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Antique European Furniture
Furniture made on the mainland of Europe varied from country to country, but both craftsmen and ideas were interchanged from time to time. Local tastes and the use of local timbers often played a part in creating a fashion that spread eventually from east to west. There is no space here to deal with the detailed history of the subject in each individual land, but some general notes may be helpful. French furniture, having attained a world-wide interest and importance, is described at greater length.
French furniture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is not greatly different from that made elsewhere in Europe at those dates. However, the principal wood used in England was oak, but in France it was walnut which was plentiful there. Just as many foreign workers came to London, so did others to Paris; it is almost impossible to distinguish an Italian-made cabinet from one made in France by an Italian craftsman. It was not until the end of the seventeenth century that French furniture gained its recognizable distinction. The first to give his name to a style there was Andre Charles Boulle (1642-1732), who perfected a marquetry, originating in Italy, employing tortoiseshell and brass which was used mostly on furniture veneered with ebony. This is known now either as Boulle or Buhl work, and the majority of it that has survived was made in Victorian times, or later. Old work of the eighteenth century is very valuable ($3,000 to $6,000 for a piece would not be considered extraordinary), but the nineteenth-century copies fetch a tenth or so of this.
This monarch has his name coupled with the most extravagant of furniture designs, known as Rococo; a style that spread throughout Europe. The term means ornamented with shells and scrollwork and similar patterns, and until one grows accustomed to it, the dictionary definition of tastelessly florid or ornate may often be thought to apply. To our eyes it is noticeable principally for a generous use of curved lines, and an 'unbalanced' look. Out of its elaborate setting there is no doubt that Louis XV furniture appears very showy, but when it is seen in the rooms for which it was designed it takes its place unobtrusively in the decorative scheme.
The French had a liking during the eighteenth century for small tables and cabinets, chests of drawers (called commodes), large writing tables with leather-covered tops having a row of drawers beneath and tall legs, and upright cabinets with drop-down fronts concealing a writing space. Veneering was the usual decoration, aided by parquetry and marquetry set off with ormolu mountings. When compared with the sophisticated outside appearance, most of the pieces exhibit very rough finishing of the woodwork not usually seen, and a glance at the inside or underneath of a piece will prove this.
Many of the small tables and cabinets are supported on delicately curved cabriole legs so slight that it is a wonder they can stand without breaking. Chests of drawers always have a slab of coloured marble as the top, and many other pieces are similarly finished. Chairs and settees were carved usually of beechwood, sometimes finished with gilding and sometimes painted in pale colours. Mirror-frames were gilt, and are often very like English ones of the same date.
A style that coincided roughly with the reign of this king: 1774 to 1793, and that is associated with a predominance of straight lines in place of curves. Tables and cabinets usually had square instead of rounded corners, and legs were square or rounded in place of cabriole. Furniture continued to be veneered and fitted with ormolu mounts, and many pieces were decorated with plaques of Sevres porcelain; some of it in blue and white to imitate Wedgwood ware. There was a revival of interest in Boulle work, more of this was made to fill the demand, and it can be distinguished only with difficulty from that made earlier. Chairs no longer had the cabriole leg, but usually oval backs and turned legs; in both this and the preceding period they were often upholstered in tapestry.
Following the luxurious tastes of the eighteenth century, there was a revival of comparative austerity when the excesses of the Revolution finally died away. Instead of the richly mounted and colourful marquetry, the fashion was for plain mahogany with perhaps an inlay of brass and restrained ormolu mounts. The mahogany used was often of a darker colour and more even grain than that favoured in England, but there are a number of similarities between the Empire style in France and the Regency. Chairs, in particular, often had the sabre leg in both countries.
It must be emphasized that old French furniture was costly when it was made, and has always maintained a high price. During the past hundred years, those who could not afford the genuine article bought copies which were made to sell at reasonable prices and, apart from these copies which were not made with intent to deceive, it has paid the unscrupulous to spend time and money in making fakes. Remembering the years that have passed since most of it was made, some two centuries, and the fact that much was destroyed and damaged during the Revolution, it is surprising that so many fine examples have survived. A lot of these have been repaired skilfully: lost veneer replaced, lost tops of tables restored, cupboards converted into drawers, and so forth. Thus, with French furniture as much as with any other, the collector must be very cautious indeed, and the subject needs careful study before its qualities can be appreciated and assessed.
With English furniture it is rarely possible to name the maker unless bills or other definite evidence has been preserved. Only very occasionally is a cabinet-maker's label found pasted inside a piece. French craftsmen, however, had the custom of marking their productions (or the majority of them) with a steel stamp bearing their name or initials. This was followed, when applicable, by a monogram of the letters J M E, standing for jurande des menuisiers-ebenistes; showing that the article was up to the standard required by the Corporation of French cabinet-makers and had been inspected by their appointed jury. This custom, also, has had the attention of the fakers, and more pieces bear the alleged stamp of famous craftsmen than they could ever have had the time to make.
The following is a very brief list of the more eminent French cabinet-makers of the eighteenth century, of whom there were nearly 1,000 working in 1790:
At the time when Queen Anne walnut-veneered furniture was being made in England, rather similar pieces were made in parts of Germany. They can be distinguished from one another by the more extravagant lines of those from Germany: whereas an English chest might have a gently shaped front with straight sides, the German equivalent would have a deeply curved front, and the sides would be curved also. German walnut bureau-bookcases (a sloping-front bureau with a cupboard above) have been offered from time to time as genuinely of English manufacture, and in some instances their more obvious curves have been skilfully reduced. Later in the eighteenth century Germany copied the prevailing French styles.
Dutch furniture has always had close links with English, and much Dutch and Flemish oak has been, and still is, mistaken for English work. In the times of William and Mary and Queen Anne, there was a flow of Dutch craftsmen to England, and much of the furniture of those periods could have been made in either country. Some of the walnut-veneered and marquetry pieces are, like the German, rather over-shaped and too heavily decorated to be of English make.
Large two-door cupboards of walnut and ebony were popular, these were constructed to take to pieces for transport and are found in Holland and farther afield. Dutch chairs of a design reminiscent of the work of Robert Adam, with carved ornament of leaves and ribbons, were made in mahogany and can be mistaken for English.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the Dutch cabinetmakers made some attractive furniture of oak veneered with satinwood and inset with shaped panels of lacquer. Tables, cabinets and fall-front secretaires are to be found in this style.
Much of the Dutch walnut and mahogany furniture inlaid with marquetry of flowers and birds, often bookcases with glazed doors, and sloping-front bureaus, have had the marquetry added long after they were made. This was done when plain furniture was temporarily unfashionable.
Italian furniture inspired or followed the design of most of the main types of other European countries. Marquetry was first used there, and developed later in Holland and England, and by Boulle in France. The furniture of Italy varies from district to district, not only in details of design but in the timber from which it was made. Many pieces were veneered, others were gilded, and others lacquered. The painted or lacquered furniture made in Venice in the eighteenth century is much in demand at present.
Much English furniture was imported into the Scandinavian countries in the eighteenth century. The most famous and valuable that was actually made there was the work of a Swede, George Haupt (1741 to 1784), trained in Paris and London, who made furniture in Stockholm in the Louis XVI style. His work is rare and valuable.