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Old English Furniture

At the opposite extreme to French elegance is the lumpydumpiness of a great deal of `Olde English' furniture. I cannot pretend to be much drawn to the joint-stool and copper kettle and warming pan kind of antique, but obviously it has its uses and makes a strong appeal to many people. The gate-leg table, so beloved of earnest ladies at auctions, seems to me to be ugliness itself and to suggest either a party of Cromwellian Puritans at a four-hour prayer meeting or a roadside cafe where you are charged one and threepence for a sixpenny cup of coffee. Welsh dressers I don't care for either, and as for oak blanket chests, for which sale-hunters fight so bitterly, they always remind me somehow of the Lady Madeline in The Fall of the House of Usher, or the graves and worms of Lewis's Monk.

But the very word `antiques' seems to mean old oak furniture to such numbers of people that I had better not criticise their favourite form too much. Perhaps I can best damp their enthusiasm by pointing out that old oak means Worms and that woodworm is a menace to peace of mind, to house property, and even to Life Itself. (For if your house gets riddled with woodworm the very floorboards may become infected, rot slowly beneath your feet and send you finally crashing, along with your collection, in the cellar below. Again, The Fall of the House of Usher suggests itself at this point.) Woodworm can now be treated, it is true, but if it has got a firm hold over a house the only possible real solution is to set fire to the premises and claim the insurance.

And as woodworms seem specially partial to a diet of antique oak there is always reason for suspicion whenever it turns up at a sale.

So be warned, and if you find you cannot live without old oaken objects be very careful to inspect them closely first. Many auctioneers' catalogues state clearly if there are traces of woodworm in a particular lot, but they do not all do so, and an auctioneer is not liable at all for any faults or damage in what he sells. The onus of inspection is on you.

Warming pans and antique wooden stools are other objects in the `Olde Englishe' class which I cannot enjoy much. Joint-stools never appear to me to be either ornamental or comfortable; the only time one ever seems to have been of much use was when jenny Geddes threw it, on a famous occasion, at a preacher in Edinburgh. As for warming pans, they look faintly absurd hanging up, their warming days long over, merely dangling forlornly in the hall or chimney corner. There were, however, some rather beautiful pierced and chased brass ones made, and perhaps an exception should be made of these. They have definite ornamental qualities. Warming pans usually fetch about 2. Do not pay much more unless you find a really good brass specimen.

My dislike of the Old English oaken style is probably due to a temperamental love of France and everything French so that after Sevres and Louis XV, old oak seems like barbarity after civilisation. But there are many who will loudly protest at this blasphemy and them I will leave to their oak-panelled rooms, sitting on joint-stools around a gate-leg table, drinking Old English ale out of Old English pewter, while Old English warming pans glower from every wall and antique iron lanterns shed a dim light from every nook.

For people with luxurious tastes the real beginning of cultured elegance in England was the Restoration of 1660, when French ideas were imported with the return of Charles II and his exiled court. Charles I had been, it is true, a most enlightened patron of the arts, especially painting, but the troubles of the time prevented any general spread of new ideas, and it was not until the reign of his son that any appreciable European influences can be discerned. With the Restoration we have the introduction of some really lovely chairs, and, about 168o, of the winged and upholstered settee. The chairs (not specially comfortable) have a high back and are often beautifully carved on the cresting, with similar carving on the front of the underframing.

By the end of Charles 2nd reign the refinements of the following century are beginning to cast their shadows before; certainly by 1690 there is coming over furniture a French elegance which was to come to a climax about 1720. It should not be forgotten, however, that much Queen Anne furniture (and silver too) shows still a typically English appreciation of the beauty of plain surfaces and simple designs. There is a French sophistication, it is true, about the tallboys and bureaux of the period, but no one would ever, I think, mistake them for French pieces. They have absorbed French ideas while retaining an English sedateness. For those who like grace without flamboyance, Queen Anne furniture is the loveliest of all. It is far from easy to get, and a `Queen Anne bargain' wellnigh impossible these days. If you ever acquire one, consider yourself extremely fortunate.

