French Versus Wax Polish

Here at Thakeham Furniture we specialise in pieces with an original ‘patina’; but a question we are often asked is: how was that finish originally achieved? Would the piece have been French polished or wax polished back in the 18th or 19th centuries?

It is not widely known, but ‘French Polish’ was not introduced until about 1820 in England. It’s a method of application, rather than a type of finish: a pad of upholsterers wadding is soaked in a mixture of shellac dissolved in meths. This is then wrapped in a soft, washed cotton cloth – together this is known as a French polish ‘rubber’. The rubber works the polish into the grain of the wood in a circular motion, and numerous coats are applied, each one being rubbed down with fine wire wool in between. The finish is completed with a thin layer of wax.

Previous to this, most furniture from the walnut or early mahogany periods would have been finished with one of two methods – either with a mixture of beeswax softened in turpentine, polished off with a cloth. Or, for the more expensive pieces, a laborious method of polishing using linseed oil with brick dust. This is described by Sheraton, in his ‘Cabinet Dictionary’ of 1803, as ‘The general mode of polishing furniture’ … ‘which will infallibly secure a fine polish by continued rubbing’.

The Victorians took to French polishing – it creates a very bright, glassy shine, which does bring out the colours of the wood. However, it is also very easily scratched, and is particularly sensitive to spills of water or alcohol. In the workshops here, we only really use French Polish on items from the 1820s onwards, or for pieces such as dining tables which look so lovely with a rich shine; on most pieces we use our own beeswax based polish to enhance and preserve the original patina.

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Chippendale Period Kettle Stand

Candle stands first appeared in England during the Restoration period, c1680.  About 1735, these rudimentary tables began to evolve into graceful and useful “tripod” tables, with a straight, carved, or baluster shaft and cabriole legs. Tops were mostly circular, while some were square, octagonal, or “shaped”.

Small tripod tables of roughly this height were made as antique-kettle-stand-49-Lstands for tea kettles and their  heaters, for the ceremonial Georgian process of “taking tea” – although no doubt they were placed next to drawing room chairs for other purposes also. Ince and Mayhew, and Chippendale, both included examples of this type among their designs..

The diameter of the top being much less than across the base is typical: it meant greater stability, and follows the proportions of contemporary wine glasses. The stem is complex, with ring turnings and two complementary spirally fluted knops. The knees of the cabrioles are covered with carved acanthus and the toes are moulded up into an elegant scroll. It is in superb original condition, with a finely patinated surface. The top is original – although it has been re-screwed at some point – and the only restoration that has been carried out is to the Gothic fret gallery.

As always with these sought-after little pieces, the quality of both the timber and the carving is exceptionally fine. The mahogany is Cuban -  the very finest, close-grained wood, with a good weight, that allowed the crisp execution of the carving.

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Woods and their scents

3886bEvery timber has its own unique scent; the crisp freshness of pine to the acidic tang of green oak. Some timbers have smells very like every day scents. Over the 25 years we have had our workshops at Thakeham Furniture, we have had in various examples of timber on items of furniture spanning the 17th 18th and 19th centuries. Aromas we have come to know include the coconut scent of satinwood, the rich chocolate aroma of rosewood and the smell of pencils that comes from cedar.

When worked on, these aromas can be heightened; the smoke produced from burning can have some interesting uses. The powerful coconut smelling smoke produced from burning satinwood was said to be strong enough to sedate a person, or ‘kill a canary’…. although Industry historians say it’s doubtful satinwood’s sedative capabilities were widely known by early woodworkers.

Ceder drawer linings were often used to deter moths, which can cause real damage to clothing. The heavy scent of the cedar is thought to mask the smell of wool, which a moth seeks for a home to lay her eggs. Also known to deter moths was the powerful scent of camphor wood, which was often used in blanket chests and campaign trunks such as this 19th century chest (See image).

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Holland and Sons

 

3551bHolland and Sons were one of the greatest furniture-making firms of the Victorian period: they were known for fine quality workmanship, and for using the best woods, many of them indigenous, such as the oak and satin birch employed in this little lamp table, which carries their stamp underneath. They designed in the eclectic styles of the late 19th century, and particularly favoured the Gothic.

The company was formed in 1803 by William Holland, and remained in its London premises until it closed in 1942.Their first major commission was to make furniture for Queen Victoria at Osborne Castle on the Isle of Wight in 1845. At the firm’s height, in the 1850s, they employed 350 people. They went on to gain further commissions for Balmoral, Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. They also made furniture for the Palace of Westminster, the Reform and Athenaeum Clubs, the British Museum, the Royal Academy, All Souls, Oxford, and even John Lewis – the Oxford Street shop. They won medals at the Great Exhibition of 1851 for a carved bookcase ‘executed for Her Majesty’.

On 22 January 1986, a cabinet by Holland and Sons was sold at Christie’s for £81,000, the highest price paid until then for an item of Victorian furniture.

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Pollard Oak – Or Burr?

 

3823aPollarding is a pruning system in which the upper branches of a tree are removed, promoting a dense head of foliage and branches. It has been common in Europe since medieval times and is practised today in urban areas worldwide, primarily to maintain trees at a predetermined height. The bole of the tree, constantly cut back over a period of years, will eventually form a lump, or ‘burr’, which when sawn for veneer, gives a lovely grained, swirling figure.

