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 French “fauteuil”, or arm chair, dating from about 1790, 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 18th century craftsmen were already practising it!
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 choose only the best quality fabrics – this is a lovely grey wool tweed supplied by the Isle of Mull weavers Ardalanish. It gives a contemporary feel to the chair, while complimenting its colour and form.
New in this week is this magnificent George III bureau bookcase. Featuring a graceful open fret swan neck pediment above beautifully shaped doors with flame mahogany panels, this piece dates from the 1770s. Everything about it speaks quality, from the beautifully matched veneers on the drawer fronts to the bureau interior with its harewood and boxwood inlay, and its original swan neck brass handles.
Almost the finest feature of this piece is its ‘patina’. 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”.
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 in the hands of an unskilled restorer.
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.
Here’s our definitive guide to avoiding the most obvious pitfalls…..
1. Does the piece have its original finish, or has it been repolished – does it have a shiny plastic finish or the nice smooth patina of age? (Read more about finishes here)
2. Look underneath, study the back, check for loose joints – when buying chairs see if they wobble when you sit on them. Good restorers are hard to come by and can be costly.
3. Do the drawers glide easily in and out? – if not, the drawer runners might be worn and need replacing.
4. Check for woodworm – look for the tell-tale holes. Tap the holes; if dust comes out, the worm is alive. The problem is treatable, so do not let a few holes put you off buying.
5. Are the handles original? Often handles have been replaced, but check that they are a good quality replacement, in keeping with the piece.
6. Is it ‘right’? – sometimes an old top is put onto a newer table base – in what we call a ‘marriage’. Look for inconsistencies of colour and any unexplained screw holes under the top. This could affect the item’s value.
7. Are there any new sections – such as legs, shelves or backboards? There should never be any plywood in a genuine antique. Plywood wasn’t made until about 1920.
8. If you are buying at auction, be aware that the buyer’s premium can often add as much as 27% to the bid price.
9. We recommend buying from a member of one of the respected trade associations such as Lapada or Bada – these dealers follow a strict code of practice.
10. Trust your eye – does the piece ‘stand’ well? If the proportions look wrong, it probably is wrong. Go with your taste – you will be looking at and enjoying this piece everyday!
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.
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.