Known as ‘The golden era of design’, there is no disputing the quality and refinement of Georgian furniture. Pieces ‘stand well’: mouldings and brassware perfectly balance aprons and legs. Many furniture historians believe this is because cabinet makers adhered to a strict geometric proportioning system, based on the five classical orders, which are evident throughout the history of design, particularly in Architecture.
The origins of this design system reach back to at least the Greeks, from whom the Romans borrowed it. And it later served European craftsmen from the Renaissance to the beginning of the Industrial Age.
Thomas Chippendale was passionate about proportions and he believed that cabinet work couldn’t be successful without a complete understanding of proportions. He encouraged his apprentices to carefully study the five orders and to recognise that they were the ‘very soul and basis of [the] art.’ —Thomas Chippendale, The Gentleman & Cabinet-Maker’s Director, 1762
Although there is no doubt that Chippendale was a firm believer in the rules of proportion, there is very little written about his methods of achieving this perfect balance. Some furniture historians believe that Chippendale was exaggerating his reliance on the rules, and that the balance was achieved merely by relying on the human eye. Others claim that the lack of recorded theory is due to the information being privileged; Chippendale only imparted the rules during apprenticeship. It is fascinating to consider that these rules were a highly guarded secret of the furnituremaking and architectural guilds. Perhaps we will never truly know the secret to the finesse of Georgian design.
The term ‘gilding’ covers a number of decorative techniques for applying fine gold leaf to solid surfaces such as wood, stone, or metal to give a thin coating of gold. A gilded object is described as ‘gilt’. Where metal is gilded, it is traditionally known as ormolu, and was used for furniture mounts, mostly by the French. Parcel-gilt (partial gilt) objects are only gilded over part of their surfaces. The use of gilding dates back to Egyptian times, and has always been valued for its beauty, its highly skilled techniques and opportunity to display wealth.
Gilders cushion, tip, knife and gold leaf
Specialist tools and equipment are needed: a gilder’s cushion, tip and knife. The cushion is a small padded board covered with suede, with a screen made of 4in high parchment or brown paper attached along one end of the cushion and halfway down both sides: this prevents the gold leaf being blown off, as it will do in the slightest draught. The gilder’s tip is made of fine brush hair and is used for moving the gold leaf: the tip is rubbed against the face or hair to produce static, which is then used to lift the delicate leaf onto the cushion for cutting.
Below the gold are the layers of gesso and bole. Gesso is composed of fine plaster of Paris and animal glue size – traditionally made from rabbit skin. It is applied with a brush, like paint, layer after layer, until the correct thickness is achieved. The Armenian bole, the final layer, gives a richness to the gold: it resembles reddish clay – due to the presence of iron oxide – and is again mixed with size. The surface is burnished with an agate burnisher to an almost mirror finish. This is then wetted, to activate the size, and the gold leaf laid on top. When it is perfectly dry the excess leaf is brushed away and the surface burnished again to make the gold shine.
Veneering consists of gluing down sheets of thinly cut decorative wood to a solid “carcase” timber. Thin slices of wood, usually thinner than 3 mm (1/8 inch), are sawn from a high quality timber. Before the introduction of machinery, all veneers were cut with a hand saw: the earlier the piece, the thicker the veneer. The carcase wood would be “toothed” with a toothing plane with a serrated iron, to achieve a good surface for the glue; while the glue dried, the veneer would be held in place by a heated caul, or block of wood. Smaller areas, such as crossbanding or inlay were often laid with the use of a veneer hammer.
There is a belief that veneering is an attempt to cover poorer quality woods, that it is a ‘cheaper‘ option and somehow inferior. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The primary reason for veneering was to enable decorative woods to be employed: the figured wood cut from burrs and pollards is notoriously difficult to cut and lay; the wild grain which makes it so attractive results in a very delicate, brittle veneer, calling for the highest quality craftsmanship.
The first veneered furniture used predominantly walnut, but also “oysters” of laburnam or mulberry wood; these were made from cutting cross sections of branch wood. During the 18th century “flame” or “curl” mahogany began to be used extensively as a veneer, The fork of a mahogany tree for “flame”, or the curly “burr” found near the roots of walnut trees, form especially beautiful grain. Wide planks of this type of wood tend to warp and curl, so the technique of veneering allows it to be glued to more stable wood with less attractive grain, for results that are beautiful and durable. Other exotic hardwoods were employed at this time, such as rosewood and satinwood, and veneers continued to be popular throughout the Edwardian period.
