The firm of Edwards & Roberts was founded in 1845, and had premises at 21 Wardour Street, London. They were primarily cabinet makers and produced some of the very finest furniture of the late Victorian and Edwardian era. By 1892 they occupied more than a dozen buildings in Wardour Street, where they continued to trade until the end of the century.
Known and feted as one of the leading London cabinet makers and retailers, they worked in a variety of styles, both modern and revivalist. Their marquetry work was of a quality that equalled the creations of the French ébenistes of the 18th century.
The business involved making and retailing their own output, as well as adapting and restoring both English & Continental antique furniture. Many examples that passed through their hands bear their stamp or trade label, such as this exquisite rosewood Bonheur du Jour, or ladies writing desk. Dating from about 1820, the stamp ‘Edwards & Roberts Wardour St London’ is in the right hand drawer. It is a supremely elegant Regency piece, with its delicate turned and reeded legs, and fine brass gallery.
Currently taking place at Petworth house, and running until 12th March is ‘Turner’s Sussex’: an exhibition examining the artist’s work in the county of Sussex. To celebrate this, we have considered here what was happening in terms of furniture design during the Turner era.
Regency furniture is popularly described as the furniture produced in the period 1790 to 1830 – covering almost exactly the period of Turner’s working life. These years produced some of the most inventive and decorative furniture that has ever been made.
The desire for homes built ‘a la mode’ grew increasingly from the late 1700s. The economy was going from strength to strength, opening up new areas for commercial expansion, and heralding a greater French influence in design .It was fashionable for educated people to show an interest in history and an appreciation of the arts; increasing numbers of affluent people undertook the Grand Tour, and, like Turner himself, returned home with eyes educated to appreciate fine art.
The Regency attitude to interior decoration involved treating each room as a unit, with furnishings in harmony of theme or colour. Rooms were designed for a more informal style of living; windows were large and often used as doors into the garden. To fit suitably into these new interiors furniture had to be light and small enough to be easily moved about.
Popular interest in novelty and invention also resulted in the production of pieces with dual purpose: such as these library steps which conceal a commode!
A tambour is a sliding door consisting of a series of narrow mouldings or reeds of wood glued side by side to a stout canvas backing. Once dry, the tambour is the then ‘cracked’, whereby the glue between between each reed is loosened in the hands, to allow it to curve into shape. One end of the tambour is then fitted into a groove on the inner side of the piece of furniture, thus guiding the top in the direction required.
Tambour doors first came into existence in France circa 1750, and then in England towards the end of the century. In Hepplewhite’s ‘Guide’ 1788, he describes them as ‘very convenient pieces of furniture’
Roll top bureaus (in which the top is enclosed beneath a curved sliding tambour), came into popularity at the turn of the 19th century. However, Sheraton criticised the use of tambour within larger items of furniture, labelling them ‘almost out of use being both insecure and liable to injury’. On smaller items of furniture the tambour is certainly strong and attractive feature. An example of this is on commodes and pot cupboards, which was commonplace in the mid nineteenth century. On commode doors the slats are generally quite fine, however larger pieces tended to have wider slats as the depth of the cabinet provides plenty of room for a gently curved track.
A fine example of the use of tambour doors, is on this 18th century Dutch mahogany side cabinet. It has a figured top and a pretty dentil moulded cornice over two doors that slide open to reveal an adjustable shelf; perfect for use as a drinks cabinet!
In the 18th century trays were often mounted on legs or folding stands and used, in Thomas Sheraton’s words, ‘as a sideboard for the butler, who has the care of the liquor at a gentleman’s table’; others served as dumb waiters, and for tea. This composite form of furniture first appears in the early Georgian period. Shortly after 1750 mahogany trays were made for butlers’ use, set on the familiar X-shaped folding stand. The sides of the trays were sometimes pierced, either with cut-out handles of fretwork. Honduras mahogany would be used for the sides, but the base would be made of Spanish or Cuban mahogany as it is harder and so more resistant to dents from glasses and decanters.
In the Regency period the folding stands became more decorative and were often turned and ringed. The trays evolved too, with the oval form becoming popular: these had hinged edges which stand up to make a rectangular tray, such as in this beautiful example from the 1800s. The hinges are beautifully made: stopped, and also haunched, so that the sides do not simply fall down again. Butler’s trays are useful pieces of furniture that bring slightly more height to a room, and can be folded up and put away.
While ‘grain’ refers to the orientation of the fibres within timber, ‘figure’ describes the various distinctive patterns that result from this. More simply put, it is the surface pattern. Many things create and shape a wood’s figure, from the difference in density between earlywood and latewood cells, natural pigments and the number of growth rings; to deformations such as knots and external forces such as tensions and compression. Below are some of the most common examples of figure found on antique furniture.
Flame: Flame mahogany is cut at the crotch; the junction of a branch with the main stem of the tree, producing a flame-like figuring. This is an expensive process, with beautiful results which make it highly desirable within antique furniture.
Fiddleback: A wavy or rippled effect; the name derives from the common use on the backs of violins.
Birdseye: A rare, distinctive figure that most commonly occurs with maple. It appears like lots of tiny eyes in the grain.
