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 – 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.
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.
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.
Furniture made during the Georgian and Victorian periods was built to last! Joints were constructed and glued – not stapled or nailed together like modern pieces. Timber was properly seasoned, so is less likely to warp; and the finish applied, designed to resist marks, hardens over time. With a little care and thought, caring for your antique furniture is easy!
1. Keep out of direct sunlight
Where possible, position furniture away from direct sunlight, which can not only fade furniture but may also cause a polished surface to blister within a short space of time.
2. Watch out for radiators
Similarly, radiators can be a problem if furniture is placed directly in front of one – allow as much space as possible.
3. Keep a check on humidity levels
Low humidity can have a damaging effect on antique furniture – it was not constructed with today’s centrally or underfloor heated homes in mind! Wood is a flexible medium, and if allowed to dry out too much, may shrink and crack. Fortunately, ambient humidity is very easy to check with a small, cheap electronic gadget called a ‘hygrometer’. Humidity of round about 45% is ideal, with a minimum of 35%; the easiest way to achieve this without trouble is to place a couple of bowls of water about under pieces of furniture.
4. Wax every 3 – 4 months
Most pieces will only need waxing every 3 to 4 months at most, depending on how much wear the piece gets. Waxing too often will give a sticky finish which attracts dirt! Apply a thin layer of any good quality bees-wax based polish with a cloth, then buff up really hard with a soft cloth or brush; this will help to maintain a lovely patina.
5. Buff up that brasswork!
Nothing gives your antiques a lift more then shining up the handles. This job is very straightforward; we recommend using a small amount of good old Brasso. Don’t panic if some gets on the wood – just wipe off quickly with a cloth!
One of the questions we are frequently asked is: what exactly is “country” furniture – what does the term mean?
Strictly speaking, it refers to furniture made by country craftsmen, varying from purely functional pieces made by amateurs to expertly constructed and carved work based on the fine furniture made for the rich. Much country furniture is naive, with the best of such examples falling into the category of folk art. The furniture is simple and sturdy, rarely delicate in design or workmanship – sophisticated decoration such as marquetry or gilding is not found on this type of furniture.
Whilst some country pieces were for purely functional purposes, others were made by skilled country craftsmen to emulate the fine furniture produced by the top cabinet makers of the day such as Chippendale or Hepplewhite. Local timbers were used instead of exotic, imported mahogany and expensive satinwood or rosewood. Walnut continued to be popular throughout the 18th century, although it was very out of fashion other than for country pieces – prized for its figure and colour, although very susceptible to woodworm!
Oak was perhaps the most commonly used timber for country furniture – solid, stable, hard wearing and beautiful, particularly when ‘quarter cut’ to display its distinctive medullary rays. Another very popular choice was fruitwood – predominantly cherry, although both apple and pearwood were also used. Cherry had the advantage of being cheap, readily available, and easy to work, with a fine, close grain. It also has a lovely warm colour to it, and, when patinated with age, bears more than a passing resemblance to mahogany.
Country furniture bore many of the same characteristics for centuries, for styles changed slowly and lingered long after they had been dropped in fashionable furniture. The Windsor chair is one of the best-known examples of country furniture, and incorporated a mix of woods. Elm was often used for the seats, as its wild, interlocking grain is strong, while ash or yew were easy to steam bend to make the hooped backs.
One of the world’s oldest surviving wooden artefacts is a yew spear head, found in 1911 at Clacton-on-sea, Essex. It is estimated to be 450,000 years old. Yew wood is reddish brown (with whiter sapwood), and is very springy; the entire tree is poisonous – wood, bark, needles and seed. It was traditionally used to make bows, especially the longbow: the battle of Agincourt was considered to have been won by the yew wood long bow.
Yews are fascinating trees – characteristically planted in churchyards, where some are estimated to be over 1,000 years old. The Druids regarded yew as sacred and planted it close to their temples. As early Christians often built their churches on these sacred sites, the association of yew trees with churchyards was perpetuated. Another theory is that they were planted, for making bows, in graveyards so that they wouldn’t poison grazing cattle.
Very slow growing for a conifer, yew is one of the hardest of the softwoods. Much prized in furniture making for its colour, figure and durability, it is also notoriously hard to work: deceptively smooth, the grain is interlocking and will often ’catch’ a tool edge – cabinet scrapers and sandpaper are traditionally used for finishing yew wood pieces. It also makes spectacularly beautiful turned objects or treen. The earliest [and the best] Antique Windsor chairs, were made with yew – it was well suited to being steam ‘bent’ for the characteristic bow back, as well as being turned for the spindles.
