Before it became Britain’s number one drink, China tea was introduced in the coffeehouses of London shortly before the Stuart Restoration in 1660. Between 1720 and 1750 the imports of tea to Britain, through the British East India Company, more than quadrupled. Tea became a hugely popular drink in Britain, but, to the ordinary consumer, it was also hugely expensive. The monopoly on imports held by the merchants of the East India Company meant that tea prices were kept artificially high to protect profits, and on top of this government imposed a high level of duty.
Tea was not only fashionable, it was also valuable, and fine items such as tea caddies were made for storage and display. The ultimate tea caddy was its own piece of furniture: a teapoy. They were developed in the mid 18th century, first in India, and then by British cabinet makers. The name, strangely, derives not from the word “tea”, but from the Hindi phrase meaning “three footed”.
They usually took the form of a small pedestal table equipped with a box attached to a tripod base. The box was a fitted inside as a tea caddy, used for storing loose tea; if it was flat-topped, the teapoy could also serve as a small tea table.
This particularly elegant example dates from about 1835. It is veneered in beautifully figured mahogany, with the original fitted interior consisting of four canisters and two glass bowls for storing and mixing tea. Raised on a turned column with acanthus leaf baluster and gadrooned collar, it has a quad form base with Tudor rose mouldings and bun feet on castors.
This beautiful little ladies writing table is known as a ‘Bonheur du Jour’ meaning “daytime delight” in French! They were introduced in Paris in the 1760s, and swiftly became fashionable. The Bonheur du Jour is always very light and graceful; its special characteristic is a raised back, which may form a little cabinet or a nest of drawers, or open shelves.
This, an English version, is very finely made 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.
One of the most exceptional pieces we’ve had in recent months is this wonderful Georgian mahogany wine cooler that has just come in to the showroom. It is a classic piece of English cabinet work from the late Regency period – some might claim the peak era of furniture design. Pieces from this date were beautifully executed, with all the skills and knowledge of previous generations of craftsmen put to good use. The mechanisation of the subsequent Victorian period heralded the advent of mass production with a subsequent homogenisation of design innovation.
Of ‘sarcophagus’ design, this wine cooler is in wonderful original condition. Robert Adam wrote that the English were “accustomed by habit, or induced by the nature of our climate, to indulge more largely in the enjoyment of the bottle” than the French. Perhaps this explains the huge diversity, during the 18th century, of types of containers made for bottles – intended to stand in the dining room, generally under a serving table or sideboard.
By the early 19th century there were even cabinet makers who specialised in making nothing else. The terms “cellaret” and “wine cooler” are sometimes not used with any clear distinction, but generally the former had a lid and was used for storing bottles, while the wine cooler, open or closed, was lined and filled with ice for cooling them. This example has never had a liner. It features beautifully figured flame mahogany panels veneered [as in all the top quality pieces] onto straight grained mahogany. Turned “gadrooning” frame the panelled sides and the whole rests on magnificently carved “lion’s paw” feet.
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.