive timber, and it was used, on the whole, only for special pieces for wealthy clients.

Satinwood furniture was sometimes elaborately inlaid with other light-coloured woods, but mostly it was decorated by having oil-painting as part of the design. Much of it is said to have been the work of the woman artist, Angelica Kauffmann, but this is seldom, if ever, true. Chairs, as well as tables and cabinets, were decorated with painting, and this took the form of small bouquets of flowers and garlands of trailing leaves which suited the slender shaping of the woodwork.

About 1900 there was a revival of interest in eighteenth-century satinwood furniture. Old pieces were brought out from cellars and attics, where they had been hidden as unfashionable, and were restored and sold for large sums. At the same time, a large number of copies and near-copies were made for those who could not afford the real thing. These pieces have now had half a century of wear and tear, so the prospective buyer should be on his guard. Often, too, the old painting on an eighteenth-century piece has been removed because it was worn, or for some other reason, and has been replaced by the work of a modern artist. This happens commonly with table-tops, which inevitably get scratched and stained in daily use. Such restored pieces are worth less than those on which the decoration is original.

Other woods

While oak, walnut, mahogany and satinwood are recognized by most people, and one or more of them is present in almost every home, there are a large number of other woods used by cabinet-makers in the past that are not so easily identified. To describe them in words so that they can be named positively is not possible, but a general indication of their appearance and uses may be helpful.

Amboyna. A wood from the West Indies with a distinctive burr, looking like closely curled hairs over the light brown surface. It was used in the form of veneer.

Cedar. The harder varieties of this wood, known as Red Cedar, were used for making the linings of drawers in some better-quality eighteenth- and nineteenth-century furniture. It is not to be confused with the spongy open-grained cedar used for making cigar-boxes, which it resembles in sharing the same pleasant smell.

Ebony. A black wood of very close grain and heavy in weight, which was popular for veneering at the end of the seventeenth century. Later, it was used in inlay and especially for the dark tines in stringing.

Elm. Somewhat similar in appearance to oak, this wood was in use during the seventeenth century and later. It is as hard as oak, but it tends to twist with age and is susceptible to woodworm.

Harewood. The veneer of the sycamore, stained a grey colour, was called `harewood' in the eighteenth century. It has pleasing rippled markings, and was popular bath as a veneer or far use in inlaying.

Lignum vitae. A hard, heavy West Indian wood, of a dark brawn colour with black markings. It was used occasionally as a veneer, but was principally made into bowls and cups, and similar pieces.

Maple. The American `bird's eye' maple has small markings all over its yellow-brown surface, and was popular during the nineteenth century. It was used particularly for veneering picture frames, but is found also on furniture.

Rosewood. An East Indian wood with a close grain and distinctive blackish lines on a brown ground. Although it was in use during the eighteenth century, it became widely popular during the nineteenth both as a veneer and in the solid when it was imported also from Brazil. It is a heavy timber, and chairs made from it are often found to have been broken from their own weight when carried.

Yew. The familiar tree of English churchyards makes a wood of a medium brown colour used sometimes in the solid and also for veneers. Furniture using either type is much sought after, and when found is usually expensive.

Papier mache. This material, an imitation of wood, was made in England from the second half of the eighteenth century. The more usual method of making it was to stick layers of paper together and leave them to dry, either flat or in moulds. The article was rubbed down until smooth and then painted several times and decorated; each layer of paint was baked gently in an oven to harden the coat and produce the final high gloss. Trays and tea-caddies were among the earliest articles made from papier mache, but during the nineteenth century small tables, chairs and even bedsteads, were also produced.