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The Beginning Of Mahogany Furniture

The most important departure in early Georgian days came through the introduction of mahogany, said to have been known to some extent at an earlier period, but not used in England until that time. (See chapter xxxvii.) Mahogany, which grows in many parts of Central America, Cuba, Honduras, and the Bahamas, varying in quality and in marking, was put to practical purposes between 1715 and 1720, but at the latter date its use was fairly general, and leading cabinet-makers were offering their clients furniture in the new wood. That chosen by the chairmaker was plain and without carving, by no means as handsome as the figured walnut. The carver found in mahogany a suitable material, and the plain surfaces of the walnut furniture of an earlier date soon gave way to the gradually developing style which was soon defined by its great exponent, Thomas Chippendale. There is no doubt that before Chippendale's activity there was a gradual tendency to carve mahogany, and to enhance the effect.

It has been pointed out that some of the early work was on Grecian or Roman models. Then in sequence came the escallop, and the honeysuckle or the French palmette.

During the first three-quarters of the eighteenth century Spanish mahogany was chiefly used. It was chosen because of its freedom from knots, and each piece was very carefully selected, the tortoiseshell or curved figure being reserved for moulded panels. Its beauty served to supply the need of something to follow the inlaid work of an earlier period. The gradual supersession of marqueterie by mahogany is due to the beauty of some of the finely-figured pieces which early Georgian cabinet-makers chose for their panels. In the Georgian era much of the homely furniture which we associate with the commoner varieties of mahogany was made. It is an unfortunate and almost inevitable fact that when writing on furniture, or describing so-called typical pieces of well-known makers, the examples quoted and referred to, and even illustrated, are exceptionally fine specimens. Some of the illustrations in this book have been chosen because they are typical of the actual furniture used in middle class homes throughout the eighteenth century rather than for their exceptional grandeur and suitability as show pieces in a museum.

Mahogany had been used as a veneer chiefly during the later years of Queen Anne's reign, but by 1720 solid mahogany was used for chairs, tables, and other furniture. Finely-figured walnut continued in use for veneering purposes as specially marked wood was too brittle for solid furniture. By degrees makers learned to appreciate the higher qualities of mahogany, which was lighter than oak and more durable than walnut ; moreover, the rich red-brown colour of mahogany made walnut look dull by comparison.

It was only natural that those who worked the newer material should have endeavoured to produce different effects to those which had been secured when working walnut. Hitherto moulding and edging had been framed in accord with the smooth surface of walnut, but decorated frames, bands, and fillets were introduced as well as carved panels, especially in the case of cabinets and ward-robes. Thus when mahogany became the vogue in the reign of George I. it is not surprising that considerable impetus was given to the furnishing trade, and cabinet-makers began to make solid-looking useful bookcases and chests of drawers. The brass metal work on bedroom chests of drawers, as well as on bureaus, was strong and serviceable, but the plates were not as large as those used in the days of Queen Anne. (See chapter xxxiv.)

Many attempts have been made to divide the furniture of the first two Georges, and to classify that which was made before such exponents as Chippendale had established their respective styles. Probably the one adopted by Mr Cescinsky, in his exhaustive work on English furniture of the eighteenth century, is the simplest and best for home connoisseurs to follow. These periods naturally overlap, as in each case a few years elapsed before any new style superseded a former one. The divisions roughly are Decorated (1714-1725), the Lion Period (1720-1785), the Satyr-mask (1730-1740), and the Cabochon-and-leaf (1785 onward). The last period extends until that referred to in chapter xiii.

Some add architects' furniture, which is certainly an important feature in the wood-work of Georgian days, and must be treated separately. Its great exponents, however, were the Brothers Adam, whose designs are explained in chapter xii.

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

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