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Early Influences Upon Craftsmen

In the earlier mediaeval days there was a sharply defined line between fixed and movable furniture. The connection between the architect and the furniture maker was then very real, for the man who worked upon the interior wood-work, and as time went on endeavoured to make the bare rooms of a mediaval castle more homelike, likewise erected the less portable fixtures and the rough benches (some of which were afterwards carved), and no doubt made the oaken trestles and loose table tops. When we come to search for examples of furniture of that period the result is disappointing, for the little there was has long ago, with few exceptions, been "chopped up.

In ecclesiastical buildings some few pieces have survived, but domestic furniture of English make dating from mediaeval days is extremely rare. The Victoria and Albert Museum, at South Kensington, where there are large galleries full of old oak, seems to be the place where one would search for English furniture of olden time ; but while the Museum possesses some excellent examples of contemporary art on the Continent of Europe there are comparatively few of very early English manufacture. The collector, therefore, has to be content with those few examples, and comparing them with mediaeval furniture of other nations thereby discovers as far as possible the few characteristic English " trade marks."

The architectural connection between the builder and the furniture maker is still more apparent, as mediaeval art advanced, for then the influence of Gothic architecture and style was supreme, and the wood carver was taught to apply that style of design to his works. The " house carpenter " rarely restricted his efforts to furniture, correctly so called, for he worked upon statues, busts, masks, and figure subjects which were applied alike to fixed and portable furniture. The decorations of the interiors of ecclesiastical buildings and mediaeval castles consisted of carved ornament, and the same designs were cut upon the solid oak frames or stiles and the panels of chests and settles. Some of those carvings in their earliest use were supports and necessary to architectural designs, but not always so in furniture. In those early days it should be noted that the interior of chests, cupboards, and the like was always plain. The carved ornament was applied to the exterior, whereas in later days much attention was given to the interior of coffers and cabinets.

It was the Gothic perpendicular in architecture that had such a far-reaching influence upon furniture designers, for at that time architectural carvings became upright, and in that form were more readily applied to furniture ; carving seemed to be the most appropriate decoration.

In reference to the ornamental carving of the later mediaeval houses it has been pointed out that although castles, manor houses, and most of the churches and ecclesiastical buildings were of stone and brick, the dwelling-house was chiefly of timber. The timber beams gave abundant opportunity to the decorative carver, who made use of the corner posts and lintels as fitting places for the use of his chisel. Entire towns and villages were built in this way, and in some places entire streets presented a gallery of carvings, and in the fifteenth century the woodwork of the interior had become a reflex of the exterior.

Among the architectural features of mediaeval days fine Gothic open roofs have been much admired, especially when the change to the perpendicular came. There is, however, one remarkable example of the time before the perpendicular had become general. It is the roof of Westminster Hall, which was reconstructed in 1399.

Although old houses of this early period are fast disappearing, attempts are being made to retain especially interesting buildings as show places, and where that is not possible considerable portions of carved exteriors are being removed bodily from old houses to the more important museums. In the Victoria and Albert Museum there are some splendid carved beams, and others showing the opportunities which the intersection of the beams gave to the wood-carver of applying simple ornament in relief. Where the beams met he added bosses, and then carved them with leaf ornament, or shaped them as shields upon which the family arms could be carved or painted. These ornaments were in time appropriated by the furniture maker, and the root idea is traceable throughout the ages which followed.

As it has already been suggested, ecclesiastical influence in the Middle Ages was so great that it controlled—indeed it taught and perpetuated—art. The church Gothic of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries has always been much admired for its plain severity, although the artists of the fifteenth century achieved more lifelike and realistic work. The " tabernacle " style of fully-developed Gothic began in the fourteenth century, and its influence remained until Tudor days, as may be seen on mediaeval coffers. The canopied stalls of cathedrals and abbeys were taken as the designs from which to carve the fronts of muniment chests, and the same men who worked for laymen would seek their inspiration in the church to which they were attached.

