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Cottage And Farmhouse Furniture - Eighteenth Century Styles

( Originally Published 1912 )

THE dawn of the eighteenth century practically commenced with the reign of Queen Anne. The times were troublous. As a princess, in the days of William the Dutchman and her sister Mary, she was forbidden the Court since John Churchill, then Earl of Marlborough, designed to overthrow William and place Anne on the throne. " Were I and my Lord Marlborough private persons," William exclaimed, "the sword would have to settle between us."

At the death of Mary the Princess Anne, together with the Marlboroughs, was recalled to St. James's. At the death of William, in 1702, Anne came to the throne. Only just in her thirty-seventh year, she was so corpulent and gouty that she could not walk from Westminster Hall to the Abbey, and was carried in an open chair. During the Coronation ceremony she was too infirm to support her-self in a standing position without assistance.

The age of Anne is remarkable for its restless intrigues. Court plots were rife when Queen Anne " Mrs. Morley" in her private letters to the Duchess of Marlborough, who was " Mrs. Freeman," finally broke with the overbearing Duchess and made Abigail Hill, one of the Marlborough creatures, her chief confidant. The Protestant Whig party favoured the long war in the Low Countries and in Spain, although conducted by a Tory general, Marlborough, who, by the way, did not take the field in Flanders till he was fifty-two, a remarkable achievement for so great a military career, wherein he never fought a battle in which he was not victorious.

The greatness of Marlborough is indisputable. His fond love for his wife runs like a gold thread through the dark web of his life. His wife had, during a large part of Anne's reign, despotic empire over Anne's feeble mind. "History exhibits to us few spectacles more remarkable," says Lord Macaulay, "than that of a great and wise man who, when he had contrived vast and profound schemes of policy, could carry them into effect only by inducing one foolish woman, who was often unmanageable, to manage another woman who was more foolish still."

To us now, with the secret springs of history laid bare, there is much to marvel at, much to deplore as trivial. In regard to matters of high state and the subtleness of time-servers, memoirs and private journals have exposed many a skeleton carefully hidden from public gaze. But of the life of the people, especially the life in the country districts, the picture is somewhat blurred. Men of letters flocked to the town—the town was London. Provincial life lies behind a curtain. There were Spanish doubloons coming up from Bristol, and prize-money from the wars was scattered inland from the ports. Scotland was united to England by the Act of Union. "I desire," said the Queen, "and expect from my subjects of both nations that from henceforth they act with all possible respect and kindness to one another, and so that it may appear to all the world they have hearts disposed to become one people." This wish has been amply fulfilled and the union has become something more than a name. Never have two peoples, different in thought, in tradition, and in established law, become so completely welded together.

But the war of the Spanish Succession must have drained English blood as it taxed English pockets. "Six millions of supplies and almost fifty millions of debt," wrote Swift bitterly. The tide of Marlborough's success was undoubtedly secured by the outpouring of English lives. Stalwart levies of men from the shires went to join the strange medley of the forces of the Allies commanded by Marlborough. Dutchmen, Danes, Hanoverians, Wurtembergers, and Austrians jostled shoulders with each other in his troops. He launched them with calm imperturbability against his opponents at Malplaquet, for example, where with a Pyrrhic triumph he lost twenty-four thou-sand men against half that number of the French behind their entrenchments.

It is little wonder that the war was unpopular in the country, where the Spanish Succession and the "balance of power" were only symbols for so much pressure on the needs of the labouring classes. Bonfires might be lit for Blenheim, but many a village mourned those who would never return.

In spite of this intermingling of England with European politics, the general life of the people remained untouched by outside influences in regard to arts and manufacture. Cut off from intercourse with France, the grandeur of the art of Louis Quatorze was as far removed from early eighteenth-century England as though Boulle and Jean Berain and Lepaute had been in another continent and the Chateau of Versailles in the fastnesses of the Urals. It is true that Louis XIV presented two wonderful cabinets to the Duke of Monmouth, exquisite examples of metal inlay and coloured marquetry, but such pieces were beyond the capabilities of any English craftsman to emulate.

The chief innovations of the early eighteenth century followed the Dutch lines familiarized in the preceding days of William and Mary. Oak remained in use in farmhouse and country furniture, but in the fashionable world walnut was extensively used, and occasionally mahogany. Corner cupboards were introduced early in the reign of Anne, and hooped chairs, familiar in engravings of Flemish interiors, came into general use. Fiddle-splat chairs were also common in the first half of the eighteenth century. In regard to feet, the ball-and-claw, and club foot were introduced. Caning of chairs went out of fashion till the end of the century. Shell and pendant ornament on the knees of chair-legs became marked features, and, above all, the cabriole leg to chairs and tables is associated with the early years of the reign, and the term "Queen Anne" is always applied to such pieces.

