‘The Styles of Furniture’

What follows is a broad overview of historic styles, by Henry R. Birks, who was an instructor in cabinet work t Regent Street Polytechnic in London. He earned City and Guilds first-class honors in cabinet work. This article is from Vol. IV (which covers Furniture and the Workshop) of our compilation of “The Woodworker: The Charles H. Hayward Years.” It was first printed in The Woodworker in 1938.

Modern furniture fashions and current production methods have obscured from the young cabinet-maker much, if not all, of the wide traditional background of his craft.

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At various periods during the history of this country, circumstances, and the skill of the craftsman, have combined to produce furniture and interior woodwork of distinctive styles, surviving examples of which are to be seen in museums and elsewhere. The artistic merit of much of this old work appeals to the taste of many people, who appreciate the use of its features in furniture and interiors, even in these days of novel design and ample choice.

Reference to the City and Guilds syllabus for cabinet-making shows that the student is required to have a good knowledge of these period styles and their characteristics, as well as an acquaintance with the related influential French designs.

It should be remembered that the City and Guilds examination questions are variously framed. For example, the characteristics of a period may be outlined and the sudent asked to supply the approximate dates thereof—or perhaps the name of the reigning monarch. Another type of question requires a description of the style or styles in vogue at a given date. The subject should, therefore, be studied from all possible angles, particular attention being given to the following:

Period dates: Period Characteristics.

Timbers and materials used: Reigning Monarchs.

Prominent personalities (Architects, Craftsmen, and Designers): Related French Styles.

The following list gives the approximate dates of the various periods. By memorising these the student will have at his disposal a convenient and logical framework for his enquiries.

1500-1603 Tudor.
1603-1649 Jacobean.
1649-1660 Cromwellian.
1702-1714 Queen Anne.
1714-1727 Early Georgian.
1660-1685 Charles II.
1689-1702 William and Mary
1745-1780 Chippendale.
1760-1792 Adam.
1760-1790 Hepplewhite.
1790-1810 Sheraton.

1589-1610 Henry IV.
1610-1643 Louis XIII.
1643-1715 Louis XIV.
1715-1774 Louis XV.
1774-1793 Louis XVI.
1799-1814 Empire.

It should perhaps be explained that the importance of the French styles lies in their influence upon the English craftsmen and designers, many of whom were obviously thus inspired.

Prior to the fifteenth century furniture, such as there was, seems to have been very primitive. It had little of independent style, but borrowed its characteristics from the ecclesiastical architecture of the time. Surviving examples are recognisable by these Gothic features.

It is in the work that was produced at the end of that century that evidences of changing style are noticeable: nevertheless, it is difficult to differentiate decisively between furniture of the later Gothic, and the work of early Tudor dates. English oak provided the timber for this early woodwork.

The Tudor period was largely an expression of the Renaissance spirit. Beginning in Italy this “new birth” of the Arts spread across the European continent and finally became an inspiration for our own craftsmen. With the reign of Henry VIII partly advanced there was a noticeable development of style. Gothic characteristics persisted, but were enlivened with what was essentially Tudor treatment. Oak was still the exclusive material and embellishment took the form of freely used chip carving, and a limited use of rather primitive inlay.

The furniture itself consisted mainly of chests, coffers, stools, trestle tables, etc., all of which, in the early stages of the period, were simply and rudely made. With the advance of the times there was improved craftsmanship and elaboration of design. The carpenter was now able to produce such articles as the court cupboard and draw-leaf table—both of which were in evidence during the Elizabethan age. Heavy turned legs—of bulbous shape—with strongly carved designs, are a feature of this later period, and it was at this time that the huge four-poster bed became a prominent item of furniture in the wealthier houses. Haddon Hall and Hampton Court may be instanced as providing examples of Tudor craftsmanship.

Jacobean furniture—product of the years which were spanned by the reigns of James I, Charles I, and the Cromwellian Commonwealth—is differentiated from the Tudor by its minor details rather than by any fundamental changes. In fact, individual pieces are very similar to those of Elizabethan design. Oak continued to be the wood from which the bulk of the work of this period was fashioned. Ornament, in addition to already familiar curved forms, consisted of split turnings, diamond shaped tablets, and simple frets. Mouldings were applied to outline geometric shapes on panels and elsewhere. This feature was commonly used in the embellishment of drawer fronts—drawers having now become a recognised addition to furniture construction. Thus the simple chest of earlier times became a chest of drawers. Turnings for legs, balusters and similar purposes were used liberally, but were of slighter design and more varied in detail than Tudor turnings.

The influence of Jacobean and Cromwellian design persisted through the reign of Charles II, as did also the use of oak. There were, however, certain changes. One of these was the appearance of the gate-leg table; a lighter alternative to the heavy tables of Tudor inspiration. Chairs became less severe in form, and often were carved and pierced. They had taller backs than the chairs of earlier date, to which caning was sometimes applied.