The effect is similar to that of burr walnut with its distinctive speckled grain. Burrs, or ‘burls’, are growths which appear on the side of tree trunks, resulting from a tree undergoing some form of stress. They may be caused by an injury, virus or fungus.

During the 19th century great strides were made in the mechanisation of cabinet making. Marc Isambard Brunel [Isambard Kingdom’s father] built the first steam driven saw mill, and invented a circular saw that could be used to cut veneers thinly and evenly for the first time. He also developed the first hydraulic veneer press. 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. The new machines enabled the Victorian craftsmen to make the most of these beautiful timbers.

The quality of this pollard oak bookcase, dating from about 1850, is exceptional. The proportions are lovely, and the intricately grained veneers are beautifully selected and matched. It is oak lined throughout, and with its original patina, faded to a ‘honey’ colour.

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What is a Ho Ho Bird?

3746d

The Ho ho bird comes from the mythical Japanese version of the Phoenix. Although most commonly referred to as the Ho ho, the mysterious creature, with a long beak and curving neck, flowing tail, claws and crest takes on many other names, including hoo, foo, ho-wo, hobo, howo, ho and sacred river! Originally appearing as a motif in Asian decorative art (ceramics, woodwork and plasterwork), the bird was said to bring luck, symbolising good fortune; specifically longevity, fidelity and wisdom. It is often portrayed as an amalgam of several birds, including the phoenix, pheasant, stork, heron and bird of paradise.

Ho ho birds occur frequently within Rococo decoration from 18th century France, commonly on mirrors, mantel clocks and candle stands.

Ho ho birds first starting appearing in England in the 18th century on Georgian furniture and also on quality porcelain. The most common place for these birds to appear was on Georgian fret mirrors (many of which we frequently have in stock at Thakeham Furniture) These mirrors, dating from about 1760 onwards, usually incorporate a shaped cresting board in which the gilt Ho ho bird is mounted. (please see example) They are a simple decorative element that give a little lift to an otherwise understated classic Georgian design.

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The Norman Adams Collection

 

3824aWhen we bought this mahogany whatnot last week and turned it over, we were not surprised to see the label ‘Norman Adams’ attached to the underside. The name has become synonymous with the finest quality English furniture of the l8th and early 19th centuries.

Norman Adams was the son of a Bristol schoolmaster and antique dealer, and in 1928 opened his famous shop at 8 – 10 Hans Road, Knightsbridge, which only closed in 2009. He was known as an unrivalled supplier of what is possibly the finest period of English furniture. His ‘eye’ for quality was unerring, and many of the very finest pieces from the Chippendale, Sheraton and Hepplewhite eras passed through his hands. His particular passion was the importance of ‘patina’ – that elusive quality that builds up on the surface of a good piece. It is that extra ingredient that transforms the surface, giving it a lustrous depth.

In 1983 the Antique Collectors Club published ‘The Norman Adams Collection’, cataloguing some of his finest pieces, which is today often used as a guide to really good ‘period’ furniture.

This whatnot, dating from about 1800, displays the typically high quality of cabinet work. The turnings are restrained in design and crisply executed; the mahogany is of the very finest quality, and the colour has that lovely faded lustre.

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Antique Brass Handles – A Guide

 

Brass mounts were used on furniture from the 17th century onwards – the metal was popular because it had a good colour which enhanced the surrounding wood; it was also relatively soft and easy to work – and could be reproduced quickly and easily by casting.

 

gfgfThe earliest examples were the  pear-drop: a bulbous drop fitted to a circular back plate. These were typically used during the William and Mary period, on mostly heavy, moulded oak pieces. With the advent of the walnut period, these and similar strap drops continued to be used, but also introduced was a type of handle used throughout the 18th century: the loop handle with two fastenings.

 

DSCF7742The first of these had a shaped back plate with a chased, or engraved, decoration on it. As the century progressed, and the walnut and early mahogany furniture grew more sophisticated, the shaping of these back plates became more elaborate, with scrollwork and arabesques. The centre was often fretted out to echo the design, and matched with equally elaborate ‘escutcheons’, or key hole plates.

 

DSCF7747In about 1750 a new, simpler type supplanted these: retaining the loop or ‘swan neck’ handle, the single back plate disappeared to be replaced by two small circular plates. The focus became less on the handles, more on the figure of the wood during the classic Georgian period. French influence began to be apparent around this time too, such as the flamboyant Rococo mounts of the Chippendale style, and these were often gilded to protect the metal from tarnishing.

 

DSCF7748The development of sheet brass which could be stamped or pressed intoshape saw the introduction, in the 1780s, of the first metal knobs, with pressed brass fronts, decorated with fashionable motifs of the day, such as thistles. Throughout the Sheraton period brass knobs became smaller and more elegant, before they were superseded by wooden ones at the start of the 19th century.

 

DSCF7749The continuous back-plate also re-emerged in the 1780s, pressed most commonly into an oval or round shape, sometimes in geometric form – ushering in the Regency period with its exotic designs. ‘Lion’s Mask’ handles were typical – a cast lions head, with a ring in its mouth as the handle.

 

 

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Edwards and Roberts

 

3739aThe 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.

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Furniture Of The Turner Era

 

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 inter3717bior 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!

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