The cabriole leg, swelling into massive proportions where it joins the seat, and curving outwards and tapering to a ball-and-claw foot or a club foot, lasted till the end of the Chippendale period, roughly, for nearly half a century. It assumed various forms until it was supplanted by the straight leg, and the stretcher, which had disappeared with the use of the cabriole leg, again came into use.

Examples of the cabriole leg appear as illustrations of various types of furniture in this chapter. At first its use did not interfere with the employment of the stretcher, but about 1710 the stretcher disappeared. The Lancashire settle illustrated (p. 107) shows the stretcher joining the front leg to the back. In the settle illustrated above this, in date 176o, it will be seen the stretchers have vanished.

Fashions gradually adopted in cabinet design do not readily arrange themselves in exact periods coinciding with the reigns of individual sovereigns. But it is convenient to affix a label to certain marked changes and attribute their general use to a particular reign. The innovation of the square panel with broken corners and ornamental curves at top is found in "Queen Anne" settles. The departure from the square panel and line of the curved and broken top is exhibited in the second Great Seal of Anne, commemorating the Union with Scotland. It is reminiscent of the Dutch influence, and is found in Sussex firebacks of an earlier period. The straight lines of early Jacobean cabinet-work were rapidly undergoing a change; the square wooden back of the chair was shortly to be replaced by fiddle splats, which in their turn, in late Georgian days, became pierced and fretted and carved under the genius of Chippendale's hand.

The two settles illustrated (p. 107) show several interesting points. The backs in each are panelled. In the upper one the arms still retain the old Jacobean form. The ball foot in this farmhouse example still clings to the earlier form. The seat is sunk to receive a long cushion. In the lower specimen the seat with its cushion and the curved S upholstered arms show the transition to the later type of modern settee.

The curved outline finds similar expression in the hood of long-case clocks and in the shape of metal dials. A cupboard with drawers has what is known as a "swan head." The panels to the doors have similarly novel features in their structure. It will be observed that there is a square pedestal at the top of this piece, which was intended as a stand for a delft or Chinese jar. The drawers of this cupboard have round beadings.

A typical example of curved design with not a single straight line, (even the back legs being bowed), is the "grandfather chair" with the high back, upholstered all over. Such a chair will have cabriole legs with ball-and-claw feet, C-shaped arms, scroll upholstered wings, and oval back, even the underframing of the seat being bow-shaped. Similarly, the walnut arm-chairs of the period from 1690 to 1715 had bold curves. The arms always possessed a curious scroll, the backs had broad splats with curling shoulders, and often a broad bold ribbon pattern making two loops to fill up the top of the hoop at the back, with a carved shell at the point of inter-section. Big pieces of furniture, such as bureaux, had the broken arch pediment, and smaller objects, such as mirrors, had the arched or broken top; and when these dressing mirrors had small drawers, these forsook the straight front and became convex.

Under the Dutch influence, in the first period of English veneer work, from about 1675 to 1715, very fine cabinets, bureaux, and chests of drawers were made. Walnut was the wood employed, with the panels inlaid with pollard elm, boxwood, ebony, mahogany, sycamore, and other coloured woods. Figured walnut was beloved by the cabinet-maker beginning to feel his way in colour schemes of decoration. Bandings of herring-bone inlay and rounded mouldings to drawers are very characteristic. Bureaux and important pieces had birds and flowers and trees or feather marquetry after fine Dutch models. Selected walnut, especially exhibiting a fine feathered figure, was used as veneer, and with these and other glorious creations of the walnut school of cabinet-workers the age of walnut may be said to have been in full swing.

The foregoing descriptions apply to fashionable folks' furniture. Such fashions did not come into usage in the farmhouses and in the cottages. Oak was still employed without being displaced by the walnut of the town maker. Oak was in the main more suitable for the particular class of furniture which was likely to receive less delicate care than the writing-cabinets and bureaux and the china-cupboards of the more fastidious people. Tea-drinking had become the luxury of the great world of society, and had hardly come into general use in the country till late in the reign of Anne, though by 1690 it had gained considerable favour in London. Coffee was introduced slightly earlier, and many invectives in broadsides and in poetical satires appear in the late seventeenth century against coffee and coffee-houses. In 1674 the "Women's Petition against Coffee" complained that "it made men as unfruitful as the deserts whence that unhappy berry is said to be brought; that the offspring of our mighty ancestors would dwindle into a succession of apes and pigmies, and on a domestic message a husband would stop by the way to drink a couple of cups of coffee." The prejudice against coffee, and especially against coffee-houses, was lasting and, coffee failed to establish itself as a national beverage. The labouring classes declined to be weaned from their ale and other stronger drinks. The Spaniards brought chocolate from Mexico; Roger North, Attorney-General to James II, uttered a violent polemic against chocolate houses, perhaps more on account of the political clubs gathered there than against the beverage itself. "The use of coffee-houses," he says, "seem much improved by a new invention called chocolate-houses, for the benefit of rooks and cullies of quality, where gaming is added to the rest, as if the Devil had erected a new university, and those were the colleges of its professors."

