English Walnut: the Victorian Period

There are two periods of English furniture when walnut was the most popular cabinet timber. The first, known as the ‘Early Walnut’ period dates from 1680 to about 1740, or sometime during the reign of George II, when the newly imported mahogany began to gain in popularity. Much prized by cabinetmakers for its strength and decorative figure, “Juglans Regia” or English walnut, was not in fact native to England, but was introduced from Europe, possibly by the Romans.

The “curl” figure is found where branches or roots separate from the main trunk; “burr” walnut, with its distinctive speckled grain, is actually cut from a growth or burr on the side of the tree. These decorative sections would only be used in veneer form, but walnut was also used in the solid for chairs etc. Veneers from this period were laboriously cut by hand, and are typically 1/16th of an inch thick.

However, during the 19th century great strides were made in the mechanisation of cabinet making. Marc Isambard Brunel [Isambard Kingdom’s father] built the first steam driven saw mill, and invented a circular saw that could be used to cut veneers thinly and evenly for the first time. He also developed the first hydraulic veneer press. 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. The new machines enabled the Victorian craftsmen to make the most of these beautiful timbers and ushered in the ‘Second Period’ of English walnut.

This beautiful glazed bookcase, dating from about 1850 is typical of this period. Exceptionally finely made, the beautiful walnut veneer is laid onto a mahogany carcase which, 150 years on, shows no sign of warping or splitting! The wood was carefully seasoned, the design carefully thought out, and quality of manufacture extends to the cabinet locks and hinges.

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Deportment chairs – The original naughty step!

 

Invented by Sir Astley Paston Cooper (1768-1841), a surgeon and anatomist, deportment chairs were designed to correct poor posture in children. It was considered dignified for a child to have upright posture, with a straight back and the head held high. It was believed this was important not only for discipline, but also medical reasons.

Children in a Victorian classroom or nursery would be sent to sit on the deportment chair when they were naughty. It was seen as a form of punishment, as the nature of the design (small seat and upright back) meant the child was forced to sit very still; if they were to fidget or slouch, they would inevitably fall off.

This Victorian example is in fine original condition; with decorative features the carved lyre shaped splat. The typically small seat is caned, and raised on very elegant ring turned splay legs.

 

 

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Antique Bedside Cabinets: A History

 

 

People have always needed bedside tables … where else do you put your book and your glasses and, in the old days, your candle or oil lamp? The very earliest type that we have in stock here at Thakeham Furniture date from the mid 18th century, and take the form of a tray top cabinet that concealed a commode in the base. Beautifully made, usually of mahogany, these pieces used the very best quality timber and were ‘fine’ pieces of furniture, as they would be displayed in the master bedroom.

It is, unfortunately, very rare to find a true pair from this period – over the years they have been separated, or one damaged, and so on. But, although the different models vary – some have a tambour front, others a pair of doors – they were often very similar in size and shape. Once either side of a bed it’s not very easy to spot any differences … and that’s one of the things that is so special about antique furniture!

Another type of commode from this period is the sort that resembles a small chest of drawers. Usually converted to form either a cupboard or drawers, they make excellent bedside pieces with a height  of around 30 inches.

Later on in the Georgian period, bedside tables became smaller and simpler. This model, dating from about 1800, with square tapered legs and a single cupboard [usually to hold a pot] was a popular, elegant style, usually in mahogany.  Again, these are easy to find as a ‘matched’ pair.

 

 

 

Another popular ‘bedside table’ model are these Georgian converted washstands; originally with a cut out in the top to hold a bowl, these have invariably had a ‘lid’ put on them at some stage to transform them into a simple, useful  two tier table with a single drawer. They are nearly always roughly 12 inches wide and deep – so if you can find two the same height they will go together beautifully! We nearly always have two or three in stock.

 

From the late 19th century it becomes possible to find pairs of bedside tables still in existence! Although sometimes not of such good quality, the late Victorian ones can be very pretty – particularly French pieces, such as this walnut pot cupboard with a marble top. We always carry a good selection here at the Thakeham Furniture showrooms, so do please drop in.

