English oak is a beautiful wood; it tends to have a fine and close grain, and hardens with age to an iron-like strength. England’s generally rich soil and its comparatively mild and moist climate have provided it with an abundance of trees ideal for use as timber. Medullary rays are a particularly characteristic feature of oak, winding across the grain, usually paler than the surrounding wood. These are small bands of cells which conveyed and stored nutrients horizontally.
In England, well into the 19th century, the commonest method of converting timber into planks was by means of a long saw with a handle at each end, worked by two men, one of whom would often be standing below the log in a pit. Such timber is known as “pit-sawn”, and the unfinished back or interior boards of many a piece of furniture show its distinctive parallel saw marks.
The most obvious method of converting a log into planks is simply to slice it into parallel layers; This is known as plain sawing, and gave rise to the expression “run of the mill”. In order to produce planks with the sought-after medullary figure, the log would be “quarter-cut”: it was first divided lengthwise into quarters, then planks were sawn from each quarter. Boards created this way are also less likely to warp, and were used as show wood.
This charming oak dresser base dates from the 19th century, and has a lovely colour and old wax patina. The panelled doors display the typical medullary figuring of quarter-cut oak. Unique to this piece is the use of decorative geometric inlay in mahogany and lacewood. We sell plenty of early oak furniture on our website www.thakehamfurniture.co.uk
One of the more unusual pieces that we have had in recently is this 19th century north Italian walnut occasional table. It has an oblong top, with canted corners, and decorative parquetry inlay, with a central marquetry motif depicting a classical chariot scene. Raised on a turned column, it has three hipped, scrolled legs.
Marquetry is the method of decorating the surface of furniture with a panel of veneers. The sheets of veneer are temporarily glued together into a “pack”, and cut with a fine saw, producing contrasting panels of identical design. Simple geometric marquetry designs are often called ‘parquetry,’ in reference to the similar patterning of parquet flooring. Woods used were usually the more exotic timbers such as ebony, rosewood or boxwood, and sometimes included ivory, tortoiseshell, mother-of-pearl or fine metals. Some were dyed, and portions of the design, for example the leaves, were shaded by scorching the edges in hot sand. Marquetry should not be confused with inlay, in which pieces of wood are let in to the solid carcass.
Marquetry was introduced into English furniture at the restoration of Charles II in 1660 by Dutch immigrant “inlayers”. At the end of the 17th Century, a new influx of French Huguenot craftsmen, known as “ebenistes”, popularised seaweed or “arabesque” marquetry. The technique was revived again around 1765, when formal neo-classical designs became popular in Adam and Sheraton style furniture, and remained in use right into the late 19th century.
How do I know that the piece of furniture I am looking at is a genuine antique? Could it be a reproduction or a fake – and what are the things to look for?
1. First, look for anything that shouldn’t be there; are the top, back or sides made of plywood? Plywood was not used in furniture making until the 1930s, so would never have been incorporated into a Georgian piece. Similarly, chipboard, staples or Phillips screws are evidence of later construction. Antique chairs were always made with mortice and tenon joints, so a Georgian chair jointed by dowels is not Georgian!
2. 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.
3. If the piece is veneered, as a general guide, the thicker the veneer the older the piece is. Veneers were handsawn until well into the 19th century, so were by necessity coarsely cut. They were glued down [always with ‘Scotch’, or animal glue] and then sanded and polished in situ. Veneers became thinner and thinner as mechanisation increased, and by the 20th century they were literally ‘paper’ thin.
4. Dates are important when looking at screws and nails. Screws as we know them were not introduced until around 1675 and were handmade well into the mid 19th century. A handmade screw has little or no taper, the slot on the head is very rarely centrally aligned and the handmade screw has a much shallower spiral than the machine made variety. Nails were square cut, with round wire nails not used until about 1900.
5. 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.
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.