During the 18th and 19th centuries fruitwood was widely used for the construction of vernacular or
“country” furniture in France and 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 lovely Provincial armoire, dating from about 1800. It has a mellow, “honey” colour and soft, 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 English 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.
This technique is thought to have been developed by English cabinet-makers in the 1660s, immediately after the Restoration of the monarchy. Many of the finest pieces of furniture during this time were ornamented with roundels or ‘Oysters’ of walnut or laburnum. Oysters, so called because of their resemblance to an oyster shell, are produced from selected limbs (branches) of certain species by saw-cutting across, usually at an approximate 45° angle.
The difficulty came with the seasoning of the cut timber: woods such as these are very likely to split and twist as they dried out, particularly if they were cut across the grain. This cut incorporated both the light sapwood and the dense heartwood, to great decorative effect, but creating conflicting strains during seasoning. The slices of veneer were wrapped in cloth and buried in silversand to dry out as slowly as possible.
The resulting small, oval pieces are trimmed and laid in various patterns on special furniture and frames. The most common species for oyster work are Laburnum, Olive, Walnut and Yew. These were cut from smaller branches of the tree. Transverse saw cuts were made straight through to create roundels, while slices cut at an angle provided ovals, both methods showing the ‘fan’ of the grain to its best advantage. Stringing was a fine inlaid line using a contrast of woods like Holly or Boxwood, as seen in this lovely example – an olivewood lace box, dating from about 1690.
2014 saw some memorable pieces through the doors at Thakeham Furniture. We decided to take a look back and see which were the really exceptional. After much discussion and disagreement, we managed to narrow it down to 10! Many are sold but a couple are still available; in no particular order….
Amongst new stock this month is this lovely small 19th century padouk chest of drawers. Dating from about 1830, 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.
Thomas Sheraton [1751 – 1806] was one of the “big three” furniture makers of the 18th century, along with Thomas Chippendale and George Hepplewhite. He came from a poor background in Durham, and was trained as a ‘journeyman cabinet-maker’. He seems to have settled in London about 1790 in Davies Street, and then Wardour Street, where he taught perspective and furniture design. He published his most famous work ‘The cabinet-makers and Upholsterers Drawing book’ in 1791-4. The designs are fabulous – intricate and detailed, and accompanied by his astute observations on form and proportion.
He had a remarkable sense of style, and the designs show lightness and great elegance. Characterised by classical proportions and slim, straight tapered legs that replaced the heavier cabriole legs of the mid 18th century, his furniture featured the use of exotic hardwoods such as Satinwood, Rosewood and Ebony. Common marquetry motifs include drapery swags, ribbons, fans, and urns, but all restrained and elegant. Particularly popular were the inlaid oval panels, as seen on this beautiful sofa table of the period, often crossbanded with Tulipwood or Purpleheart
Interestingly, there is no evidence that he possessed a workshop, or executed any of the designs illustrated in his books. However, his influence as a designer was huge – over 700 cabinet-makers bought ‘The Drawing Book’ and his designs were adopted by makers throughout the Regency period. Replaced by heavier furniture during the Victorian period, the 1890s saw a huge revival of the Sheraton Style, and elegant, restrained Satinwood pieces started to be produced again – such as this exquisite little waterfall bookcase.
Known as ‘The golden era of design’, there is no disputing the quality and refinement of Georgian furniture. Pieces ‘stand well’: mouldings and brassware perfectly balance aprons and legs. Many furniture historians believe this is because cabinet makers adhered to a strict geometric proportioning system, based on the five classical orders, which are evident throughout the history of design, particularly in Architecture.
The origins of this design system reach back to at least the Greeks, from whom the Romans borrowed it. And it later served European craftsmen from the Renaissance to the beginning of the Industrial Age.
Thomas Chippendale was passionate about proportions and he believed that cabinet work couldn’t be successful without a complete understanding of proportions. He encouraged his apprentices to carefully study the five orders and to recognise that they were the ‘very soul and basis of [the] art.’ —Thomas Chippendale, The Gentleman & Cabinet-Maker’s Director, 1762
Although there is no doubt that Chippendale was a firm believer in the rules of proportion, there is very little written about his methods of achieving this perfect balance. Some furniture historians believe that Chippendale was exaggerating his reliance on the rules, and that the balance was achieved merely by relying on the human eye. Others claim that the lack of recorded theory is due to the information being privileged; Chippendale only imparted the rules during apprenticeship. It is fascinating to consider that these rules were a highly guarded secret of the furnituremaking and architectural guilds. Perhaps we will never truly know the secret to the finesse of Georgian design.
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.
Gilders cushion, tip, knife and gold leaf
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.
Below 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.
Veneering consists of gluing down sheets of thinly cut decorative wood to a solid “carcase” timber. Thin slices of wood, usually thinner than 3 mm (1/8 inch), are sawn from a high quality 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.
There is a belief that veneering is an attempt to cover poorer quality woods, that it is a ‘cheaper‘ option and somehow inferior. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The primary reason for veneering was to enable decorative woods to be employed: 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, calling for the highest quality craftsmanship.
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, 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. Other exotic hardwoods were employed at this time, such as rosewood and satinwood, and veneers continued to be popular throughout the Edwardian period.
Petworth is a beautiful, historic little market town situated in the heart of the South Downs National Park. The town is dominated by Petworth House: now run by the National Trust it has been the seat of the Egremont family since the 17th century. The house is set in a beautiful deer park, landscaped by Capability Brown, and houses the National Trust’s finest collection of paintings, with numerous works by Turner, Van Dyck, Reynolds and William Blake. The spectacular limewood carvings in the dining room by Grinling Gibbons are worth a visit alone.
Over recent years, Petworth has become known as the antiques centre for the South of England; voted ‘Best Antiques Town’ it boasts over 30 art and antiques dealers within a half-mile radius! With a vast array of Georgian furniture, oak and country, and decorative antiques on offer, there are shops to suit every pocket. Parking is easy in the large town centre car park.
To get a sense of what life in Petworth was like 100 years ago, visit Petworth Cottage Museum at 346 High Street. This small cottage has been refurbished to look just as it did in 1910 where Mrs Cummings lived when she worked as a seamstress at Petworth House.
Apart from the antique shops, Petworth is a treasure trove of independent retailers, cafes, shops and accommodation. Find a proper bookshop, traditional gentlemen’s clothing, an award-winning florist, women’s dress shops, and a world class delicatessen in the form of The Hungry Guest. Plus Austens, a proper traditional hardware store where you can get almost anything!
Within easy striking distance of London, Petworth is situated just over an hour down the A3. Surrounded by some of the most beautiful countryside in Southern England it makes an ideal day or weekend destination. For more details go to www.discoverpetworth.org