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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.