Another feature of the period was a free use of spiral or twist turnings. They were used for chair legs.

It was during the Restoration times that the use of walnut, as an alternative to the hitherto exclusively used oak, took place; and its employment became so general in the William and Mary era that this period is known as the “Age of Walnut.”

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Furniture styles now underwent considerable change. Dutch influence is a marked feature of the period. Such items of design as the smooth surfaced cabriole leg, carved cabriole knee, club foot, ball and claw foot, etc., characterise the period. Twisted legs and scrolled Flemish legs were used, and marquetery was introduced and applied to the decoration of table tops, doors and drawer fronts. Dutch inspiration was apparent in the Dutch chair; while the typical chair of the age was high backed and elaborately carved, or in some cases inlaid with designs of vases of flowers and birds, etc.

It was during this period that the renovation and alteration of Hampton Court Palace was undertaken. Sir Christopher Wren and Grinling Gibbons were intimately associated with this work, the latter being responsible for some of the fine carving which survives.

The William and Mary tradition was carried forward into the reign of Queen Anne. Walnut displaced oak more or less completely. Marquetry at this period was freely and effectively used. Cabriole legs became a general feature and found a place in the designs of all kinds of furniture—the shell pattern carved upon the knee is typical, but later work displays more elaborate treatment. Chairs gained considerably in shapeliness and comfort, the latter being due to the development of upholstery as an established furniture craft.

Easy chairs, sofas, stools, and the Windsor chair are to be found among examples of the period.

The early Georgian period is notable to the student of furniture first because it was the beginning of the mahogany tradition (about 1730), and secondly because of the fine carving, with which the craftsmen of the time richly embellished both furniture and interior woodwork. The new wood was used not only for furniture but for the various interior needs also.

Carved treatments of furniture and the use of mahogany continued with Chippendale, who, besides being a master of the carver’s art was also a skilful designer and draughtsman. The furniture which he produced was intended to have a wide appeal; it varied from pieces of comparative simplicity to the elaborately carved designs which are most often regarded as being representative of his style. His ideas were freely copied and adapted by his contemporaries in the furniture trade, and, no doubt, his book The Director was to some extent intended to serve this end.

Among Chippendale features were the ribbon designs for chair backs; the cabriole, ball and claw foot, the use of frets and fretted overlays and various carved mouldings. Chinese Chippendale furniture is of distinctive design and readily recognised. In much of the more elaborate work French influence is apparent.

Robert Adam, creator of the interior and furniture style that bears his name, was an architect who, through the medium of travel, had acquired a rich classical background for the inspiration of his work. A strong leaning towards unity in design and treatment caused him to undertake the planning of interiors and furniture for his buildings, thus the Adam style demonstrates a pronounced departure from Georgian tradition. An innovation which is attributed to Adam is the use of composition ornament, applied as a substitute for carving in the solid wood. He also designed furniture and interiors in which a painted finish and decoration was used. Among his artistic collaborators were Angelica Kauffman, Pergolisi, and Antonio Zucchi.

Typical ornamental details of the Adam style were festoons, swags, vases, drapery, and rams’ heads, etc., all of which were used with distinctive delicacy of treatment. Other features were cupids, caryatides, wreaths, and honeysuckle designs. Marquetry also was used.

Furniture of the Hepplewhite style is notable for its restrained ornamentation. By comparison with the typical Chippendale product Hepplewhite designs are inclined to severity, but lightness and elegance were obviously intended and ornament was subordinated to this end. Chair work of the period displays considerable merit, the clever use of novel designs in the backs—including the shield shape and the oval shape—being found in association with unusually satisfying lines in the individual chair as a whole. Practically every type of furniture was made in this style. Various bandings were inlaid into the Mahogany. Carving was used sparingly.

There were numerous small pieces intended for the use of the ladies of the day in parlour and boudoir. French influence is apparent, and is attributable to designs of Louis XV and XVI origin.

Last of the eighteenth century designers — a contemporary of Hepplewhite — was Sheraton. There is much of similarity between the work of these two men. It is in chair work that Sheraton is perhaps most distinctive, his designs being characterised by a lowering of the height of the backs and a novelty of detail. The bulk of Sheraton style furniture was made of mahogany and inlays of satinwood, amboyna, box, and stained woods were used for decoration.

For this latter, such designs as festoons, fans, scrolls, and flowers were used, but such was the variety of this embellishment that it is difficult to particularise. Typical pieces are to be found in such categories as bureau bookcases, writing tables, sideboards, and china and other cabinets.

Both Sheraton and Hepplewhite, as well as Robert Adam, abandoned the use of the cabriole leg in favour of various tapered, turned, square, and shaped legs, usually of light design.

Source: lostartpress.com

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