The grotesque carvings on bosses, the clever masks on the walls of mediaeval castles, and the ornament on the more portable furniture, were not without their parallel in the grotesque carvings with which the monks delighted to cover the stone and wood of abbeys and private churches. Many of the monks (often skilled craftsmen) were comical old fellows ; very wonderful and even dreadful were their conceptions of the pains and punishments of mortal man. As time went on, however, the plain severity of the seats (if any) for the common people, gave place to the more ornate, and the tediousness of the long hours of service in churches found some relief at the hands of the wood-carver. The miserere seats, of which there are such fine examples in Henry VII.'s Chapel at Westminster Abbey, are often pointed out as having tickled the humour of the carver, and induced him to design the most grotesque and sometimes ridiculous characters he could think of as ornaments (see " Miserere seat" in Glossary).

The screen, such an important feature in old churches, was richly carved during the period when Gothic influence was exerted. At a still earlier period the chancel had been divided from the nave by a textile veil ; then by a stone screen with quite a small opening. In the thirteenth century, however, wood screens were introduced, and it is the ornament of the Gothic oak screen that was so closely followed by makers of chests, chairs, and other pieces of furniture.

The wood panelling in the older houses is a great attraction to the collector who sees in it a fit setting for the furniture he collects, especially that of Tudor and Jacobean days. It may be pointed out, however, that some of the panelling takes us back to mediaeval England. The most beautiful of all panelling is the much praised linen - fold, examples of which may be seen in the older rooms of Hampton Court Palace, and in some of the old black and white manor houses of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. It is a style thought to have been introduced from Flanders. It had a comparatively short popularity, for although first carved in England about 1470 it was rarely cut later than 1550.

In fully understanding the use of Gothic ornament on the furniture of the Middle Ages, it is necessary to recall the very close alliance between ecclesiastical furnishings and domestic furniture. Many of the wealthiest nobles were ecclesiastics. The abbots and priors of the powerful religious houses surrounded themselves with many luxuries, and their furniture was made on the same lines as the carved stalls, the rich canopies and the wonderfully framed windows and stone tracery of the abbeys. In later days the dwellings of the clergy were either in conjunction with or in close proximity to the religious houses which became parish churches ; and when additional churches were built after the Reformation the rectories and vicarages were frequently semi-ecclesiastic in style of architecture, and very often the furniture followed the style of building. Thus, we have a great deal of furniture intended for household use, and yet purposely designed on ecclesiastical lines. Some of the chairs in museums and private collections are distinctly models of church stalls. There are replicas in wood of traceried windows, arcades, and screens ; there are ornaments copied from the miserere seats, and there are Scriptural subjects carved in relief upon the backs of settles. Even some of the seats in inns and taverns are replicas of refectory benches, and some of the old furniture in village inns and country farmhouses may very well from its style and appearance have been discarded when newer and more imposing furniture was made for the village church.

It is said that in France in the thirteenth century there was a great improvement in tools, and that led to a division of the workmen. Woodworkers hence-forward became carpenters and joiners. The carpenters seem to have been distinguished by their massive works —utility having been their first object. The joiners had advanced somewhat and were almost allied to the sculptors ; and became famous for their elaborate Gothic ornament, tracery, and floral patterns, one particular section of them devoting much attention to carved reproductions of persons and scenes in both sacred and profane history. In England these craftsmen became an important guild. Chaucer refers to the carpenter's craft as being distinct from any other workmen, and the records of the City of London as far back as 1271 show that there were then two master carpenters in London under city control, each of whom employed a considerable number of operatives.

These men were wood-workers intimately connected with the building of houses ; and it must be remembered that the houses of mediaeval days consisted chiefly of a framework of wood filled in with other materials. The making of furniture was then in the hands of the carpenters, and from that we can readily understand its close association with the structural part of the home, and also that the carpenter and the joiner were not only builders of the house, but its furnishers. They made the interior fittings and furniture for the religious houses and for the dwellings of rich and poor. Notwithstanding this there are some separate crafts, mostly of a local character, such as chairmakers, which will be referred to separately.

