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Furniture

( Originally Published 1914 )



EVERYBODY nowadays collects eighteenth-century English furniture and Elizabethan and Jacobean oak. It is not so very long ago since no one wanted either. When I was an undergraduate at Cambridge a few superior members of the University used to manifest their " culture " by equipping their rooms with old chairs, Cromwell tables, oak coffin-stools, an oak bureau, an Arundel reproduction of Perugino's " Crucifixion " over the mantel-piece, and a few other Arundels and photographs of Old Masters on the walls. They bought the furniture for the most part at Jolly's, and we already began to say that it was no longer possible to pick up good pieces at the prices that had obtained a few years before. I remember the "young" Jolly of those days telling me how, when he was a boy, his father's great warehouse was full of Chippendale and the like furniture, especially chairs, which no one wanted to buy. They were such a drug in the market that he and his brothers actually destroyed some without suffering severe retribution. The fun was, he said, to throw a sturdy mahogany chair into the air in such a way that when it alighted it should come down on one foot, and start the joints of all four legs at once. He said that chairs which he could remember to have thus destroyed in the irresponsibility of boyhood he now knew to have been really fine Chippendale, the like of which he could only obtain today at very high prices.

Those days were already past before my time, but plenty of good things were still to be had at prices within the reach of a very moderately equipped purse. Of course, I refer only to genuine things. Such forgeries as were then be-ginning to be made were too coarse to deceive any but the ignorant. Genuine oak court-cupboards were to be had any day for about four pounds apiece. A Cromwell table cost perhaps thirty shillings, if it was a good one with spiral legs. Solid-backed oak chairs were to be had in numbers. It was about this time that I furnished our first house, and we bought almost everything at Jolly's. We were horribly and foolishly economical, and went without all sorts of delightful things which we would now gladly suffer much privation to obtain. Almost every old English town then had some such dealer as Jolly,, with one or two barns or warehouses filled with what would to-day be considered most desirable pieces. The greatest dealers of the present time can no doubt show a selection of much finer things, but the local dealers have only here and there one or two pieces, on hand at any moment, at all comparable with the general run of what was offered then on all sides, and but slowly unloaded. Carved four-post oak bedsteads, great bulbous-legged oak tables, fine Elizabethan court-cupboards, were never exactly common, but anyone who had a taste for such things could find them without a prolonged search, and could purchase them at a cheaper rate than that obtaining for good contemporary furniture.

As during the 'seventies and 'eighties of the nineteenth century the love of old things grew at equal pace with the knowledge that came from an accurate study of them, this condition of the market passed away. What had at first been a taste of the refined became a fashion among the wealthy, as I have said ; when fashion sets in any direction the day of the small collector is over. Before that happened one could, for instance, purchase, as I in fact did, at a single visit to one shop, the following lot of things for a total sum of about forty pounds : two Cromwell tables (one very large), an oak court-cupboard, six Hepplewhite mahogany chairs and two armchairs, six other late eighteenth-century chairs, a stuffed mahogany armchair, a carved oak napkin-press, a three-storeyed dumb-waiter, a mahogany wardrobe, a brass-bound mahogany wine-cooler, a carved oak Bible-box, an oak coffin-stool, a Jacobean oak chest, an oak bureau, and two little tables, besides other things I have forgotten. All these pieces, after thirty years' service in my possession, are still in as sound condition as the day I bought them. They are plain, honest examples of the work of their day ; none of them at all rare, but all quite genuine. The dealers' shops all over England abounded with that kind of old furniture. It was a pleasant time for a young collector.

Abroad, the search for furniture other than the fine work of the French eighteenth century began later than in England. Switzerland was a particularly good hunting ground. The only trouble was that, buyers being few, the local dealers made little attempt to " stock " old things at all. I remember, for example, going into a second-hand furniture shop at Lausanne, and being taken by the dealer away off to a kind of cow-shed beside a field. Not only was the cow-shed full of good things in a bad state of repair, but quantities of old materials lay about in the field. I took away thence the fronts of a splendidly carved walnut chest and of a fine cupboard, both substantially sound, but the backs had been rudely knocked away, as not worth transportation. Quantities of panelling also lay about, the lining of rooms from houses that had been pulled down or modernised, and this panelling was not offered for sale for its own sake, but only as material to be worked up in new combinations. Even the packing-boxes were often knocked together out of such remains !

