Antique Miniatures vs Apprentice pieces: What’s the difference?

 

Miniature Georgian mahogany chest of drawers

Here at Thakeham Furniture, we usually hold a stock of miniature antique furniture. Always popular, these charming pieces are often the subject of much discussion… why were they made? And for what purpose? People like to use the term ‘apprentice pieces’ when referring to these, but more often than not this isn’t the case. But what is an apprentice piece and why are they often confused with miniatures? Here we aim to answer these questions! …

George III miniature mahogany chest

The majority of miniature furniture are in fact sample pieces used by travelling salesmen. Workshops would send out salesmen on lengthy country-wide tours, with a miniature of each piece on his sales cart. This meant the cabinet maker could use the smaller form to show off his skills, without the salesman having to lug a full size piece of furniture wherever he went! Using exactly the same skills and techniques as used on the full sized pieces, the miniatures offered a fantastic way of potential buyers being able to get a feel of the quality of goods the workshop produced, before committing to a purchase… much better than a sketch in a catalogue!

A much smaller number of these miniatures are what was called ‘apprentice pieces’. Apprentice pieces, although again a scaled down version of the workshops’ offerings, were made by an often inexperienced apprentice. They were given lesser quality materials to work with and the craftsmanship was often less refined.

Miniature 19th century mahogany cheval mirror

Both miniatures and apprentice pieces are highly desirable and collectible antique items in today’s market. They are rarer than the real thing, and the charm and precise craftsmanship of these exquisite pieces is undeniable. These days they are often used as collectors’ chests and jewelry boxes etc., and make a wonderful gift!

 

To see our stock of miniature antique furniture and other smalls, please click here

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Secrets of the Glue Pot

 

When people come into our workshops here at Thakeham Furniture [visitors are always welcome], one of the things that astonishes them is the sight of a traditional ‘glue pot’ containing hide or ‘Scotch’ glue, such have been used in workshops since the 17th century! Scotch glue is an adhesive, similar to gelatin, that is created other by prolonged boiling of animal hide, and it is used hot.  It comes in the form of pearls, which are first soaked in water; the technology of the glue pot, however,  has moved on: we use an electric double skin device.

Why not use modern, synthetic adhesives? Well, there are several answers to this question. The first, and most important, is authenticity. When working on antique furniture you should never introduce materials that were not around when the piece was first made; for example, we have a wood store of old timber, so that we never have to use ugly modern mahogany in a repair. Scotch was what was used when the piece was made.

The second reason would be strength and reliability. Hide glue also functions as its own cramp. Once the glue begins to gel, it pulls the joint together. Cabinet makers may glue two planks together  by using a rubbed joint rather than using cramps.  This technique involves coating half of the joint with hot hide glue, and then rubbing the other half against the joint until the hide glue starts to gel, at which point the glue becomes tacky. At this point the plate is set aside without cramps, and the hide glue pulls the joint together as it hardens.

The third reason is convenience – hide glue is very forgiving. It is water soluble, so it can be washed off easily. Haven’t managed to wash every scrap of old glue off before re-gluing an old joint?  It doesn’t matter: the new heat of the new glue will soften up the old and they’ll combine nicely. Working on a piece that was restored by a cowboy last time? If they used a synthetic glue you will be cursing them, as anyone who has spent hours picking tiny scraps of Cascamite out of a joint will testify.

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What Is a Bonheur Du Jour?

A bonheur du jour (in French, bonheur-du-jour, meaning “daytime delight”) is a type of lady’s writing desk. It was introduced in Paris by one of the interior decorators and purveyors of fashionable novelties called marchands-merciers about 1760, and speedily became intensely fashionable. The bonheur du jour is always very light and graceful, with a decorated back, since it often did not stand against the wall (meuble meublant) but was moved about the room (meuble volant); its special characteristic is a raised back, which may form a little cabinet or a nest of drawers, or open shelves. The top, often surrounded with a gallery, serves for placing small ornaments. Beneath the writing surface there is usually a single drawer, often neatly fitted for toiletries or writing supplies. Early examples were raised on slender cabriole legs; under the influence of neoclassicism, examples made after about 1775 had straight, tapering legs.

The French had the idea of mounting bonheurs du jour with specially-made plaques of Sèvres porcelain; the earliest Sèvres-mounted pieces are datable from the marks under their plaques. Other choice examples of the time are inlaid with marquetry or panels of Oriental lacquer, banded with exotic woods, with gilt-bronze mounts.

By the mid-1770s the bonheur du jour was being made in England, where it was often simply called a “lady’s writing-desk”. This particularly fine Scottish example is in finely figured rosewood, with decorative boxwood stringing. The folding writing surface opens to reveal the original tooled leather and inset pen and inkwell trays. The scrolling shelf supports contribute to the overall elegance of the piece, which dates from about 1810.

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A History of Hall Chairs

Once a staple feature of stately homes throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, hall chairs occupied a prominent position in the home’s entryway. Placed to accommodate guests entering the home before they were invited into the more intimate inner rooms, they also provided a discreet resting place for waiting servants, the solid upright back prevented slouching!

Thomas Chippendale’s ‘The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director’, 1754, featured the first designs for the hall chair. The backs, carved from solid wood, were often painted with the family’s coat of arms and motto, which these days allows for provenance to easily be traced. They feature a solid hardwood seat, allowing for it to be easily cleaned. Hall chairs are not to be confused with porter’s chairs of the same period, which were designed with a cocoon like back to exclude draughts.

In recent years there has been a surge of popularity in Hall chairs. Alongside the robust design, and clean, architectural aesthetic, the chairs often come in pairs; creating a pleasing symmetry when placed either side of a console table in a hallway.

This pair of Regency mahogany hall chairs are in very good original condition. The architectural fanned back rest is typical of the style of the period. Please click here for further info on these chairs…
https://www.thakehamfurniture.co.uk/antique-chairs-sofas-stools/single-chairs-and-pairs/pair-of-georgian-hall-chairs-4-13-refno-3781/

 

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Gilt Mirrors

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.

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.

Beneath 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.

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Gillows of Lancaster: The long established cabinet makers renowned for the highest quality craftsmanship

 

Gillows of Lancaster was established by Robert Gillow in 1728 and continued by his two sons. They were a unique firm: no other cabinet makers were in business for so long a period, and no other provincial firms had a showroom and workshop in 18th century London;  they were responsible for some of the finest pieces of English cabinet work during the late 18th and early 19th century. They had a wide range of clients, from aristocracy to the merchant classes. All designs were practical and of the best materials, and above all was the quality of design craftsmanship: two hundred years later drawers still glide in and out smoothly.

This two door wardrobe, circa. 1850 and stamped “Gillows”, is a fine example of this first class craftsmanship. Although well over 150 years old, it has really stood the test of time.. the drawers run smoothly, the linings are incredibly clean, and there is no warping or movement – everything fits in its place neatly and flush.

Another example of Gillows furniture currently in stock is this 18th century serpentine chest of drawers. Again, beautiful quality, the oak drawer linings are crisp and clean, and the lovely small dove tail joints are clearly the work of a highly skilled cabinet maker. Serpentine front chests always are always held in high esteem, due to the extra work during construction.

 

 

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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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