Claudia Kinmonth, Maverick Furniture Scholar

Claudia calls this faithful copy of a circa-1810 toilet mirror “just something I really loved,” which moved her to make it when she was a student. The piece has a bow front and is veneered with flame mahogany on a hardwood substrate. The tiny dovetails in the image below were typical at the time the original was made, shortly after 1805. The black lines in ebony stringing are also typical of the time; Admiral Nelson had died and the nation was in mourning.

Claudia Kinmonth is a woodworker and scholar who has focused her research and writing on the vernacular furnishings of rural Irish homes, primarily those belonging to people of little means. One ironic result is that much, though by no means all, of the work she studies is the kind that many a furniture maker would be embarrassed to have in his or her shop. Simple forms, cobbled together by people with no formal training, typically for their own use, these dressers, benches, tables and chairs often incorporate found and salvaged materials of the distinctly non-precious variety.

Hedge chairs earned their name from “hedge carpenters” who gathered timber from hedgerows to build objects such as pig troughs and gates for farms. There are no stretchers. Some parts have clearly been replaced; staking the legs through the seats made it far easier for a homeowner to fix a damaged chair than a repair would have been in the case of a formal chair with parts jointed at compound angles.

With a résumé that includes restoring antiques for dealers in London and training at such august institutions as the London College of Furniture and the Royal College of Art, in addition to employment as a researcher at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Claudia’s dedication to documenting the furnishings of impoverished people in rural Ireland makes her something of a maverick. So when Megan Fitzpatrick suggested I interview Claudia for this blog, I leapt at the chance.

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Claudia began studying Irish vernacular furnishings in the 1980s, when she recognized the subject had been, in her words, totally neglected. “I knew it was interesting, because I’d spent a lot of my life coming [to Ireland] on holiday,” she says. Her father was Irish, and holidays meant visiting his parents and extended family who lived in County Cork. She turned the subject into her master’s thesis, “Irish Vernacular Furniture, 1840-1940: A Neglected Aspect of the History of Design,” on which she based her book “Irish Country Furniture 1700-1950,” which was published in 1993 by the Yale University Press. The book won several awards, among them the American Conference for Irish Studies Book Prize, the Katharine Briggs Award for Folklore and also the Royal College of Art’s Fleur Cowles Award for Excellence, which allowed her to return to Ireland for another year of field study.

“Going to the creamery.” Claudia was interested in Irish farmhouses even as a child, when her curiosity was piqued by visits to a local creamery to which local farmers took milk from their cows by horse and cart. Not surprisingly, she comments, “that was a very exciting thing for a London child to be doing during the holidays.” While horses and carts had long before given way to automobiles in many places by the 1970s, they remained common in rural Ireland. From left to right: Alexandra_Pringle, who is herself involved in publishing as a founding director of Virago Press and editor-in-chief of Bloomsbury Publishing; Claudia’s older sister, Margy Kinmonth; then Claudia, the youngest, in stripes, “hoping to be allowed to drive.”
“We as a family are passionate about horses,” writes Claudia. “Both boys learned to ride really well,” a claim substantiated by the many rosettes they’ve won in competitions. This interest in horses has proved an asset to her research, as she always had something other than furniture to talk about with Irish farmers. As for this photo, she writes, “I used to help break horses as a teenager, so here I am, informally attired on just such a young horse, in County Cork in the 1970s. It looks like I’m teaching him to read, actually.
Young Claudia with a baby goat.

Claudia was born in London. After completing high school and taking A-Level exams in geography, botany and art, she decided to take some time off from academic study to explore other interests. Early on, she took a job with an antiques dealer whose restorer taught her a lot about furniture restoration. She enjoyed the work and went on to work for another dealer, this time an Irishman. In part, she credits her English grandmother for her growing interest in art and decorative arts; in Claudia’s words, “her attention to really lovely things that she had in her house in England rubbed off on me.”