The remote villages of Switzerland at that time often retained excellent pieces of old furniture, employed for communal purposes or in the châlets of wealthy villagers. These were only too easily purchasable, and much work of admirable quality and great local interest drifted away into foreign possession before the communes realised what they were parting with so lightly. Thus, I remember to have been offered at Stalden in the Visp valley one of the finest carved chests I ever saw. It was in the priest's house, and was used for holding the supply of candles for church purposes. Doubtless it had so served for many generations, and the wax had thoroughly toned the surface of the wood within and without to an excellent richness, The front of this great chest was divided into three panels, and in each was carved in high relief a noble design of lilies. I was in-formed that it could only be sold by resolution of the village meeting held in the winter, but that if I liked to offer a very moderate sum for it, I should no doubt be permitted to acquire it. The matter slipped from my memory, and the chest went elsewhere; at all events, it is no longer at Stalden.

Of all existing types of old furniture, chests are the most numerous, and cover the longest period of time. The pre-dynastic Egyptians buried their dead doubled up in chests or baskets, and numbers of these receptacles still exist, though they would not be desirable for use as modern house furniture. There are ancient Greek chests, such as that wonderful box inlaid with gold found in a tomb at Kertch. There are Coptic chests of various dates, standing on legs, and with their panels agreeably carved. It is not, however, till the thirteenth century that we find any English chests, save some few rudely hollowed tree-trunks bound with iron which may be earlier, though no one can date them. The real starting-point for England was the issuance by Innocent III. of an order that every church should provide a box in which to contain the offerings of the faithful, to defray the cost of the Crusade. The very considerable number of thirteenth-century chests that still remain in English country churches were probably made in response to this command.

I once had the chance of obtaining one of these church chests, but some remnants of good feeling—a horrible impediment to a collector—prevented me from availing myself of it. There is a church in one of our southern counties which, only a dozen years or so ago, remained in a truly seventeenth-century condition of neglect. The patron was himself the rector, and he was at loggerheads with the squire and all his flock. Grass and weeds grew waist-high in the churchyard. There was no path to the church door, except a trodden track used almost solely by the parson, for no one attended his services. Within, all was decay. The windows were broken, and birds flew in and out. The rotten rafters were foul with old nests. The seats or pews were all falling to pieces, so that hardly a bench remained that had not lost its legs from one end or the other. The pavement was broken to pieces, and the floor was all over deep holes. There was a decrepit stove in the middle of the nave, and an iron pipe-chimney meandered in a crooked curve up towards the roof before bending off with final direct determination and making its way out below the eaves. The pulpit was broken and unstable, but I suppose it can have been seldom used. Some fine monuments were decaying, their heads and hands broken, and the pieces lying about. But what excited my cupidity was a genuine thirteenth-century chest and two Gothic helmets, which had belonged to the monuments of late fifteenth-century knights. The wicked old parson would have let me have them, and goodness only knows how I came to escape from that temptation. In due course of nature even he ultimately died, and his successor was a man of different type. Now the chest is carefully preserved. The helmets are replaced on the iron pegs to which they belonged. There is a new roof, new seats, new pavement, and all things decent and in order.

The earliest existing English chests, made for domestic rather than church use, are a group from the county of Kent, all apparently the work of a single maker. They are " pin-hinged," and consequently have sloping ends ; the fronts are carved with a simple but effective arcading grouped under triangular pediments. Word reached me that a chest, which I gathered was of this kind, had been sold to a local dealer out of a cottage at East Peckham. I sent a trusty foreman builder to bargain for it. He had the good sense to take a cart with him, and promptly carried it off. I happened to pass this cart on the high-road as I was motoring in haste to catch a train. I just caught a glimpse of the chest, with its feet in the air, and of its carved arcading, as we hurried by. That momentary view sufficed, and I knew that one of my ambitions was fulfilled. Later examination showed it to be in very good condition, except that it had lost its original lock, and that the lid had been renewed. Curiously enough, a few weeks later, my neighbour, Mr. Mercer, acquired another, almost identical in design with mine; but whereas mine is faulty above and perfect below, his is imperfect below, but has the original lid and lock in excellent condition. These chests, and two or three more like them, date from the first half of the fourteenth century, before the Black Death.