Petworth is a beautiful, historic little market town situated in the heart of the South Downs National Park. The town is dominated by Petworth House: now run by the National Trust it has been the seat of the Egremont family since the 17th century. The house is set in a beautiful deer park, landscaped by Capability Brown, and houses the National Trust’s finest collection of paintings, with numerous works by Turner, Van Dyck, Reynolds and William Blake. The spectacular limewood carvings in the dining room by Grinling Gibbons are worth a visit alone.
Over recent years, Petworth has become known as the antiques centre for the South of England; voted ‘Best Antiques Town’ it boasts over 30 art and antiques dealers within a half-mile radius! With a vast array of Georgian furniture, oak and country, and decorative antiques on offer, there are shops to suit every pocket. Parking is easy in the large town centre car park.
To get a sense of what life in Petworth was like 100 years ago, visit Petworth Cottage Museum at 346 High Street. This small cottage has been refurbished to look just as it did in 1910 where Mrs Cummings lived when she worked as a seamstress at Petworth House.
Apart from the antique shops, Petworth is a treasure trove of independent retailers, cafes, shops and accommodation. Find a proper bookshop, traditional gentlemen’s clothing, an award-winning florist, women’s dress shops, and a world class delicatessen in the form of The Hungry Guest. Plus Austens, a proper traditional hardware store where you can get almost anything!
Within easy striking distance of London, Petworth is situated just over an hour down the A3. Surrounded by some of the most beautiful countryside in Southern England it makes an ideal day or weekend destination. For more details go to www.discoverpetworth.org
New in this week is this fantastic Tunbridge ware inkstand, circa. 1870. Rectangular in form, the two glass inkwells flank a stamp box and pen recess. It is of rosewood construction, with the top and sides decorated with a fine mosaic style inlay in holly, ebony, sycamore and boxwood.
This intricate mosaic style inlay is commonly known as Tunbridge ware. The term comes from the Spa town Tunbridge Wells in Kent where wood turners in the district first used the process from as early as the 17th century. With the development of Tunbridge Wells into a fashionable spa town throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Tunbridge ware became extremely popular with visitors to the town as souvenirs. It was most commonly created in the form of a box, however all kind of objects were made including toys, jewellery, pictures and furniture.
The early forms of Tunbridge ware consisted of simple turned wooden wares which were often painted, or decorated with applied printed paper labels or printed views. In the 19th century veneered work became popular, initially incorporating large parquetry designs. Towards the later part of the 19th century, the tessellated mosaic technique was created, which resulted in the elaborate designs (such as this example) including intricate, often floral motifs.
So how was this mosaic effect created? Thin sticks of varying timbers were glued together in bundles, replicating patterns which had been previously designed on squared paper. These were then sliced into thin veneers which were applied to the item to create a pictorial vignette. Local timbers were combined with foreign timbers, to produce crisp, high contrast patterns. Most commonly used were oak, holly, yew, sycamore and maple. Even green timber was achieved using oak from trees attacked by fungus.
During the 18th century the tripod table became one of the most popular forms. Developed from the smaller kettle or urn stands, the tops became larger in diameter and the columns taller and sturdier. They functioned as occasional, or ‘tea’ tables, and often featured elegantly shaped legs, terminating in either a ball and claw or a pad foot. They sometimes had a dished or ‘piecrust’ shaped top. The most common detail of the column would be a ring turning or a vase shaped stem, as in this example, dating from about 1760.
The natural shine on the hard and dense ‘Cuban’ mahogany that was used at this time is evident here, as are the sturdy, well-balanced proportions. The finer examples from this early Georgian period often featured a ‘birdcage’ mechanism, as seen here, which allows the top to revolve on the base. It comprises two squares of wood, joined at the corners with turned columns, to which the long bearers under the table top are hinged; the top revolves freely on the top of the stem which slots right through the birdcage and is secured with a wedge.
Originality is always important when buying an 18th century tripod table; if the top is original to the base, there will be no other screw holes on the undersurface, and no sign of the bearers having been moved. When there is a birdcage present you can often see the indentations of the top of the columns. There should also be rubbing marks on the bearers from the action of the table opening and closing.
This elegant Regency rosewood four tier whatnot came into the showroom this week. A question we are often asked is – what is rosewood? Where does it come from and when was it used?
Rosewood is a fine grained tropical hardwood, a beautiful timber that has been prized for centuries. The name comes from the scented aroma of the freshly cut timber – supposed to smell of roses, in our opinion it is more like chocolate! A decorative exotic wood, it was always expensive, and imported to England in small quantities until a rise in its popularity in the Regency period.