The Carpenters' Company like many other city guilds was a brotherhood, and fulfilled many charitable acts towards the commonalty of the freemen. They had also powers under their Charter subsequently granted by James I. " to search, correct, and govern all the workers in carpentry." It is to the old trade guilds who were possessed of such exceptional powers that we owe much, for they secured the quality of work which we admire in antique furniture and old woodwork. Those old guildsmen were no mean craftsmen, for they had a beautiful hall built in 1429, and they added a " new parlour " in 1500, priding themselves on their garden, which contained arbours, walnut trees, a sundial, and a bowling alley. Closely akin to this Company was the Joiners' Company, their Guild having existed from 1309 ; and it is with the joiners that the old cabinet work is chiefly associated, for whereas the carpenters cut and fashioned the wood-work of the building and the roof, the making of cupboards, bedsteads, tables, and chairs fell to the joiner. He, too, was the maker of the famous old chests of which there are so many extant. More than two and a half centuries after the foundation of the Guild, Queen Elizabeth granted the joiners a Charter, under the title of, " The Master, Wardens, and Commonalty of the Faculty of Joiners and Ceilers or Carvers of London." It will thus be seen that the joiners had then added to their craft the art of carving. They had become sculptors in wood, and they adorned the interior of buildings, carving timber work on the roofs, the over-doors, mantel-pieces, and the panels of the walls ; and they carved furniture.

Among the minor Companies associated with the making of furniture there is the Turners' Company. Wood turnery from a very early period was used in the adornment of furniture, as well as many of the main braces of furniture being fashioned in the turner's lathe. There are turned chairs and stools of ebony in the British Museum, the work of Egyptian turners 1500 years B.C. The throwing upon the potter's wheel is simply another form of turner's lathe. It was indeed an appliance known and used in England from very early days, for the art was practised in Britain during the four centuries of Roman occupation. But Roman and early British wood turnery has perished. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries wood turnery, which had chiefly been employed in connection with architectural and building work, was once more applied to household furniture. As a separate art turnery is still maintained, although the craft is frequently practised by cabinetmakers, upholsterers, and other woodworkers.

There is still one other of the old City Guilds which enters into the field of the antique furniture collector. It is the Upholders' Company, founded in 1460, given a coat of arms by Edward IV., and granted a Charter by Charles I. in 1626, empowering them to supervise all work executed by the craft. The term " upholder" is synonymous with upholsterer, and the aid of this craftsman was frequently invoked by the carpenter.

The old City Companies are courted by the connoisseur on account of their beautiful halls, and the treasures contained therein. Many lost their halls in the Great Fire of London ; others never seem to have possessed halls of their own, but most of the Companies have some antiquarian relics, either silver plate, or other objects connecting the present halls and their furnishings with the past. The wood-carvings in the halls themselves are beautiful, and the panelling is frequently enriched with shields of arms, emblems, and other embellishments. The buffets, over-mantels, and side-tables of oak are suitable settings for plate and other treasures when displayed thereon. There are many fine carved chairs, too, especially the Master's chair. One of the most interesting possessions of the Fishmongers' Company is a massive ancient chair made of stone and wood taken from the foundations of Old London Bridge. The Salters' Company is also in possession of a valuable chair made for the Master in the eighteenth century—a handsome piece with shaped legs and massive claw feet, the seat and back being upholstered in leather ; the upper portion of the back is heavily carved with the arms of the Company. In Vintners' Hall there is richly carved wainscot, the decoration representing fruit and leaves, and a noble screen at the east end on which are carvings representing Bacchus between fawns, as well as the figure of St Martin, their patron, and numerous coats of arms. One of the most valued treasures of the Vintners is a piece of ancient tapestry representing St Martin on horseback, cutting in two his cloak with his sword to share it with the beggar man. The Vintners have also a purple velvet state pall enriched with cloth of gold.

In the vestibule of the Hall of the Clothworkers' Company there is a strong box or chest in which the muniments and treasures of the Company were once encased. The treasure chest was doubtless at one time an important feature in the furnishing of the Halls, but many of these perished in the Great Fire and were not replaced.