The patina of yew wood is unique, and particularly lovely – over the years it develops a silky sheen. Similarly the colour, while really quite vivid orange with purplish streaks when freshly cut, fades to a warm, mellow brown on antique furniture. It is one of the most prized, and unusual, of our indigenous cabinet timbers. This exceptional pair of Georgian yew wood lamp tables are a fine example, with their elegant turned columns and octagonal tops with fine inlay.
As a furniture style, Regency has come to embrace a period from the 1790s to about 1830. Strictly, Regency means 1811-1820 which was the period the Prince of Wales (later George IV) acted as Regent during his father’s period of insanity. The Prince presided over the rebuilding of much of central London, with possibly his most impressive achievement being Carlton House – Regency high style at its most sumptuous.
Brighton Pavilion, a product of the collaboration between the Prince and Henry Holland, was a lavish oriental fantasy with onion-shaped domes and Moorish arches, pierced stone facades and tall arched windows. The Prince commissioned the design, for a new building in the Oriental style, from John Nash. He had the walls decorated with mandarins and fluted yellow draperies to resemble Chinese tents, and Oriental treasures of all kinds
The major source of inspiration for Regency taste was found in Greek and Roman antiquity. A taste for Egyptian motifs, resulting from the Napoleonic expeditions to Egypt, also became part of the Regency fashion. Variations in the Regency period also produced a resurgence of the Chinese theme seen in imitation bamboo and in painted and “japanned” black and gold lacquer pieces, most notably at Brighton Pavilion – George Smith (1756-1826) and Thomas Hope (1769-1831) both designed furniture for the Royal Pavilion. Classical proportions and elegant design have combined to make this one of the most admired periods of English furniture making.
Another important Regency personality was Nelson (1758-1805). Admiral Nelson’s much publicized victories at sea had a powerful effect on English Regency furniture design. Ebony was used to decorate furniture as a sign of mourning, and some chairs were carved in imitation of Nelson’s draped sarcophagus. Seafaring motifs abounded, their best-known use is on Sheraton’s ‘Nelson chair’, or ‘Trafalgar Chair’, which has decorations of carved dolphins, anchors and rope on the splat.
The wood used for furniture during the Regency period was often mahogany, either solid or veneered. Rosewood became very fashionable wood for cabinetwork after 1800, and many Regency pieces were made entirely of it. Other exotic wood such as ebony and zebra wood were used combined with brass inlays. Brass inlays were cut from brass sheets and were frequently inlaid as narrow banding and stringing lines into rosewood and mahogany furniture; such as on this impressive centre table.
1. It’s good value
Antique furniture is cheaper, in real terms, than it has been since the 1990s – most pieces have stayed roughly the same price for the last 15 years, while some, such as sets of dining chairs and the larger bits like tallboys and sideboards, have come well down in price. Antique furniture has generally been undervalued in relation to other arts, so if you’re buying something you love that is in good condition, the chances are it will be a good investment. A modern piece of furniture is worth next to nothing by the time you get it home.
2. It’s handmade
Machine tools as we know them were not really developed until the second half of the 19th century, so all furniture was made by hand by highly skilled cabinetmakers. Apprenticeships were 7 years – not surprising when you consider the level of skills necessary. Examine the dovetails on the little drawers on ANY Georgian toilet mirror, and you will find the finest ‘pins and ‘tails’, cut to needle point precision with a fine saw. Beautifully made and built to last.
3. It never goes out of style
The trouble with buying ‘shabby chic’ or whatever the latest trend is … exactly that! It is the latest fashion, and a soon as things move on you’re left with an outdated ‘look’. Georgian furniture, in particular, has a classical timeless elegance. Its simplicity of design goes so well in contemporary settings, and never dates.
4. Antiques are green!
Buying antiques is the ultimate in re-using and re-cycling. In September 2010 a carbon footprint analysis was commissioned of an antique chest of drawers against its modern equivalent. The study, conducted by Carbon Clear, an independent consultancy specialising in carbon accounting, finally puts a figure on just how eco-friendly buying antiques can be: the new item had a carbon footprint 16 times higher than the antique! The analysis compared the greenhouse gas emissions produced during the lifespan of two chests of drawers; one constructed in 1830 with an assumed lifespan of 195 years, during which time it has been restored and sold twice and, the other, a new piece of similar value available from a reputable high street retailer with an assumed lifespan of 15 years.
5. Each piece is unique
Create your home, not a show home. One of the great things about buying antiques is you are never going to spot that exact same piece in somebody else’s house! Contemporary eclectic style mixes antique with 20th century and modern for your own unique look.