One of the great developments of the Queen Anne period was the introduction of the cabriole leg to chairs. This beautiful form (an elongated S shape) gives real grace combined with strength to a chair frame. When the chair is upholstered in contemporary needlework it makes one of the finest dining seats imaginable. The winged armchairs of the period are also very charming, and perhaps nothing quite sets the seal on a beautiful roomful of antiques as a pair of these. They are extremely comfortable and give the lie for ever to those who maintain that the eighteenth century was an age of elegance without comfort.

The rest of the eighteenth century was a period of great achievement in England. But it cannot pretend to compare with the superb work being turned out in vast amounts at the same time in France, though the three most distinguished of all English furniture-makers, Chippendale, Sheraton and Hepplewhite belong to this era.

All three became widely known owing to their publications as well as their furniture. Chippendale issued The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker's Director in 1754, and Sheraton The Cabinet Maker's and Upholsterer's Drawing Book in 1791-4.These became textbooks for many practitioners and were to have a considerable influence. Hepplewhite's The Cabinetmaker and Upholsterer's Guide was not published until 1788, two years after his death, and his fame seems to have been largely posthumous.

Chippendale has become deservedly celebrated for his exquisitely carved and gilded mirrors besides his fine chairs and cabinets, and he also designed clocks. Some of his `Gothic' chairs show clearly the influence of the Romantic Revival and there are others `in the Chinese style' which reflect the taste for `chinoiserie' of the time.

The influence of Chippendale, especially in the design of chairs with cabriole legs and a characteristic ribbon-back form, was tremendous; `Chippendale' pieces can be found to this day in large quantities at sales. Not one in a hundred is likely to be a genuine product of the Chippendale factory. `Chippendale style' (like Chelsea and Sevres in porcelain) would usually be nearer the mark. High prices should never be paid for chairs `in the manner of Chippendale' without first consulting an expert.

Hepplewhite perhaps came closer to the true spirit of French elegance than any other English furniture maker. His lovely `shield back' chairs, sometimes with an ornamental motif of Prince of Wales feathers, have a real French grace about them. Some of his settees, too, would not look out of place in the most aristocratic Parisian salon of the preRevolution era. He also produced some luxurious toilet mirrors.

Sheraton's work has a graceful delicacy and he specially favoured satinwood, a yellowish wood on which he lavished his finest craftsmanship. Some exquisite designs for long case clocks appear in his Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer's Drawing Book, with delightfully light Adam-style classical motifs and painted panels. His sideboards have considerable grace too, a feature of them being the beautiful tapering legs. As with Chippendale, `Sheraton' pieces are legion, but it is not possible to authenticate any of them beyond reasonable doubt.


Regency furniture has commanded a high price for many years now. Perhaps its chairs were its most novel feature and they are still eagerly collected, both for their beauty and their serviceableness. They frequently have a concave curve to the legs, with cane seats; the armchairs may have splendid brass mounts and Sphinx heads on the arms.

This Sphinx theme has puzzled many people and certainly it is not very easy to explain. The real reason for its appearance in England is that, although England and France were engaged in the colossal struggle of the Napoleonic Wars, English artistic ideas still continued to be influenced by those of France. The Parisian furniture makers had sought to immortalise Napoleon's Egyptian triumphs by incorporating a Sphinx head into their designs as a suitable memento. Although such a symbol could hardly, one would have thought, have been very pleasing to English eyes at a time when Napoleonic Invasion was the daily terror-topic of every tavern-parlour, none the less it was boldly used.

Its appearance is an illuminating comment on the difference between artistic ideas then and now. It would have been quite unthinkable for any English furniture maker to have incorporated a Hitlerian symbol on his pieces during the Second World War; equally so to use a German motif of any kind during the First. And yet when Napoleon, who was the Hitler-cum-Kaiser of the Regency period, achieved his victories on the Nile, English designers promptly utilised the symbol of his success which the French ebenistes had conceived! No wonder people are puzzled by it. But it seems that, even as recently as Napoleonic times, art was still regarded as an entirely supra-political matter and that no `patriotic' considerations entered into designers' minds at all. France was still looked up to as the centre of European taste, and if France had decided that Sphinx heads were a suitable new fashion as chair-ornaments, then on English chairs they had to go. Their political significance was ignored, or, more probably, never given a second thought. Much delightful upholstery was done on Regency chairs, not by any means always in the striped patterns of popular fancy. Frequently there is a small Grecian-style motif in the fabric and Grecian ideas generally were to influence artistic work in many fields, not merely furnishing. Porcelain and pottery were strongly affected by them; female costumes also shows a `Grecian line.' Keats's `Ode on a Grecian Urn' was, to his contemporaries, a poem on a subject very much in fashion and not at all the product of a dreamer out of touch with his own day.