One of the treasured possessions of the Broderers' Company is a handsome oak chair, formerly used as the seat of the Master at important functions. It is valuable in that it dates back before the Great Fire, and when in use on State occasions on either side of the chair repose the porter's staff and the beadle's staff, the silver heads of which were hall-marked in 1628. The tapissiers or tapestry makers mentioned by Chaucer were subsequently absorbed in the Broderers' Company, the members of which "wrought silks of divers colours, rich altar cloths, vestments for the clergy, dresses for the ladies, and hangings for their chambers." The Broderers had oversight over all tapestry weavers. The Joiners' Company possess an old Master's chair, along with some plate. The Shipwrights' Company have, alas ! no longer a Hall, but their archives are preserved in a very ancient chest, one of the few muniment chests belonging to the Companies today, for most of their treasure - chests have perished.


The Middle Ages were not alone in giving evidences that workmen were much influenced by legends and superstitions. Many of these had been handed down from earlier peoples, but they were seldom forgotten, and the symbols which were associated with them were materialised by the carver. The wood-worker and sculptor of mediaeval days have done much to keep up the traditions of earlier times. They have also invented symbols which were fully understood then, and are not altogether ignored in the present day. The days of knighthood, chivalry, and the Crusades were days when symbols, badges, crests, and coats-of-arms were as well known and understood as the names of persons and places, and they were used by carvers when decorating furniture for their patrons.. The emblems of Tudor days are emblems of cultured and highly educated nations today. The fleur-de-lis of France, the rose within a rose of the Tudors, the Scotch thistle, and the Irish harp are still well-known emblems, cut and carved, sculptured and painted. The plumes of Wales and the escallop shell of the Crusades have been revived again and again in ornament. There are, how-ever, numerous other suggestive symbols in ornament, which we accept as the basis of design in many styles, but we do not always understand their motif.


The collector seeks for the purest styles with which he can compare his treasures, and he looks anxiously at the finish of the work lest he should have been deceived. In this connection it may be convenient to state that early oak was originally left unpolished. Hence much of the decay and injury owing to exposure and the absence of any polishing materials or preservatives. Then came polishing by friction (elbow grease) after an application of wax and oil. Following this a kind of varnish was used, and lastly French polishing, a method opportunely devised about the advent of mahogany. The older methods of polishing were effected by a slow process of hard work, but the result was all that could be desired. The unfinished oak acquired its beautiful appearance and tone by a process of usage and exposure, and it is in that state collectors aim at securing examples. Writers upon mediaeval furniture have found much difficulty in finding examples worthy of special note other than the historic pieces, some of which have already been mentioned. Among the Specimens of Antique Carved Furniture, drawn and published by Mr A. Marshall, A.R.I.B.A., some years ago, some interesting details of early mediaeval furniture were given. He referred to an old cabinet then at Nottingham, which he described as " a fine specimen of fourteenth-century work." Its first use had evidently been that of a church cabinet or credence. The credence table was usually a small stand placed near the altar, on which remained the bread and wine until consecration ; but the cabinet referred to by Mr Marshall was somewhat exceptional, in that it had a drawer and a small cupboard—convenient receptacles for the sacramental vessels and the altar linen.

In the Victoria and Albert Museum there are some early German coffers, the front of one fourteenth-century piece being covered with Gothic ornament. Another from Reda in Westphalia, is noticeable because of its exceptional bands or straps, which are uniform in design with the hinges which have ornamental ends. Unfortunately, there is no English furniture previous to the reign of Edward III., except, possibly, chests and a few odd chairs.

The old spindle-backed turned oak chairs of the sixteenth century are now rarely met with, the two shown in Fig. 7 being exceptional examples. They were made probably between 1500-1550. For further reference to the early types of chairs, see chapter xxiii. The chest, such an important feature in mediaeval days, has been referred to in this chapter. The one shown in Fig. 8 is of a somewhat later date, probably early in the seventeenth century. It is of rather unusual length, and was doubtless made to fit in some recess, especially as the ends are quite plain, the only decorations being on the front, which is well carved on the panels as well as the stiles.

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

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