After making her living in furniture restoration for six years, she decided she wanted to learn more about furniture and applied to the London College of Furniture, where she did a two-year furniture conservation and restoration Higher National Diploma course. Both practical and academic, the training introduced her to the history of furniture, and beyond that, the history of design. It was, she says, “a fantastic course” with “very, very good craftsmanship being taught” by a multi-talented Scotsman named Leslie Charteris, and included such techniques as marquetry, as well as carving and gilding. As a student there, she made pieces that she would never otherwise have had an opportunity to make.

Prince of Wales feathers. This piece was a college project when Claudia was learning to carve and gild. More complicated than it looks, the piece is water gilded, with many layers of gesso, then bole – blue under the white gold, red under the yellow gold. Her teacher, the late Brian O’Donnell, was a student of Charles Hayward who appears in Hayward’s book “Carving and Gilding.”
Claudia carved this three-dimensional piece in lime (2-1/2” wide, 1-1/2” deep and 3” high) as a Valentine gift for her husband, Michael.

Next, she studied for an M.A. in Design History in a joint course through the Royal College of Art and Victoria & Albert Museum. Explaining what drew her to study vernacular furniture, she says that during her time at the Royal College of Art she “saw many good scholars revisiting and revising old subjects. For example, Charles Rennie Mackintosh – you could fill a room with books about that designer! I thought to myself, ‘there must be subjects that need to be addressed that haven’t been’ – I wanted to do original research in a field that needed research. Having family in Ireland, it was not that great a leap to spend time in Ireland doing field work.”

The field work involved “driving around looking for old houses that had not been modernized, then knocking on doors and asking people if they would let me look at their furniture. I soon learned that if I did not have a camera around my neck and a notebook in my hand, people wouldn’t let me in.”

Those who did open the door “were cautiously hospitable,” she says. Once she got to know them, they progressed from hospitable to helpful. Sometimes she knocked on eight doors in a day and only ended up with one that was useful to her research. She spent several months on the road, visiting every county. As it turns out, the homes of poor people are often better-preserved examples of how people used to live than those of people with money, because buying furniture and remodeling houses requires disposable income. Factor in the slow adoption of modern conveniences such as television (and later, computers with internet access to all sorts of products and services for sale) by more conservative, low-income residents of rural areas and you have a good recipe for turning up real gems of vernacular work. As Claudia puts it, “Sometimes we found the most amazing treasure troves in the most primitive houses. We looked for houses with elderly people who might never have changed anything.”

Seeking information about the furniture from the people who lived with it was the best way to learn, even if it only started her on a sometimes-complex path to discovering more. “Vernacular furniture rarely comes with any documentation,” she explains. “But if someone can say ‘we can remember the name of the maker,’ you can look up the parish records” or consult other types of records to come close to a date.

In 1987 her work led her to Seamus Kirwan, the now-late owner of a property known as Mayglass. Kirwan lived as his parents had, with no electricity or running water.

“His kitchen had an earthen floor and an open fire.” Claudia says. “He’d never married, so he had never had a catalyst for change, so he stayed the way he’d always been since he inherited the house from his parents.” She photographed all sorts of details. “He was full of stories about the things in his house!” she exclaims. After he passed away, the place was restored, with a re-thatched roof – “sanitized, in a way,” she adds, though the restoration has only enhanced the value of her documentation of what was there before: “Those photographs, for me, are unrepeatably marvelous and [get] better with age.”

She completed her master’s thesis and graduated in 1988. She went on to work as a researcher in the Department of Furniture and Woodwork at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. By this point she was well-versed in furniture-making techniques, as well as restoration, in contrast to the majority of her colleagues in that department at the V&A, who came from academic perspectives, devoid of hands-on workshop experience. Although the museum had a conservation department, she sums up the closeness between it and her own department by noting that it took nearly 20 minutes to walk from one to the other. “They really were worlds apart.” On an academic roll, she followed with a doctorate in Irish vernacular furniture, which she pursued remotely through the Teesside University while teaching academic and practical subjects as a Senior Research Fellow at Buckinghamshire College of Higher Education (now Buckinghamshire New University). In 2018 she was inducted as a member of the Royal Irish Academy for her publications on Irish art and country furniture, together with the exhibitions; hence the letters after her name, “MRIA.”