Burr (or burl): A burr results from a tree undergoing some form of stress such as injury, virus or fungus. A swirly figure made up of tiny knots, it has the appearance of clustered buds and eyes surrounded by contorted veins and lines. Prized for its beauty
plum pudding: Plum pudding , usually occurring in mahogany, is an irregular grain caused by natural pigmentation from infiltrates. It has a streaky appearance which again is highly rare and desirable.
New in this week is this elegant lamp table veneered in Kingwood. Sometimes known as ‘violet wood’ because if its slightly purple hue, Kingwood [Dalbergia Ciarensis] is an exotic hardwood originating from South America. It is a small diameter tree, so although the timber is strong and straight-grained, it was mainly used as a decorative veneer. Described in some early inventories as ‘Prince’s wood’ it was prized for its colouring and distinctive, stripy grain.
First used by the French cabinet makers, or ‘ebenistes’, of the Louis XIV period, it was very popular; often used in conjunction with Tulipwood, another decorative hardwood with a distinctive pink and cream stripe, many of the grand, ormulu-mounted commodes of the day were quarter veneered with these.
Imported from such a long way, and only in small quantities, it would have been an expensive veneer. In England it became popular during the Sheraton period of the late 18th century, often used as a decorative crossbanding with other exotic hardwoods, such as Satinwood and Purpleheart. It remained in occasional use throughout the Regency period, although Rosewood, to which it looks very similar, was more popular.
To have an entire piece veneered in Kingwood, as this table is, was very unusual; it is a lovely quality piece in every aspect, from the mahogany carcase wood to the delicate boxwood line and elegant castors.
One of the pitfalls to be avoided when buying antique furniture is buying a ‘marriage’. This is a piece, such as a table, which has the wrong top on it – either from another table or ‘made-up’ especially. Usually this is because the original top has been broken, and obviously makes the piece worth a lot less than one which is ‘right’.
The first way to look for this is to use your ‘eye’. It’s quite surprising how many people don’t stand back and really look at a piece of furniture when they buy. It’s all a question of proportion; the cabinet makers of the Georgian period designed their pieces according to very strict laws of classical proportion, and as a result they are usually very pleasing to the eye: an oval lamp table will have a similarly delicately proportioned tripod base – it won’t be plonked onto four square legs and stretchers. And a sturdy rosewood breakfast table top will need a substantial base to give it stability and make it seem ‘balanced’ to the eye.
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. Something else you often see there are little circular impressions where a ladies crochet clamp has been attached to the edge!
The second thing to look for underneath is anything that shouldn’t be there! In other words, unexplained wear, marks, or empty screw or nail holes that indicate that the top was once attached to something else. Look closely, as these can be quite small, or may have been ‘plugged’ with wood or filler.
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.
This week we have in a truly unique piece of furniture: a late 18th century colonial chest of drawers, in solid rosewood. This beautiful piece, of South Asian origin, probably Indian, would have been constructed by local craftsmen to an English pattern: the design is basically English Georgian – a plain, unembellished chest of three graduated drawers – but there the similarity ends! An English chest would never have been constructed from solid rosewood at this period – this was an exotic hardwood, imported in very small quantities, and only used in veneer form [it was used in the solid in England much more widely from about 1820 onwards].
The drawer sides are made of cedar, which is not unusual, but the drawer bottoms are of solid teak – a timber unknown in England at that date. This, combined with the solid rosewood carcase, makes it the heaviest chest of drawers we have ever had!
Opening the drawers, there is more evidence of its origin – the dovetails are widely spaced and crudely cut, not the quality of craftsmanship that you see in English Georgian pieces. And even the graduated drawers are unusual – they graduate the other way, with the largest drawer at the top. The handles are the final clue – made in fretted brass and of wonderful quality, they are the local craftsman’s version of the classic design – with a distinctive Indian feel!
Indian rosewood is dark and quite straight grained, with a distinctive chocolaty stripe – but here it has faded to a beautiful soft colour with a lovely, untouched waxy patina: an usual piece, of great character.
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.
The earliest tables especially designed for playing cards were introduced around the beginning of the 18th century. Such tables were veneered in walnut, and had rectangular folding tops laid with baize, and cabriole legs; these would swing out to support the flap, and were often decorated with carved shells on the knees. The tops sometimes had cylindrical corners dished to hold candlesticks, and wells were provided for money or counters.
Early in George I’s reign mahogany began to supersede walnut, but the basic design stayed the same, the swing legs being supported by a finely made wooden knuckle joint. Card playing became more and more fashionable throughout the 18th century, and card tables were prized drawing room pieces as the quality of craftsmanship improved. Between 1775 and 1800 mahogany and satinwood card tables with tapered quadrilateral or cylindrical legs were made in a variety of shapes – serpentine, circular or oval; or D-shaped, as in this fine example from about 1790, inlaid with kingwood and satinwood banding and boxwood stringing.
Throughout the Regency period, designs became more elaborate, with quatroform bases and up to four pillars supporting the top. This example, dating from about 1835, is typical of the William IV period, and shows the development from the earlier type. It is of pedestal design, in wonderfully figured mahogany with turned knulling and beautifully carved lions paw feet hiding the castors. This form of table also has a folding, baize-lined top, but instead of a supporting leg the whole top swivels on the base before folding out.