The varying phases of town life, of which the above quotations give a passing glimpse, found little reflex in the sturdy unchanging life of the provinces. Generation after generation, men farmed the same lands and their dependants lived in adjacent cottages; tillers of the ground, herdsmen, toilers in the fields, living by the sweat of their brow. They were content with simpler pleasures, which centred round the alehouse and the village green, or may-be the village church, if the hunting rector and the studious vicar were not too heedless of the fate of their flock. But other influences were soon to be at work to break the lethargy of those of the clergy who slumbered. Wesley founded the Methodist movement. Whitefield began his sermons in the fields and looked down from a green slope on several thousand colliers grimy from the coalpits near Bristol to see, as he preached, tears "making white channels down their blackened cheeks." Later again, Hannah More drew sympathy for the poverty and crime of the agricultural classes.

If oak was the wood which the country joiner loved best, he was not without some sympathetic leaning towards the effects which could be produced in the softer walnut. Such styles accordingly began slowly to have a marked influence upon the farmhouse furniture in early Georgian days. It was not easy to produce curved lines in the refractory oak, tough and brittle, but the village crafts-man essayed his best to please his patrons whose taste had been caught by the newer fashions observed in the squire's parlour when paying rare visits.

In the example illustrated of a farmhouse cupboard it will be seen that here is the country maker definitely trying his skill in his native wood to emulate the finer walnut examples of town cabinet-makers. This is even more noticeable in regard to some of the tables actually found in farmhouses belonging to as early as the first quarter of the eighteenth century. The specimen illustrated exemplifies this tendency to imitate the designs of trained workers. The country touch always betrays itself in the cabriole leg, whether in chair or in table. This table has less naivete than most examples found. There is a balance in its construction rarely found in provincial work. The legs, always a stumbling-block to the less experienced artificer, are here of exceptionally fine proportions, terminating in club feet. In the under-framing there is an experiment in ornament and form rarely attempted except in the highest flights of the country maker, and as such this fine example must be regarded.

Treating of the early Hanoverian period from the death of Queen Anne in 1714, and including the reigns of George I from 1714 to 1727 and George II from 1727 to 1760, furniture of all types begins to assume a complexity of construction. At the final outburst the master-pieces of the great schools of design during the last half of the eighteenth century embodied the life-work of Chippendale, the Brothers Adam, Hepplewhite, Sheraton, and many others. This period from 1750 to 1800 was the golden age of design in England. It has had a far-reaching effect, and still casts its glory upon the present-day schools of designers, whose adaptations and lines of progress are based upon the finest flower of the eighteenth-century styles.

The massive walnut chairs with deep underframing and broad hoop backs departed from the solid splats of the Anne style and endeavoured to become less squat by the employment of banded ribbon-work, coarse, heavy, and ponderous in style. Settees, arm-chairs and single chairs in this style came as the final efforts of the walnut school. The graceful ribbon designs interlacing each other in knots, and the flowing carving in mahogany of Chippendale, put a period to all dullness and heavy design. With the new style and the new wood a splendid field was opened to cabinet-makers, and the quick appreciation of these opportunities signalized their work as of permanent artistic value.

Among more important pieces, though still falling under the category of farmhouse styles, may be mentioned the Georgian corner cupboard, illustrated on page 115. This corner cupboard shows the broken architraves and cushion top. The hinges should be noticed as being original.

At first using the cabriole leg with ball-and-claw foot, not quite as he found it, but reduced to slightly more slender proportions to be in symmetry with its less massive backs to chairs, Chippendale came to the straight line. He employed it in the legs of tables and in the seats of chairs, in the bracket supports, and in the top rail of his chairs. It is interesting to note the phases of changing design in country-made furniture prior to his time, and the sudden mastery of form which became the common inheritance of all after his and other contemporary design-books became widely known.

In the table the cabriole leg showed early signs of passing away. The example illustrated (p. 119) clearly indicates this. This delicate example of fine cabinet-work shows the leg losing its cabriole curve. The country maker was slow to adopt the cabriole leg when it was fashionable, but when it became unfashionable he was equally loth to depart from his accustomed style. This table clearly points to the transition between the cabriole leg and the straight leg of Chippendale, and is about 176o in date.

Elaboration of a high order was happily not often attempted by the country workman, or the results with his limited experience would have been disastrous. Instead of a fine series of really good, solid, and well-constructed pieces made for practical use, we should have had a wilderness of failures at attempting the impossible.

This rapid survey of eighteenth-century influences bearing on the class of furniture of which this volume treats will perhaps induce the collector to scrutinize more carefully all pieces coming under his notice, with a view to arriving at their salient features in connexion with the native design of more or less untutored craftsmen.

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