Claudia’s studies of vernacular furniture are informed by research in Irish poetry, travel journals, paintings and engravings of interiors, probate inventories, terminology, etymology and sometimes-vague links with grand aristocratic houses, where furniture makers would have observed “high fashion” that trickled down to work produced in, and for, farmhouses. A set of mahogany dining chairs made for a grand house often inspired copies in painted pine.

Sacrificial foot. “If you built a dresser, you were expected to make it to last,” says Claudia. In a farmhouse, a dresser might well have stood on an earthen floor (I don’t even want to imagine the chill damp of such houses in winter), or a flagstone floor that would be washed regularly. In either case, the sections in contact with the floor would begin to rot over time. The answer: sledge feet, dovetailed to the cabinet. A carpenter could simply knock the foot loose and replace it with a new one. Claudia points out that this sacrificial element is a medieval feature.

At this point, what interests her most is the frugality and ingenuity of her Irish ancestors. “They were terribly poor,” she says, “and had hardly any timber – Ireland is one of the most deforested nations in Europe. Since the 18th century, it has had hardly any trees. It was hard for poor people to get hold of enough wood, so they were ‘cleverly economical.’ They recycled a lot, as well. Now we can look back and say what they were doing then we now call environmental awareness and sustainability.” To them, however, making thorough use of every resource “was intuitive, out of necessity.”

Double use. A press-bed made for a farmhouse parlor looks like the type of press you might find in a finer house, but instead of holding linens or dishes, it hides a bed, as shown in the next two images. The parlor, which here doubled as a bedroom, had to look respectable for more formal people, such as clergy members who might visit the family. Why not hide the bed? This clever Irish furniture form, Claudia notes, is the predecessor of what became known in New York as the Murphy bed.
Still folded up…
…and now ready for use.
The settle table is another dual-purpose piece typical of southeast Ireland. A settle by day for sitting or sleeping, it can be modified for use as a table by folding the back down, as in the image below.

One source of materials for Irish furniture was lumber from shipwrecks on the coast; a lot of flotsam, or wreckage, washed up on shore. A sure way to ascertain that material came from a shipwreck is by finding marine shipworm (or Teredo) bore holes – for example, in the backs of drawers. “No wood borers in Britain or Ireland make that distinctive kind of bore hole,” she points out. “People would try to disguise it, which is why you have to examine furniture really carefully for the holes.”

Inland, people repurposed everyday objects such as crates, one excellent example being butter boxes – simple crates with a distinct tapered shape that were originally made to transport butter. People made them into sewing boxes, or seats with hinged lids. She compares this to the use of flour bags in the U.S., which were often put to other uses. The same occurred in Ireland, where people of little means used flour bags in plenty of ingenious ways, sometimes to line kitchen ceilings under thatched roofs, often whitewashing them to make the kitchen bright and clean.

A Catholic household shrine made from a crate produced by a Dublin soap maker with the motto “In use unsurpassed.” The shrine is held at Ireland’s National Museum. Claudia checked the back and found it was made of soapboxes, which made the back “far more interesting than the front!”
The back of the shrine reveals the meticulous reconfiguration of a packing crate used originally to pack soap. “The influence of technique on design is something that’s usually not considered,” Claudia points out, “but with vernacular furniture, it’s as fundamental as function.”
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Butter boxes transformed into seating and storage for sewing supplies.
Not so crude. Claudia is quick to point out that many pieces of vernacular work are anything but crude. By way of example, she provided an image of this bog oak box. “It was a favourite [sic; British spelling] part of the tourist trade to sell carved bog oak in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as souvenirs,” she writes. “This is a fairly crude example, turned on a lathe, then carved, but typical as [craftspeople] often made small boxes. and inscribed names of castles or places, Killarney or Blarney, which were nicely portable for travelers on horseback.” 
And anything but crude is this detail of a carved fire surround in bog oak by Maggie Walker.

In addition to her scholarship in vernacular furnishings, Claudia is an art historian. “I’ve always tried to be interdisciplinary,” she says, explaining the diversity of her interests. Her second book, “Irish Rural Interiors in Art” (Yale University Press, 2006), concentrates on historic interiors, based on the work of artists who went into Irish farmhouses and painted what they saw. The common thread uniting the interiors is the artwork – paintings and illustrations done of farmhouse interiors. In conjunction with the publication of this book she organized three exhibitions of the paintings and furniture from these houses – one at the Crawford Municipal Art Gallery in Cork; one at the national gallery in Dublin; and one at Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art in 2012 called “Rural Ireland: The Inside Story.”