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WELLINGTON CHESTS: A GUIDE

Amongst new stock this month is this William IV mahogany Wellington chest. Dating from around 1830, it’s constructed in lovely quality mahogany, and consists of eight drawers, fitted with original turned wooden knobs.

Named after the 1st duke of Wellington, The Wellington chest is one of the most famous pieces of campaign furniture (furniture specifically made to break down or fold for ease of travel). Consisting of six to twelve shallow drawers, they were often used for storing coins or documents or other small articles. A hinged flap overlaps the drawers on one side and is fitted with a lock. (Wellington chests are sometimes referred to as side locking chests for this reason)

The 1st Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, was commissioned as an ensign in the British army in 1787. He later moved through the ranks to colonel in 1796 and then governor in 1799. It’s said that Wellesley carried a specific chest with him when in the field, a campaign style piece, with brass mounts to protect the corners, and a locking bar to hold the drawers in place.. it’s thought that this is where the inspiration for the first Wellington chests came from.

Loudon’s Furniture Designs from the Encyclopedia of Cottage, Farmhouse and Villa Architecture and Furniture illustrated the first example in 1833, and Wellington chests continued to be made in the Victorian period in mahogany, walnut and rosewood.

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What is ‘Flame’ mahogany?

 

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.

Georgian flame mahogany bookcase cabinet

Veneering consists of gluing down sheets of thinly cut decorative wood to a solid “carcase” 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.

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, such as seen on this lovely bookcase cabinet. Other exotic hardwoods were employed at this time, such as rosewood and satinwood, and veneers continued to be popular until the Edwardian period.

 

 

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DIVIDE AND RUIN: HOW TO SPOT A ‘DIVORCE’ IN FURNITURE

 

Not a divorce: An original bureau bookcase

It is relatively frequent to see ‘marriages’ within furniture of the 18th & 19th centuries (read more on our blog post on marriages and how to avoid them here) and much has been written about how to spot when an item has been ‘made up’ from two or more existing components. Less often, however, are we warned of a ‘divorce’ (when an item has been split) and how to spot this.

Two part furniture has always been prone to separation. During the 18th century when estates were sold, chest on chests, linen presses and the like were often divided, to fit into their new, often smaller homes. On the death of a family member, furniture was literally divided between the heirs, with the same results. Inevitably sections also simply get lost over the years, as they pass through many various auction houses and homes.
So what clues that an item was formerly part of a larger piece should we look for? An obvious one is a chest of drawers that was the upper or lower section of a tallboy. Things to look out for here include three small drawers along the top row of the chest; these were predominately only seen on tallboys, and so would indicate ‘divorce’. Another thing to look closely at is the moulding along the top of the piece – traditionally a moulding on a chest of drawers will taper upwards, whereas this is reversed on a tallboy, with the cornice flaring out at the top.

Another item falling prey to separation are bureau bookcases. A bureau intended to take a cabinet will usually have a steeper fall than one made to stand alone – allowing plenty of room on the top for the cabinet, and so a steep fall on a bureau should raise alarm bells. One final example to look out for are library bookcases. Often the centre section was separated from its flanking ends, creating a single glazed bookcase cabinet or secretarie. To spot this, look at the cornice and plinth of the piece – the corners should be mitres, and not run flush with the edge of the piece.

Of course these ‘clues’ are just guidelines; with antiques there are always exceptions to the rule, and sometimes you need to trust your instinct.

 

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What Is Ormolu?

 

Ormolu mountings are fine quality cast mounts typical of French or ‘French style’ antique furniture.  They were also used for the decorative mountings of clocks, lighting devices, and porcelain.

Ormolu (from French or moulu, signifying ground or pounded gold) is an 18th-century English term for applying finely ground, high-carat gold to a mount cast in bronze. The French refer to this technique as bronze doré, which is used to this day – though the item may be merely painted with a gold-tone paint

The manufacture of ormolu employs a process known as mercury gilding or fire gilding. A solution of nitrate of mercury was applied, followed by the application of an amalgam of gold and mercury. The item was then exposed to extreme heat until the mercury burned off and the gold remained, adhered to the metal object. Most mercury gilders died by the age of 40 due to exposure to the harmful mercury fumes.

