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English Furniture From Gothic Days To The Period Of Queen Anne

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



The early history of furniture in all countries is very much the same there is not any. We know about kings and queens, and war and sudden death, and fortresses and pyramids, but of that which the people used for furniture we know very little. Research has revealed the mention in old manuscripts once in a while of benches and chests, and the Bayeux tapestry and old seals show us that William the Conquerer and Richard Coeur de Lion sat on chairs, even if they were not very promising ones, but at best it is all very vague. It is natural to suppose that the early Saxons had furniture of some kind, for, as the remains of Saxon metalwork show great skill, it is probable they had skill also in woodworking.

In England, as in France, the first pieces of furniture that we can be sure of are chests and benches. They served all purposes apparently, for the family slept on them by night and used them for seats and tables by day. The bedding was kept in the chests, and when traveling had to be done all the family possessions were packed in them. There is an old chest at Stoke d'Abernon church, dating from the thirteenth century, that has a little carving on it, and another at Brampton church of the twelfth or thirteenth century that has iron decorations. Some chests show great freedom in the carving, St. George and the Dragon and other stories being carved in high relief.

Nearly all the existing specimens of Gothic furniture are ecclesiastical, but there are a few that were evidently for household use. These show distinctly the architectural treatment of design in the furniture. Chairs were not commonly used until the sixteenth century. Our distinguished ancestors decided that one chair in a house was enough, and that was for the master, while his family and friends sat on benches and chests. It is a long step in comfort and manners from the fifteenth to the twentieth century. Later the guest of honor was given the chair, and from that may come the saying that a speaker " takes the chair." Gothic tables were probably supported by trestles, and beds were probably very much like the early sixteenth century beds in general shape. There were cupboards and armoires also, but examples are very rare. From an old historical document we learn that Henry III, in 1233, ordered the sheriff to attend to the painting of the wainscoted chamber in Winchester Castle and to see that " the pictures and histories were the same as before." Another order is for having the wall of the king's chamber at Westminster " painted a good green color in imitation of a curtain." These painted walls and stained glass that we know they had, and the tapestry, must have given a cheerful color scheme to the houses of the wealthy class even if there was not much comfort.

The history of the great houses of England, and also the smaller manor-houses, is full of interest in connection with the study of furniture. There are many manor-houses that show all the characteristics of the Gothic, Renaissance, Tudor and Jacobean periods, and from them we can learn much of the life of the times. The early ones show absolute simplicity in the arrangement, one large hall for everything, and later a small room or two added. The fire was on the floor and the smoke wandered around until it found its way out at the opening, or louvre, in the roof. Then a chimney was built at the dais end of the hall, and the mantelpiece be-came an important part of the decoration. The hall was divided by " screens " into smaller rooms, leaving the remainder for retainers, and causing the clergy to inveigh against the new custom of the lord of the manor " eating in secret places." The staircase developed from the early winding stair about a newel or post to the beautiful broad stairs of the Tudor period. These were usually six or seven feet broad, with about six wide easy steps and then a landing, and the carving on the balusters was often very elaborate and sometimes very beautiful a ladder raised to the nth power.

Slowly the Gothic period died in England and slowly the Renaissance took its place. There was never the gayety of the country, so the Renaissance did not get such a firm foot-hold in England as it did in France. The mingling of Gothic and Renaissance forms what we call the Tudor period. During the time of Elizabeth all trace of Gothic disappeared, and the influence of the Germans and Flemings who came to the country in great numbers, helped to shorten the influence of the Renaissance. The over-elaboration of the late Tudor time corresponded with the deterioration shown in France in the time of Henry IV. The Hall of Gray's Inn, the Halls of Oxford, the Charterhouse and the Hall of the Middle Temple are all fine examples of the Tudor period.

We find very few names of furniture makers of those days; in fact, there are very few names known in connection with the buildings themselves. The word architect was little used until after the Renaissance. The owner and the " surveyor " were the people responsible, and the plans, directions and details given to the workmen were astonishingly meager.

