One of the most frequent questions we are asked is “What is patina?” It is one of the most difficult things to describe, and yet it is that extra ingredient which transforms the surface of a piece of furniture from the ordinary to the exceptional.
Put simply, patina is the surface formed by a combination of the ageing processes caused by rubbing, dusting and waxing, coupled with oxidisation of the wood and the action of the sun’s rays, producing a bronze-like lustre, or “skin”.
The flat yellow colour of walnut becomes golden and “honey-coloured”, with wonderful depth. Oak richens from dull grey to a deep, dark brown. Mahogany loses its reddish hue and softens to lovely gradations of brown, golden and grey.
Finally, the dirt and dust of years which clings to corners plays its part by highlighting the paler, mellow surfaces; even the natural grease from fingertips which darkens areas around handles is an important factor.
Patina cannot be reproduced by the makers of fakes, and its qualities are an intrinsic part of the value of an antique. It takes two hundred or so years to form, but can be removed in an instant by the use of cleaners by unskilled restorers. Here in the Thakeham Furniture workshops, our team specialise in the preservation of patina.
From time to time, a really exceptional piece of furniture comes into the showroom, and this early Georgian kneehole desk is one of them. Dating from about 1750, it is typical of early Georgian furniture from this period; the quality of the mahogany is wonderful, the matched drawer fronts and figured top having faded to a lovely waxy patina.
It has a reading, or brushing, slide above the drawers, and the top drawer is fitted with fine oak partitions. Both, signs of quality, indicate that it may have had dual purpose as a gentleman’s dressing chest.
The handles, all original, are made of finely fretted brass and bring a restrained decorative element. The canted corners are elegantly fluted, and the bracket feet are shaped, typical of the George II period. The shaped frieze below the top drawer opens to reveal a hidden drawer.
The antique desk is unusually small in size and therefore ideal for those who are short of space. Of simple, well balanced design, the quality of workmanship and fine, original condition make it an excellent example of that unpretentious beauty which is so English.
This magnificent table was made in about 1830; style wise, it is typical of the late Regency period: the lion’s paw feet are beautifully carved, with a great depth and clarity. The tulip-shaped carving on the pedestal is a nod towards the symmetrical, foliate designs that became so popular during the reign of William IV, from 1830 to 1837.
William IV was a wonderful period of furniture making. It was characterised by strong, masculine design. Pieces tended to be more substantial than some of the delicate designs from the preceding Regency era; the feet on this table are broadly spread, making it particularly robust – it won’t move when you lean your elbows on it!
Exotic woods such as Rosewood were still popular at this time. The figured top of this table is a spectacular example of the dramatic figure of “Rio”, or South American, Rosewood [named for the smell when it is freshly cut]. A tropical hardwood, Rosewood is very dense and polishes to a lovely shine.
Now is a good time to buy! Antique furniture is cheaper in real terms than it has been for many years. It is often the same price, or cheaper, than a modern piece which is worth next to nothing by the time you get it home.
There are several reasons for buying antique furniture: it is much better quality, and it holds or increases its value. 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.
How to go about buying antique furniture? Firstly, and most importantly, only buy pieces you like: you will be living with them and enjoying them everyday! Trust your instincts and your “eye”, which will become more skilled with practise: stand back and look at the proportions – does it “stand” well? Examine the finish or “patina”: has it been sanded down and repolished, which would devalue the piece to some extent. Are there any loose joints or veneers?
Where to buy? Quality antique fairs, auction houses and specialist antique dealers are the best sources. Don’t forget, when buying at auction, that they add from 18% to 24% buyers premium to your bid, plus 20% VAT! There is also no guarantee that what you’re buying is what it pretends to be – does the top belong to the base, has it been cut down, is there woodworm under the upholstery?
If you buy from a dealer who is a member of LAPADA [The London and Provincial Antique Dealers Association], you will have peace of mind: members adhere to a strict Code of Practise, ensuring accurate descriptions and proper documentation of any restoration work.
This Georgian linen press is a good example: hand made and nearly 200 years old, it is useful as well as beautiful – it has the clean, simple lines of pieces from this period, and costs no more than having a built-in wardrobe made for your bedroom!
Walnut was the most popular cabinet timber during the first quarter of the 18th century. 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!
On this lovely chest on stand, dating from about 1740, the drawer fronts have been “quartered” – where four consecutive slices of veneer are laid out to mirror each other. These are framed by “featherbanding”, when two lines of banding are laid in a herringbone pattern. 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.
This lovely, faded “honey” colour is typical of an early period walnut piece.
When you look underneath the upholstery, antique sofas and chairs could not be more different from modern pieces. A new sofa, even from a high quality supplier, will be constructed of chipboard, stapled together and covered in foam. They are not built to last.
A piece such as this beautiful maple wood setee, dating from the mid 19th century, has a solid frame constructed of beech. Each joint is handmade, and the frame skilfully shaped to support the upholstery. Modern furniture makers talk about “ergonomics” – the Victorians were already practising it!