Fifteenth-century chests in England are very rare, until we come down to the introduction of linen-fold, and most of the linen-fold chests we see in museums and country houses date from the first half of the sixteenth century. Abroad, however, it is still possible to find large, iron-bound chests of late fourteenth and fifteenth century work. I bought one at Basle, and two others at Paderborn. The latter came to us in the peculiarly determined fashion which sometimes happens. We applied to see the Cathedral treasury, but a meeting of bishops was going on in the sacristy, and we had to wait an hour till that was over. So we said we would fill up the time at an old furniture shop we had been told of. We were strolling across to it when I said, " This does not seem to me to be the kind of place where we shall get anything." " I feel, on the contrary," said my companion, the prophetess, " that there is something waiting for us there, and I believe it is a Gothic chest." Sure enough, there it was, right in front of us as we entered the inner room of the shop. It was an iron-bound chest with the clamps ending in fleurs-de-lys. The Basle chest is similar, so that the type was probably common all over Germany in the later Middle Ages. The South German example, though of equal date with the Westphalian, is, as might be expected, superior to it in design, proportion, and workmanship.

Such foreign furniture as has been intended for me by the Fates has usually been bought in matter-of-fact ways, but a purchase made at Genoa was rather an exception. I had been visiting the Brignole Sale palace with a friend, and the talk had fallen on the dating of furniture. "How do you know that a particular chair is of the seventeenth century, for instance? " was a question put to me. We were standing at the moment before one of the famous full-length Van Dyck's, in which there is a chair. So I replied, " If you were to find a chair just like the chair in that picture, you would be able to date it confidently to about the time of Van Dyck's visit to Italy, say, 1625." Half an hour later we went into a very poor antiquity shop down near the quays, and there was what might have been the very chair in the picture, the woodwork in good condition, though the upholstery was in rags.

Another time, in London, I was attracted by a chair of unusual form, adorned with embossed leather and carving. Being in doubt as to its country of origin and date, I did not purchase it. The next day, at the house of a descendant of Admiral Byng, I noticed in the middle of the hall an exactly similar chair. " Please, what is that chair? " I asked. " Why, don't you know ? That's the chair in which Admiral Byng sat to be shot." I returned to the shop in London, and carried away its fellow.

No part of Europe produced so much solid and on the whole good furniture in the seventeenth century as the Low Countries. One has only to look at the pictures of Dutch middle-class interiors to be assured how well-equipped they were with desirable chairs, tables, cabinets, cupboards, and bedsteads. These survived in great numbers down to the nineteenth century, when they went altogether out of fashion, and suffered much destruction. A friend of mine, who possessed both sense and opportunity, made a great collection of the handsome tall cabinets which are now again so much sought after. He used to buy as many as he wanted for about five pounds apiece. He used them for panelling a long gallery in his Hertfordshire home. Perhaps he may now regret having dealt so cavalierly with cabinets of an elaborately decorative character which certainly have lost in value by being dismembered. His room, however, into which these materials were fitted by an able architect, is a very beautiful place, and the result, in this case, can be held to justify a method of dealing with old treasures which would not be generally commendable.