It was used in the solid form, but was most commonly cut and used in veneer form, as on this whatnot: the turned uprights are solid Brazilian rosewood while the shelves are veneered. Traditionally difficult to work because of its extreme density, it was known for quickly blunting tools, and, because of its oiliness, its resistance to glue.
There are two main varieties of Rosewood that were commonly used; the first and most prized is Brazilian rosewood, or Dalbergia Nigra. Also known as Rio rosewood, the colour varies from chocolate to violet brown, with distinctive black streaks that look almost like ink stains giving it dramatic figure.
During the 19th century, East Indian rosewood, or Dalbergia Latifolia, started to be imported. This also has a very distinctive figure; very dark purple-brown in colour, it is distinguished by its very fine dense grain, and the narrow parallel striped figure. Both forms polish to a beautiful smooth shine.
Dovetail joints, named due to their resemblance to the bird’s tail, were first used as far back as ancient Egyptian times where they are found on the furniture entombed with mummies. They were first used in English cabinet making in around 1650. Commonly used in woodwork joinery, they can act as a useful tool while dating our furniture. Until the 1880s, all furniture dovetails were cut by hand using a chisel and hammer. With the industrial revolution came the advent of the machine, and from the late 19th century onwards, dovetails were often cut by machine. These are easy to spot as they are not nearly as fine as the hand cut dovetails.
Dovetails act as a fine display of skilled craftsmanship by cabinetmakers. A thing of beauty, they are also one of the strongest joints in cabinetmaking. The ‘tail’ and ‘pins’ are cut using small precision saws and chisels. Small angled cuts were made, followed by careful cleaning down by a sharpened chisel on both sides to avoid splintering. A little glue is added to cement the connection. A well-crafted dovetail will last for centuries.
The first dovetails, as used on early walnut furniture, were fairly large and crude. As cabinet makers refined their skills the joints became smaller and neater. Look at the joints on the drawer of this Georgian dressing table for example. The ‘tails’ are so narrow at the base that they are almost imperceptible. A fine join became a signature for killed craftsman
As well as acting as a guide in dating our furniture, the dovetail can also tell us lots about the origin of the piece. Continental furniture is known for having much cruder, larger dovetails; the tails are at a much steeper angle. Simpler country furniture also often had larger dovetails, or even a single tail and pin.
Amongst new stock this week is this stunning Italian rosewood commode, with finely designed marquetry work. Dating from about 1790, it is decorated with neo-classical urns, flowers and swags in the manner of Giuseppe Maggiolini. Comprising three long drawers, it has a quartered veneered top, front and sides, with well executed marquetry roundels and decorative crossbanding. With wonderful colour and patina, it even features its original key.
The name Maggiolini became widely associated with all furniture decorated with wood inlay in late 18th and early 19th century Italy. He created masterpieces of illusions: bouquets, classical architecture, musical instruments, ribbons, and fruit, composed of arrangements of various stained or naturally coloured woods. His designs were so famous that during his own lifetime his work was widely copied.
Giuseppe Maggiolini began his career as a carpenter in a Cistercian monastery and established his own workshop when he was twenty. In 1771 he began working for Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, Governor General of Lombardy. In addition to serving the court of Milan, Maggiolini created pieces for other European royalty including the king of Poland, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, the duchess of Austria, and Napoleon’s widow, Empress Maria Luisa.
There are several things to consider when buying an antique chest of drawers. Perhaps the most important is the condition of the piece – do the drawers glide in and out smoothly, are there any loose veneers or handles, does it have woodworm?
A chest of drawers is a functional piece – the drawers need to be robust enough to hold items that you might wish to store, so it’s always worth taking one of the drawers out to have a closer look. Take a look at the drawer bottoms – are they securely fastened to the drawer sides? If not, they will collapse when fully loaded. Also look for splits in the wood in the drawer bottoms – there will nearly always be some in an antique, caused by natural shrinkage, but they should either have been filled with a wooden fillet or, as is often seen, taped with fabric to prevent things slipping through. As you push the drawer in the very last inch does it “clunk” [technical term!]? If it does, the drawer runners are worn and will need replacing by a restorer – otherwise damage will occur to the carcase.
Check also for loose feet, and have a look at the backboards – these are nearly always constructed of a softwood, such as pine, but should be firmly secured. There should never be any plywood anywhere – this wasn’t used until the 1930s, so has no place in a Georgian piece. Finally, run you hand over the top to see if there are any loose veneers. Marks and scratches of age are perfectly acceptable [as long as they are not unsightly] and often show that the patina is original. Too bright and shiny and it will probably have been repolished, which not only devalues the piece, it rather destroys the point of buying an antique!