This process has generally been supplanted by the electroplating of gold over a nickel substrate, which is more economical and less dangerous!

Amongst new stock this month is this Antique marquetry centre table. The inlaid floral decoration is perfectly set off by the crisp, bold ormolu mounts.

 

 

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Overmantel or Overmantle??

For many years at Thakeham Furniture, we referred to the large (often gilt, often landscape format) mirrors, that hang or stand over fireplaces as ‘overmantle mirrors’… until someone told us this was wrong. The correct, Oxford English dictionary spelling is in fact ‘overmantel’. So that meant we had been calling the mantelpiece the wrong thing for years too!

‘Mantel’ and ‘mantle’ are just one example of many words in the English language known as homophones – words that sound alike but have different meanings; ‘mantel refers to a shelf above a fireplace, whereas ‘mantle’ refers to a cloak or (usually figuratively) to royal robes of state as a symbol of authority or responsibility.

So brief English lesson over(!).. where did overmantel mirrors originate from? Overmantel mirrors, to go above a fireplace, were developed in the mid 1700s, overtaking the earlier, smaller forms. The process of gilding was developed in the later years of the 17th century, the soft gold finish making the mirror a statement piece in the home. The early designs were of Rococo style – highly decorative with carved C scrolls. Overmantels of the Regency period were simple and more refined, often featuring three bevelled plates in a row, divided by reeded mouldings. By Victorian times the fashion was for arched frames, and later, heavy carving reminiscent of the Rococo style.

Overmantel mirrors add a refined elegance to any decorative scheme. They can transform the look of a room, reflecting light and becoming a focal point of a space.

 

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The Beauty of Early Walnut

 

5084aThere are two periods of English furniture when walnut was the most popular cabinet timber. The first, known as the ‘Early Walnut’ period dates from 1680 to about 1740, or sometime during the reign of George II, when the newly imported mahogany began to gain in popularity.

Much prized by cabinetmakers for its strength and decorative figure, “Juglans Regia” or English walnut, was not in fact native to England, but was introduced from Europe, possibly by the Romans.

The “curl” figure is found where branches or roots separate from the main trunk; “burr” walnut, with its distinctive speckled grain, is actually cut from a growth or burr on the side of the tree. These decorative sections would only be used in veneer form, but walnut was also used in the solid for chairs etc.

Veneers from this period were laboriously cut by hand, and are typically 1/16th of an inch thick – paper thin veneers are one of the first indications of a Victorian copy, or a reproduction!

The lovely, faded “honey” colour is of this chest on stand is typical of an early period walnut piece. Oak or, as in this case, pine was the timber of choice for carcasses, as its strong tight grain provided a perfectly stable ground to support the fine veneers.

 

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Mahogany and the slave ships

 

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The ships which worked the slave and spice trade between England, Africa and the West Indies sometimes came back to England without a cargo; however, ballast was needed to keep the ship on an even keel, and this was made up of readily available mahogany tree trunks: Swietenia mahogani, also called Spanish or Cuban mahogany.

Furniture makers had their workshops in the industrial part of town close to the docks, and seeing this timber mounting up on the quayside as a waste product, arranged for some of it to be cut. It was then discovered that not only was this timber good to work, but it was also very decorative.

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Once the timber was popular it began to be brought in as a cargo, and high import duties were paid, making it very expensive; then in 1725 the tax was lifted, and for the next 150 years mahogany became the predominant cabinet timber used by makers such as Thomas Chippendale and Thomas Sheraton.

For the cabinet makers of the time, used to working in oak and walnut, mahogany was a revelation: the tree’s girth allowed for wide boards with a straight, fine, and even grain. Its reddish-brown colour darkens over time, and displays a beautiful figure and sheen when polished. It has excellent workability, and is very durable – craftsmen could achieve fine, delicate carving and fretwork, as well as sturdy joints. Mahogany also resists wood rot and, unlike oak or walnut, is never attacked by woodworm.

 

 

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