Local Types Of Cottage And Farmhouse Furniture
( Originally Published 1912 )
THE charm of collecting cottage and farmhouse furniture lies in the wide area over which it is found. Those who have given special attention to collecting it have learned instinctively to differentiate between the work of various localities. Some well-defined types of cottage furniture are to be found in certain counties, and nowhere else. Take for example the ladder-back and the spindle-back chairs. The latter are usually found in the northern half and the former in the southern half of England. It is obvious that craftsmen developing on original lines, or on lines more or less apart from outside influence, must establish designs peculiarly identified with their field of labours.
The sturdy insularity of the British peasant, and his uneasy reception of foreign suggestion, have had a very pronounced influence upon his methods of work. He has the defects of his qualities, the stern, almost uncompromising conservatism in habit of mind and in his daily pursuits. A close study of the thoughts, and as far as is recorded the written ideals, of the rural labouring population exhibit an extraordinary fixity of purpose in clinging tenaciously to old customs. The country songs more often than not express disapproval of innovations and call up the memories of slowly vanishing customs. The farm hands recall wistfully the old style of Shearers' feasts and Harvest homes, when great festivities with song and dance and old country sports enlivened the company. In Yorkshire this was termed the Mel Supper, in Kent the Kern Supper, and in parts of the North of England it was called the Churn Supper. Annual feasts were given to labourers such as the Wayzgoose or Bean feast, which later name remains to this day. The good old days is a refrain not confined to the cottager in his relation with the farmer. The farmer, imbued with the same wistful regard for the vanished past, bewails the May Day tenants' feast of the eighteenth-century English squire.
We get touches of disdain for the oncoming fashion of seclusion which invaded the farmhouse in "A Farmer's Boy," by Robert Bloomfield. He laments that the annual feast of the harvest home had lost its former joviality. This was written in 1798.
"The aspect only with the substance gone." Evidently the mug that passed around was becoming a thing of the past.
"The self-same Horn is still at our command, But serves none now but the plebeian hand."
The picture he draws of the farmer who, in face of prevailing fashion, "yields up the custom that he dearly loves" is pathetic. The long table and dining in common had seemingly vanished. "The separate table and the costly bowl" touch the rustic poet's pride. He italicises the word "separate."
This loving regard for the past is natural at a time when the rural population jealously feared the oncoming of the age of machinery, which threatened to supersede many of their local industries and finally succeeded in so doing. The obstinate adherence to old forms was possibly part of a nervous fear of the unknown future. The love for existing forms of furniture was therefore part of this apprehensive retention of tradition. Not only was the resistance of town fashions a strong feature, but local prejudices prevailed against the adoption of designs belonging to rival counties. To this day the Staffordshire clothes-horse, carried on pulleys to the ceiling when not in use, differs from the clothes-horse in the South with no such mechanical device. In Edinburgh, in the narrow closes, there is a kind of gallows projecting from the windows.
These apparently minor details which find their embodiment in articles of everday use, fascinate and hold the attention of the acute collector of cottage furniture.
The same local types apply to the art of the potter and are well known to collectors. There are Sussex "tygs" and Nottingham "bears" and Sunderland and Newcastle jugs and mugs. Bristol had its characteristic earthenware and the Lowestoft china factory was strongly Suffolk in its homely inscriptions with a touch of dialect.
Wales is famous for the abundance of the oak farmhouse furniture proudly kept to this day in families who have held the same homestead sometimes for centuries. One of the most noticeable features is the elaboration of the carving and its native peculiarities, coarsely carved, without foreign influence, of birds and beasts and heraldic monsters which largely figure in the decorative panels of chests, and especially dressers. So popular was oak that it might almost be advanced that there never was any mahogany in Wales. But it is indisputable that the great outburst in carved mahogany chairbacks coincident with the advent of Chippendale and the publication of his Director, never penetrated Wales, although it led to the foundation of a remarkable school of woodcarving on the new lines in Ireland, known as Irish Chippendale, a study of which can be made in Mr. Owen Wheeler's volume on old furniture.
The intense love of the Welsh woodcarver for intricacy is hardly less than that of the sturdy Swiss craftsman environed by mountains. Perhaps the long winters and the solitary life influence the development of individual character in applied arts. The Welsh love-spoons of wood, linked together and exhibiting delicate pierced work and minute carving of no mean order, are among other attractive specimens of native art. Ironwork of fine quality is also to be found in Wales.
The Welsh cupboard on page 189 typifies the coarse wood-carving associated with Welsh farmhouse art. In style this really belongs to a date not later than 1650. But it is dated 1710 and bears the initials " I. S." This is an interesting example, showing how middle Jacobean styles lingered in country districts remote from outside influence until the early eighteenth century.
Scotland has antiquities of her own which are closely allied to those of all the Gaelic races. As with Welsh carved farmhouse furniture, there is a marked leaning towards coarseness of style. As a rule it is too utilitarian in appearance to display much carving, The spinning-wheel is still found in farmhouses, and is still used in Harris and the outlying islands. Sometimes these old Highland spinning-wheels come into the market with the smooth surface worn by generations of workers, a surface impossible to reproduce. The Scottish ironwork is especially interesting. Perhaps the most curious of the Scottish antiquities is the crusie. This is undoubtedly a survival of the classic oil lamp. It consists of a shallow trough with a spout in which the wick stands, the oil being contained in the trough.
The especial characteristics of Lancashire-made furniture are a strong leaning to solid structure and a very noticeable reticence in carving. Well-balanced as a rule, and possessing good joinery, they have been favourites with collectors of furniture designed for modern use. The oak dresser illustrated (p. 85) shows fine Lancashire cabinet work.
A typical oak settle with box seat is illustrated (p. 185), showing the Jacobean style in the carved work and in the arms. In date this is about 1650. In regard to spindle-back chairs, Lancashire offers distinctive varieties. The example illustrated (p. 193) has already been spoken of as indicating this local type.
Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Cambridge, and Essex have produced a type of tables termed colloquially "cricket tables," possibly because the three legs are suggestive of three stumps. The term is a foolish one and not very appropriate. Two tables illustrated on page 195 are typical of this class of table.
Sussex is also well known for her ironwork.
Norfolk and Suffolk used to have a class of oak furniture of quaint type, less cumbersome than the Welsh. A type of Sheraton Windsor chair, often inlaid with brass, used also to be found there.
On the whole those localities which are removed from important towns are the richest in cottage furniture, for example, Wales, Devonshire, Cumberland, Northumberland, and parts of Yorkshire. In places, where the prosperity of the peasants is of long standing, the cottage furniture has been maintained whole almost until the present day.
Altogether the study of local types affords considerable scope for critical study. It is essential that such pieces should be identified and classified before it is too late. Rapidly all cottage and farmhouse furniture is being scattered over all parts of England. Collectors transfer furniture from the North to the South, and the rural treasures of the peasant have been brought to towns and dispersed to alien districts. The Education Act of 1870 and the halfpenny newspaper brought town fashions to the door of the cottager, and the motor has laid a heavy tribute on rustic seclusion.