The Dutch oak cabinets which are amongst our own possessions are good examples of the type, and one of them is of quite unusual dimensions. They are inlaid with a black substance which is probably precious wood, though I have sometimes had a suspicion that in one case it may be whalebone. I have examined all the Dutch cabinets I have been able to see closely during several years, in search for inlaid whalebone, and never yet confidently identified it. In the great days of whaling, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the supply of whalebone was so large, and the uses for it so few, that the price had sunk to twopence per pound. An English ivory-turner at Amsterdam, John Osborne by name, invented in the year 1618 a method of uniting together thin pieces of whalebone into a black mass, which became so supple and soft that it could be pressed into any shape in a metal mould, or it would take the impression of even the finest lines engraved on a plate of metal. The substance was as black as jet, and is recorded to have been used to ornament mirror-frames, sideboards, mantelpieces, knife-handles, and so forth. For this invention, which doubled the price of whalebone, Osborne received a pension for ten years from the States General. This fact is proof how general must have been the use of the material, and yet, with one known exception, whalebone has not been identified on any piece of Dutch manufacture. The conclusion would seem to be that it is generally hidden under the designation ebony or horn.

The exception to which I have alluded is certain oval medallion portraits of Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange, and Amalia his wife, which were impressed in whalebone by John Osborne himself in 1626, his name and theirs being impressed on the back of them. There are examples of these in the British Museum and other collections, and I own a pair which were given to me by the late Mr. Henry Willett I have often seen them in catalogues described as made of horn, from which, indeed, they are only to be distinguished by the perfect blackness and brilliancy of their surface. Whether Osborne's discovery of this method of treating whalebone led to the similar treatment of horn, so commonly employed in Holland in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, I am not able to assert.

It is not a far cry from old furniture to sculptured wooden figures. I have already related how we bought one such group at Caddenabbia after the adventure of the Victor Emmanuel. Two or three others were picked up in England—the most notable, and one of the finest wooden figures existing, having been found in a Brighton shop under the tamest possible circumstances. I was unfortunately led to part with it about twenty years later, to my unutterable regret, and it is now in the New York Metropolitan Museum. The story with it was that it came out of a Surrey chapel, and had been the property of a Lady Ashburton. My own impression was and is that probably it was made in the fourteenth century in the Ile de France, rather than in England. The figure represents St John the Evangelist.

The saint, however, whom I was always looking out for was my own patron, St Martin. Not that I felt called upon to burn incense before him, but that I needed him to fill a niche contrived in the restored part of Allington Castle, as a kind of signature ; also I desired to carve over his head this motto from the Persian poet, Labid ibn Rabîâh :

" The mountains remain after us And the strong Towers when we are gone."

Ultimately it was my daughter who found St. Martin for me at a Brussels dealer's. It is rather a late and chubby figure, but it retains its old colouring on man and harness, and the gilt breastplate shines afar. The trouble was that the niche was too large for the figure, which, besides, was of rather tender wood, unsuited to last long in the open air. So we decided to have a copy made of it in the same Doulting stone which is used in our works of repair, and we found that there was in the neighbouring town, Maidstone, a stone-carver willing, and said to be able to carry out the work. In due season the stone St Martin was finished, and displayed for a day or two, to the public wonder, in a shop window in the town. He had a triumphal journey out on a cart, and astonished everyone that met him, his brilliant colouring and well-fed, cheerful aspect producing an irresistible good temper in all beholders.

Fortunately, his niche faces north, or I think we could scarcely have supported his new radiance without pumping mud upon him. Time, however, has toned him down, and rendered him a less obtrusive and soberer personage. After he had stood a year or two in his niche, word was brought to me that the stone-carver wanted to be allowed to come and see the Castle courtyard. Permission was given, and he came. I am told that he stood for an hour gazing enraptured at the work of his hands. It appears that he was about to emigrate, and wished to enjoy a last long look at his masterpiece.

In the same Brussels dealer's, and at the same time as St. Martin, was found an admirable fifteenth-century stone figure of St. Columba—not the Celtic saint, but the Belgian saintess of that name. This little lady in her voluminous drapery might have walked -out of one of Van Eyck's pictures. There was a niche in a thirteenth-century wall awaiting her, and she took her place in it at once, and has seemed happy there ever since, with a blue mosaic made of the old Cairo pot fragments for background. There is a reredos with ten scenes from the life of St. Columba in the parish church of Deerlyk, near Courtrai, in West Flanders—so my old friend,-Mr. W. H. James Weale, informs me. I have an impression that our saint came from that neighbourhood.



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