The great charm that we all feel in the Tudor and Jacobean periods is largely due to the beautiful paneled walls. Their woodwork has a color that only age can give and that no stain can copy. The first panels were longer than the later ones. Wide use was made of the beautiful," linen-fold " design in the wainscoting, and there was also much elaborate carving and strapwork. Scenes like the temptation of Adam and Eve were represented, heads in circular medallions, and simply decorative designs were used. In the days of Elizabeth it became the fashion to have the carving at the top of the paneling with plain panels below. Tudor and Jacobean mantelpieces were most elaborate and were of wood, stone, or marble richly carved, to say nothing of the beautiful plaster ones, and there are many fine examples in existence. They were fond of figure decoration, and many subjects were taken from the Bible. The over-mantels were decorated with coats-of-arms and other carving, and the entablature over the fireplace often had Latin mottoes. The earliest firebacks date from the fifteenth century. Coats-of-arms and many curious designs were used upon them.

The furniture of the Tudor period was much carved, and was made chiefly of oak. Cornices of beds and cabinets often had the egg-and-dart molding used on them, and the S-curve is often seen opposed on the backs of settees and chairs. It has a suggestion of a dolphin and is reminiscent of the dolphins of the Renaissance. The beds were very large, the " great bed of Ware " being twelve feet square. The cornice, the bed-head, the pedestals and pillars supporting the cornice were all richly carved. Frequently the pillars at the foot of the bed were not connected with it, but supported the cornice which was longer than the bed. The " Courtney bedstead," dated 1593, showing many of the characteristics of the ornament of the time, is 103; inches high, 94 inches long, 68 inches wide. The majority of the beds were smaller and lower, however, and the pillars usually rose out of drum-like members, huge acorn-like bulbs that were often so large as to be ugly. They appeared also on other articles of furniture. When in good proportion, with pillars tapering from them, they were very effective, and gradually they grew smaller. Some of the beds had the four apostles, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, carved on the posts. They were probably the origin of the nursery rhyme :

"Four corners to my bed,
Four angels round my head,
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,
Bless the bed that I lie on."

Bed hanging were of silk, velvet, damask, wool damask, tapestry, etc., and there were fine lien sheets and blankets and counterpanes of wool work. The chairs were highbacked, of solid oak with cushions. There were also jointed stools, folding screens, chests, cabinets, tables with carpets (table covers), tapestry hangings, curtains, cushions, silver sconces, etc.

The Jacobean period began with James I, and lasted until the time of William and Mary, or from 1603 to about 1689. In the early part there was still a strong Tudor feeling, and toward the end foreign influence made itself felt until the Dutch under William became paramount. Inigo Jones did his great work at this time in the Palladian style of architecture. His simpler taste did much to reduce the exaggeration of the late Tudor days.

Chests of various kinds still remained of importance. Their growth is interesting: first the plain ones of very early days, then panels appeared, then the pointed arch with its architectural effect, then the low-pointed arch of Tudor and early Jacobean times, and the geometrical ornament. Then came a change in the general shape, a drawer being added at the bottom, and at last it turned into a complete chest of drawers.

Cabinets or cupboards were also used a great deal, and the most interesting are the court- and livery-cupboards. The derivation of the names is a bit obscure, but the court cupboard probably comes from the French court, short. The first ones were high and unwieldy and the later ones were lower with some enclosed shelves. They were used for a display of plate, much as the modern sideboard is used. The number of shelves was limited by rank; the wife of a baronet could have two, a countess three, a princess four, a queen five. They were beautifully carved, very often, the doors to the enclosed portions having heads, Tudor roses, arches, spindle ornaments and many other designs common to the Tudor and Jacobean periods. They had a silk " carpet " put on the shelves with the fringe hanging over the ends, but not the front, and on this was placed the silver.

The livery-cupboard was used for food, and the word probably comes from the French livrer, to deliver. It had several shelves enclosed by rails, not panels, so the air could circulate, and some of them had open shelves and a drawer for linen. They were used much as we use a serving-table, or as the kitchen dresser was used in old New England days. In them were kept food and drink for people to take to their bedrooms to keep starvation at bay until breakfast.

Drawing-tables were very popular during Jacobean times. They were described as having two ends that were drawn out and supported by sliders, while the center, previously held by them, fell into place by its own weight. Another characteristic table was the gate-legged or thousand-legged table, that was used so much in our own Colonial times. There were also round, oval and square tables which had flaps sup-ported by legs that were drawn out. Tables were almost invariably covered with a table cloth.