English oak is a beautiful wood; it tends to have a fine and close grain, and hardens with age to an iron-like strength. England’s generally rich soil and its comparatively mild and moist climate have provided it with an abundance of trees ideal for use as timber. Medullary rays are a particularly characteristic feature of oak, winding across the grain, usually paler than the surrounding wood. These are small bands of cells which conveyed and stored nutrients horizontally.
In England, well into the 19th century, the commonest method of converting timber into planks was by means of a long saw with a handle at each end, worked by two men, one of whom would often be standing below the log in a pit. Such timber is known as “pit-sawn”, and the unfinished back or interior boards of many a piece of furniture show its distinctive parallel saw marks.
The most obvious method of converting a log into planks is simply to slice it into parallel layers; This is known as plain sawing, and gave rise to the expression “run of the mill”. In order to produce planks with the sought-after medullary figure, the log would be “quarter-cut”: it was first divided lengthwise into quarters, then planks were sawn from each quarter. Boards created this way are also less likely to warp, and were used as show wood.
This charming oak dresser base dates from the 19th century, and has a lovely colour and old wax patina. The panelled doors display the typical medullary figuring of quarter-cut oak. Unique to this piece is the use of decorative geometric inlay in mahogany and lacewood. We sell plenty of early oak furniture on our website www.thakehamfurniture.co.uk
One of the more unusual pieces that we have had in recently is this 19th century north Italian walnut occasional table. It has an oblong top, with canted corners, and decorative parquetry inlay, with a central marquetry motif depicting a classical chariot scene. Raised on a turned column, it has three hipped, scrolled legs.
Marquetry is the method of decorating the surface of furniture with a panel of veneers. The sheets of veneer are temporarily glued together into a “pack”, and cut with a fine saw, producing contrasting panels of identical design. Simple geometric marquetry designs are often called ‘parquetry,’ in reference to the similar patterning of parquet flooring. Woods used were usually the more exotic timbers such as ebony, rosewood or boxwood, and sometimes included ivory, tortoiseshell, mother-of-pearl or fine metals. Some were dyed, and portions of the design, for example the leaves, were shaded by scorching the edges in hot sand. Marquetry should not be confused with inlay, in which pieces of wood are let in to the solid carcass.
Marquetry was introduced into English furniture at the restoration of Charles II in 1660 by Dutch immigrant “inlayers”. At the end of the 17th Century, a new influx of French Huguenot craftsmen, known as “ebenistes”, popularised seaweed or “arabesque” marquetry. The technique was revived again around 1765, when formal neo-classical designs became popular in Adam and Sheraton style furniture, and remained in use right into the late 19th century.
How do I know that the piece of furniture I am looking at is a genuine antique? Could it be a reproduction or a fake – and what are the things to look for?
1. First, look for anything that shouldn’t be there; are the top, back or sides made of plywood? Plywood was not used in furniture making until the 1930s, so would never have been incorporated into a Georgian piece. Similarly, chipboard, staples or Phillips screws are evidence of later construction. Antique chairs were always made with mortice and tenon joints, so a Georgian chair jointed by dowels is not Georgian!
2. The next thing to do is turn the piece upside down [where possible!]. If it is a large table, such as a diner, I often advise people to take a torch to have a good look underneath. The first thing to look for is almost part of the ‘patina’ of the top: if a table has been used for two hundred years or so there will be a waxy rim around the under edge where people’s fingers have touched the table. This is near impossible to reproduce – if the underside is too clean, or there are stain brush marks, steer clear.
3. If the piece is veneered, as a general guide, the thicker the veneer the older the piece is. Veneers were handsawn until well into the 19th century, so were by necessity coarsely cut. They were glued down [always with ‘Scotch’, or animal glue] and then sanded and polished in situ. Veneers became thinner and thinner as mechanisation increased, and by the 20th century they were literally ‘paper’ thin.
4. Dates are important when looking at screws and nails. Screws as we know them were not introduced until around 1675 and were handmade well into the mid 19th century. A handmade screw has little or no taper, the slot on the head is very rarely centrally aligned and the handmade screw has a much shallower spiral than the machine made variety. Nails were square cut, with round wire nails not used until about 1900.
5. Finally, run your hand over the table top: a new top will have a new finish, and will not be smooth and silky to the touch as with original patination; the grain may be raised, or the edges oddly sharp for a piece of age. As with all areas of antique buying, this is where experience counts; but follow your instincts: a piece that simply ‘feels’ wrong often is, and gradually your eye will become tuned in.