Ewan, Finbarr, Claudia and Michael at home during the 2020 lockdown.

Claudia and her husband, Michael Duerden, moved from London to their present home in County Cork – comparatively “in the middle of nowhere” – in 1999, after the birth of their first son. Michael is a jeweler who also teaches jewelry making; his workshop is right next to her study. Their sons are 24 and 21; both are at universities in Ireland, one studying architecture, the other aircraft maintenance and airworthiness engineering, along with the more esoteric-sounding subject of aviation finance.

How does this scholar of rural Irish domestic life pay the bills? She pieces together a living from a variety of work. She teaches in Irish universities as a freelance lecturer, work she loves because “the most exciting part for me is to present my research to an audience.” She also curates exhibitions for museums. Thanks to her background in antique restoration and conservation, she works as a conservation consultant, advising museums on all sorts of practical matters; her main job, currently, is at the Ulster Folk Museum in Belfast, where she is the research curator for domestic life. The Ulster Folk Museum has a collection of Irish farmhouses; she goes into each and reauthenticates it, advising others as to whether a kitchen dresser is authentically “dressed,” the chairs are right for the house (not to mention sufficiently robust for visitors to use) and so on. The Ulster Folk Museum has been going since the 1960s. “They have the most incredible stores, with thousands and thousands of objects,” she says – a wealth of objects that, when appropriate, enables her to recommend swapping out one piece for another that might better reflect the history of the particular farm.

Claudia with her latest book. (Photo: Clare Keogh.)

Claudia’s latest book, “Irish Country Furniture and Furnishings 1700-2000” (Cork University Press, 2020) sold out its initial printing of 3,000 copies in the three weeks before Christmas, 2020. It has 450 pictures, the majority photographed by the author, who provides measurements to help craftspeople. Furthermore, the book is as big as she wanted it to be, a detail that will not be lost on other authors – she didn’t want the book to be published in two volumes. Publishing such an extensive study during a pandemic has turned out to be a blessing in disguise; making the most of what you have on hand is a timely subject, which prompted one reviewer to call the volume “a handbook for woodworkers’ inspiration during lockdown.”

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Claudia at work on the pine kitchen below.
This kitchen and the one that follows are other examples of Claudia’s own work. Claudia built this kitchen from recycled timber around 1983. The base cabinets are recycled pine, with (newly purchased) maple for the counters. (Photo: Graham Cooper.)
This white kitchen in painted blockboard and MDF with granite worktops is in a house in London. Claudia built it in 1990.

A few more examples of vernacular furniture follow.

Gypsy tables: “Traveling people” by the roadside would make all sorts of things, including furniture. These tables were typical in the 19th century, when people sold them door-to-door. The black one has legs made of cotton reels with a metal rod inserted to hold them together; the top is the top of a barrel, or cask. Another is made from “whole pieces of hedgerow branches” (also see the hedgerow chairs, above). “You have to be very clever the way you nail them together,” Claudia adds, though any woodworker can probably figure this out by looking at the pieces here. The green table has a packing case top. On the right, the top and shelf are made with packing case parts that are wallpapered. Altogether, Claudia considers these “a beautiful reflection of frugality.” All three are in the National Museum of Ireland, with branches in Dublin and County Mayo; the Mayo branch has their Museum of Country Life. The Dublin site is more formal, though they also display some vernacular pieces. (Photo: National Museum of Ireland.)
“Noggins,” a type of woodenware used for drinking and eating, are another example of Irish vernacular furnishings Claudia has studied. You can read her article about noggins here. Yet another traditional form Claudia has studied is the spoon carved from horn, made by specialist craftspeople known as horners. You can read an article she wrote about those here.

— Nancy Hiller, author of “Making Things Work” and “Kitchen Think.”

You can read more of Nancy Hiller’s profiles, which we call “Little Acorns,” via this link.


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