Some of the chairs of the time of James I were much like those of Louis XIII, having the short back covered with leather, damask, or tapestry, put on with brass or silver nails and fringe around the edge of the seat. The chief characteristic of the chairs of this time was solidity, with the ornament chiefly on the upper parts, which were molded oftener than carved, with the backs usually high. A plain leather chair called the " Cromwell chair," was imported from Holland. The solid oak back gave way at last to the half solid back, then came the open back with rails, and then the Charles II chair, with its carved or turned uprights, its high back of cane, and an ornamental stretcher like the top of the chair back, between the front legs. This is a very attractive feature, as it serves to give balance of decoration and also partly hides the plain stretcher from sight. A typical detail of Charles II furniture is the crown supported by cherubs or opposed S-curves. James II used a crown and palm leaves.

Grinling Gibbons did his wonderful work in carving at this time, using chiefly pear and lime wood. The greater part of his work was wall decoration, but he made tables, mirrors and other furniture as well. The carving was often in lighter wood than the background, and was in such high relief that portions of it had often to be " pinned " together, for it seemed almost in the round. Evelyn discovered Gib-bons in a little shop working away at such a wonderful piece of carving that he could not rest until he had taken him to Sir Christopher Wrenn. From this introduction came the great amount of work they did together. The influence of his work was still seen in the early eighteenth century.

The room at Knole House that was furnished for James I is of great interest, as it is the same today as when first furnished. The bed is said to have cost 8,000. As it is one of the show places of England one should not miss a chance of seeing it.

Until the time of the Restoration the furniture of England could not compare in sumptuousness with that of the Continental countries. England, besides having a simpler point of view, was in a perpetual state of unrest. The honest and hard-working English joiners and carpenters adapted in a plain and often clumsy way the styles of the different foreigners who came to the country. Through it all, however, they kept the touch of national character that makes the furniture so interesting, and they often did work of great beauty and worth. When Charles II came to the throne he brought with him the ideas of France, where he had spent so many years, and the change became very marked. The natural Stuart extravagance also helped to form his taste, and soon we hear of much more elaborate decoration through-out the land.

Many of the country towns were far behind London in the style of furniture, and this explains why some furniture that is dated 1670, for instance, seems to belong to an earlier time. The famous silver furniture of Knole House, Seven-oaks, belongs to this time. Evelyn mentions in his diary that the rooms of the Duchess of Portsmouth were full of " Japan cabinets and screens, pendule clocks, greate vases of wrought plate, tables, stands, chimney furniture, sconces, branches, baseras, etc., all of massive silver," and later he mentions again her " massy pieces of plate, whole tables and stands of incredible value."

In the reign of William and Mary, Dutch influence was naturally very pronounced, as William disliked everything English. The English, being now well grounded in the knowledge of construction, took the Dutch ideas as a foundation and developed them along their own lines, until we have the late Queen Anne type made by Chippendale.

The change in the style of chairs was most marked and noticeable. They were more open backed than in Charles's time and had two uprights and a spoon- or fiddle-shaped splat to support the sitter's back. The chair backs took more the curve of the human figure, and the seats were broader in front than in the back; the cabriole legs were broad at the top and ended in claw or pad feet, and there were no straining-rails. The shell was a common form of ornament, and all crowns and cherubs had disappeared. In-lay and marquetry came to be generously used, but there had been many cabinets of Dutch marquetry brought to England even before the time of William and Mary. Flower designs in dyed woods, shell, mother-of-pearl, and ivory were used.

The marquetry clocks made at this time are wonderful and characteristic examples of the work, and are among the finest clocks ever made for beauty of line and finish, and proportion.

Although marquetry and inlay have much in common there is one great difference between them, and they should not be used as synonymous terms. In marquetry the entire surface of the article is covered with pieces of different colored woods cut very thin and glued on. It is like a mod-ern picture puzzle done with regard to the design. In inlay, the design only is inlaid in the wood, leaving a much larger plain background. Veneering is a thin layer of beautiful and often rare wood glued to a foundation of some cheaper kind. The tall clocks and cabinets of William and Mary's time and the wonderful work of Boulle in France are examples of marquetry, the fine furniture of Hepplewhite and Sheraton are masterly examples of inlay.



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