When we removed the upholstery on this sofa, we found that the frame was stamped “Gillows”, confirming it as a top quality piece from one of the most famous names in 18th and 19th century cabinet making.
All our upholstered pieces here at Thakeham Furniture are stripped back to the frame in the workshop, so that we can check for any loose joints, and treat for woodworm if necessary. They are then dispatched to our master upholsterer Louis, who has over 50 years experience in the business! He uses all traditional materials, such as tacks and horsehair rather than foam and staples, so the upholstery will last for years.
We only choose the best quality fabrics – this is a new range from Zoffany called “Archive Prints” that take classic designs and give them a modern twist. It gives a contemporary feel to the sofa, while complimenting its colour and form.
Amongst new stock this month is this beautiful mahogany glazed bookcase.
Dating from about 1810, it is a typical Regency piece in the quality of its construction: the timber is dense, with a wonderful figure, and all the mouldings are crisply executed. The brass locks and hinges are also top quality.
Unusually for a bookcase of this period, both top and bottom sections are glazed, giving it an elegance of design. The lovely Gothic astragal glazing bars also make this piece stand out.
Glazed bookcases of this type are believed to have been invented by Samuel Pepys. During the 1660s he had 12 of them built for him in oak, to hold his growing collection of printed books. They have been preserved in the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge.
Secret drawers are always a feature that have wide appeal – and are also an indication of an expensive piece, because of the time and craftsmanship they demanded. This bookcase has a very unusual one – a “map” drawer that is concealed in the plinth! It is operated by a brass button within.
During the 18th and 19th centuries fruitwood was widely used for the construction of vernacular or “country” furniture in England.
The most commonly used fruitwood was the timber from the native or wild cherry, Prunus avium, which produced a decent sized trunk and fine, wide planks. The wood is of a close, firm texture and reddish colour, and cabinet makers were drawn to it for various reasons; firstly, availability: a ready supply of locally produced timber. It is also very easy to work: the grain is fine and smooth, light in weight yet stable, and relatively free from knots. It holds a finish well; whether originally oiled or varnished, it acquires a lovely silky sheen over the years.
Another factor was its reddish colour and superficial resemblance to mahogany. At the time mahogany was a very expensive imported timber, only used on the finest “town” pieces; cherry was often used instead, such as in this delightful glazed corner cupboard, dating from about 1800. A country piece made in the “style” of a much grander one, it has a lovely, mellow colour and waxy finish.
Different types of fruitwood are notoriously difficult to distinguish from each other. Pearwood is strong, heavy and fine in grain, tinged with red. It was used from a very early period for simple country furniture. Stained black and polished or varnished, it was also used to imitate ebony as stringing and inlay, and in 18th century bracket clocks. It is the only fruitwood to display “fiddleback”, the curious crosshatched figuring that was traditionally used on the backs of violins.
Apple is pale and hard in texture, sometimes speckled with tiny knots; plum was also occasionally used, a pale cream when fresh, turning to a reddish brown – quite similar to cherry.
Amongst new stock this week is this lovely 19th century mahogany chest of drawers. Dating from about 1825, it is a particularly fine example of campaign furniture, designed to be packed and carried on the march during military campaigns. The officers of the British army who bought and commissioned campaign furniture came from the upper classes and were used to a certain standard of living. It was unthinkable to live otherwise whilst “under canvas,” as the expression went.
The items had to be relatively easy to pack up and transport. “The history of campaign furniture is the social history of the British officer class,” says Nicholas Brawer, an independent curator, in his book British Campaign Furniture: Elegance Under Canvas. “Mobility was much less a concern than keeping up appearances.”
Just as Savile Row tailors made the officers’ uniforms, England’s leading furniture makers produced campaign furniture that was fashionable and of the highest quality. Firms like Chippendale and Hepplewhite were early manufacturers of the furniture. At first, woods such as walnut and mahogany were utilized. As the empire expanded, more exotic woods such as camphor and teak found their place in campaign furniture. Design was both functional and elegant, with brass edges protecting vulnerable corners and recessed handles that lent the furniture a neat, almost nautical appearance.
This piece is slightly unusual in that it doesn’t come into two halves. It has lovely quality recessed handles, and little brass bound peg holes in the top where a wooden gallery could have been attached to stop items sliding off. The drawers are all oak lined, which was a sign of quality – cheaper pieces would be pine lined.
The elegant turned feet are again typical – on some pieces they were attached by screw
thread, so that they could be removed for transportation. The proportions are particularly
elegant and the piece has a lovely wax patina.
This fine quality mahogany side table, dating from about 1840, is stamped ‘Gillows’. 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 craftsmanship: two hundred years later drawers still glide in and out smoothly. The attention to detail in this table is wonderful; the reeded legs are crisply turned, and the drawers reveal a typical Gillows touch: instead of the back edge of the drawer bottom being nailed up into the back, canted slots have been made for the screws, to enable the timber to shrink without the drawer bottom splitting. Extending dining tables were a Gillow invention, and inventiveness and ingenuity characterised their work; the Gillow Archives 1728-1931 are the largest and longest cabinetmakers’ records to have survived in the world.