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The Furniture Of The Early Stuarts

When James VI. of Scotland ascended the throne of England, as might reasonably have been expected, some Scotch emblems were introduced. This was done, especially in the North of England. The Scotch thistle is noticeable on the panels of the oak chest shown in Fig. 77. This chest, upwards of three hundred years old, is almost black with age, although when viewed in the sunlight it presents a rich brown-black hue. The panels are larger than those made in the time of Elizabeth. Indeed during the reign of James I. the panels were enlarged, but the mouldings were reduced in size until they often became narrow fillets of shallow ogee moulds

The chests of Stuart days were essentially architectural in design. As the mouldings were reduced the effect was not so good, and a much flatter decoration lessened the height of the relief. By degrees the panels were regarded with less favour, and plain ends were substituted for ,panelled and moulded ends, in some instances the tops or lids becoming quite plain also ; yet curiously enough some of the chests which would have otherwise been of small interest were exceedingly well cut upon the fronts (see chapter xxi.).

It should be noted that tables underwent a change in the early Stuart days, many being made quite small and often square, some of these Stuart tables having small drawers in them. The Court cupboard became less decorative, and eventually, towards the close of the reign of Charles I., the use of caryatides disappeared altogether. It was in the reign of James I. that Inigo Jones exerted so much influence upon decorative wood-work, and later, when he was appointed Surveyor of Works to Charles I., his influence was still further extended.


The Civil War in England cast a gloom over the land. In those districts where battles were fought craftsmen thought more about sharpening their swords and forging their pikes than grinding their tools for the pursuit of peaceful arts. The supporters of the King's cause gave their gold and their plate to support the army. They had no orders for furniture to give. Then came the manning of the walls and the fierce defence of the ancestral home. Of those sad times a picture could be painted dark and lurid with fire and shot. Ancient oak furniture was piled up as barriers to delay a little longer the inroad of the invaders, and sad indeed were the fires that destroyed those baronial castles and moated granges in which so much furniture of priceless value to the connoisseur perished.

Strongholds were dismantled and royal palaces rifled; and more old oak fed the fires which were intended to purge the land. Then came the end, and the King was no more. The Ironside Cromwell endeavoured to satisfy the country with a new order of things. Under his stern rule Peace spread her wings over villages, and homesteads were reared once more. Furniture was needed, and little by little new chairs, tables, and other articles, necessaries mostly, were fashioned. By Cromwell's order the furniture and other appointments of nineteen royal palaces were either sold to foreigners or destroyed. That accounts perhaps for the fact that no Tudor furniture is to be found in Windsor Castle.

There was an undoubted decline in decorative art in the days of Cromwell, for all things plain—Puritanicaltook the place of the ornamental carved furniture of an earlier period. In the furniture made during the Common-wealth there is evidence of a steady movement towards severity, and few original ideas are traceable. Bevels and raised geometrical designs seem to have been mostly favoured. One writer on the subject described this form of decoration as having " the similitude to the ground plans of fortresses, as if the battles of the Civil War had been indelibly stamped upon the minds of cabinet-makers, whose chisels followed the lines of encampments and the embattlements, and the ground plans of castellated for-tresses which they had attacked and perchance laid low in the days when they had left their workshops and donned armour and carried pikes on behalf of the Parliamentary forces."

It is noteworthy that the addition of a drawer to the chest began in Cromwellian days, for it is very rare to find any chests with drawers previous to the death of Charles I. There are many old chests on tall legs which have had a drawer fitted at a later date ; the addition, however, can often be recognised, in that the decoration is not always in keeping. In some of the inventories prepared in early Restoration times, such then modern innovations were described as " an oak chest with a drawer," and later, when two drawers were added, " a chest with drawers," eventually the term becoming " a chest of drawers."

The chairs of Cromwell's days were supported by rail stretchers which from the middle of the century were raised somewhat from the floor, and in some cases set far back under the seats. The upholstery took the form of low padded backs which were covered with brocade or leather. Brass-headed nails were then much used, and were the chief ornament round the upholstery. The chair backs left an open space between the back and seat which was sunk to facilitate the use of loose cushions. Although no doubt Cromwellian chairs were locally made, it is said that most of the so-called Cromwell chairs were imported from Holland. Even then Dutch furniture was coming over to this country, although it was at a later period that so much of the beautiful Dutch marqueterie became the fashion in England.

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

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