In fact, the Regency period, with its charmingly restrained architecture, was really the last kick of the Renaissance before Revived Mediaevalism and Industrialism swamped the Victorian scene. In its refined Classicism we can see the end of that long process of Greek and Roman inspiration which had continued through the Baroque and Rococo period, through the days of Pope and Adam on to the time of Sheraton and Keats. The Regency bucks looked very different from their periwigged predecessors of the days of Queen Anne and George I, but they belonged at heart to the same world. It was the Railways and the Factory System which changed all that and plunged England into what we now call `Victorianism.'

A special chapter is devoted in this book to `Victoriana,' but perhaps a little may also be said here on Victorian furniture.

Until Victoriana recently came into its own among collectors it was usual to dismiss all Victorian furniture as `hideous.' It was thought ill-proportioned, horribly uncomfortable, and fit only for the Parish Jumble Sale. Its mahogany tables were banished to doctors' waiting rooms, its inlaid whatnots (`dust collectors' was the favourite term of abuse for these) to attics and cellars. The whole Victorian Age, not merely its furniture, became so utterly discredited in the decades following the First World War that `Victorian' was itself a word of condemnation. Anyone who genuinely liked its curtains and carpets, its flock wallpapers and elaborate sideboards, its padded armchairs and wax fruit under domes was simply inadmissible in decent society.

Now it must be admitted that, after the well-known date line of 183o, a great deal of very ugly furniture and bric-abrac was produced. The catalogue for the 1851 Exhibition reveals some furnishing designs which represent the low water mark of taste, and, as far as one can see, of comfort also. The writhing ugliness of many of the chairs, tables, cabinets and bookcases can find no excuse with us today.

But with all this there was much in Victorian furniture design that was truly charming. Many of its wing chairs are remarkably graceful as well as richly comfortable. Some of the despised whatnots can now be seen for what they were, small masterpieces of delicacy and good turning. Victorian dining and library tables, especially the mahogany pieces, are often superbly well made and beautifully proportioned. There are some lovely inlaid Victorian china cabinets and escritoires which often go for next to nothing at the sales.

For though Victoriana has come into its own the prejudice against it is still strong in many circles. Hence the frequent low prices, and you can pick up better furniture bargains in Victorian objects than in anything else. Certainly a young married couple who had a taste for them could furnish their home very comfortably for less than half what they would pay for modern pieces.

The main problem is size. Much nineteenth-century furniture tends to be cumbrous, but not by any means all. For there were many small homes in Victorian days as well as now and the average room was not really so much bigger than that of today. It is surprising how many of the apparently impossible pieces can, with ingenuity of arrangement, be `accommodated' in ordinary modern rooms. But it is wise to be always provided with a tape measure when viewing and buying furniture. Then you cannot possibly buy something for the lounge which has to finish up in the hall owing to lack of space.

Finally, remember that the Day Before Yesterday always has its ultimate turn in the antique market. At the moment, the Day Before Yesterday is the Edwardian Age, and presumably Yesterday (i.e. the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, will one day come into its own. (It is difficult, though, to imagine anyone with a scrap of taste ever purchasing those terrible three-piece suites of the 1930s as antiques, but it may finally happen.) At present, Edwardiana is hardly in the collecting stage so that overmantels and dining suites, etc., of the Edwardian period can still be found at the sales attracting little if any interest among the bidders.

So if you find Victorian furniture interesting but rather too heavy to consider living with, it might be well worth trying some Edwardian pieces instead. The Edwardians were particularly good, I think, in making their entrance halls and bedrooms attractive, and many of the `appointments,' as they loved to call them, of these can be bought cheaply enough. I have seen splendid Edwardian brass bedsteads and inlaid bedroom suites knocked down for very little; on one occasion I saw a whole bedroom-full, including the carpet and pictures, go for $45, and the pieces were of really charming quality.