The fork of a mahogany tree for “flame”, or the curly “burr” found near the roots of walnut trees, form especially beautiful grain. Wide planks of this type of wood tend to warp and curl, so the technique of veneering allows it to be glued to more stable wood with less attractive grain, for results that are beautiful and durable.
Veneering consists of gluing down sheets of thinly cut decorative wood to a solid “carcase” timber. Before the introduction of machinery, all veneers were cut with a hand saw: the earlier the piece, the thicker the veneer. The carcase wood would be “toothed” with a toothing plane with a serrated iron, to achieve a good surface for the glue; while the glue dried, the veneer would be held in place by a heated caul, or block of wood. Smaller areas, such as crossbanding or inlay were often laid with the use of a veneer hammer.
The first veneered furniture used predominantly walnut, but also “oysters” of laburnam or mulberry wood; these were made from cutting cross sections of branch wood. During the 18th century “flame” or “curl” mahogany began to be used extensively as a veneer, such as seen on this lovely, small Regency breakfront bookcase. Other exotic hardwoods were employed at this time, such as rosewood and satinwood, and veneers continued to be popular throughout the Edwardian period.
Amongst new pieces this week is this lovely 18th century side table in Cuban mahogany, dating from about 1740. It is typical of the period, with its beautiful simple lines emphasised by a single handle. How did the mahogany get here?
The ships which worked the slave and spice trade between England, Africa and the West Indies sometimes came back to England without a cargo; however, ballast was needed to keep the ship on an even keel, and this was made up of readily available mahogany tree trunks: Swietenia mahogani, also called Spanish or Cuban mahogany.
Furniture makers had their workshops in the industrial part of town close to the docks, and seeing this timber mounting up on the quayside as a waste product, arranged for some of it to be cut. It was then discovered that not only was this timber good to work, but it was also very decorative.
Once the timber was popular it began to be brought in as a cargo, and high import duties were paid, making it very expensive; then in 1725 the tax was lifted, and for the next 150 years mahogany became the predominant cabinet timber used by makers such as Thomas Chippendale and Thomas Sheraton.
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. Woods used were usually the more exotic timbers such as ebony, rosewood or boxwood. Some were dyed, and portions of the design, for example the leaves, were shaded by scorching the edges in hot sand.
Amongst new stock this month is this lovely antique rosewood table dating from about 1850. The beautifully figured top features a boxwood banded central roundel, inlaid with intricate marquetry scrollwork designs in satinwood, and other exotic timbers. The base is of architectural form, and features further marquetry detailing on scroll brackets, with turned paterae and bun feet.
This table is typical of the Renaissance Revival style popular during the mid 19th century. The style, first popularised in architecture by Charles Barry and others, was characterised by severe, architectural forms enlivened by elaborate ornamentation in colourful contrasts of materials, and an eclectic use of decorative motifs.
Pembroke tables were named after the Countess of Pembroke, said to have been the first to order one. They appeared as a form in about 1750, but really became popular about 1780. They were considered to be a useful small table, with hinged wooden “fly-arms” to support the drop flaps, a drawer at one end and a “dummy” drawer at the other. Used as a writing or occasional table, they are always popular.
This oval satinwood example, dating from about 1790, is a particularly elegant form of the design. It has square tapered legs inlaid with ebony line, and original brass castors with the typically 18th century wide wheels.
It is made in West Indian satinwood, an exotic hardwood usually imported from Guiana, and, prized for its golden colour and watery figure that resembles moiré silk, was much used for fine quality pieces during the Sheraton period. East Indian satinwood was imported from Ceylon from the 1780s and was used up until the Edwardian era.
The faded tulipwood crossbanding complements the satinwood veneer. Tulipwood, which was imported from Brazil, has an amazing pink and yellow stripe when freshly cut, and was often for decorative inlay.
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”.
The flat yellow colour of walnut becomes golden and “honey-coloured”, with wonderful depth. Oak richens from dull grey to a deep, dark brown. Mahogany loses its reddish hue and softens to lovely gradations of brown, golden and grey.
Finally, the dirt and dust of years which clings to corners plays its part by highlighting the paler, mellow surfaces; even the natural grease from fingertips which darkens areas around handles is an important factor.
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 by the use of cleaners by unskilled restorers. Here in the Thakeham Furniture workshops, our team specialise in the preservation of patina.
From time to time, a really exceptional piece of furniture comes into the showroom, and this early Georgian kneehole desk is one of them. Dating from about 1750, it is typical of early Georgian furniture from this period; the quality of the mahogany is wonderful, the matched drawer fronts and figured top having faded to a lovely waxy patina.
It has a reading, or brushing, slide above the drawers, and the top drawer is fitted with fine oak partitions. Both, signs of quality, indicate that it may have had dual purpose as a gentleman’s dressing chest.
The handles, all original, are made of finely fretted brass and bring a restrained decorative element. The canted corners are elegantly fluted, and the bracket feet are shaped, typical of the George II period. The shaped frieze below the top drawer opens to reveal a hidden drawer.
The antique desk is unusually small in size and therefore ideal for those who are short of space. Of simple, well balanced design, the quality of workmanship and fine, original condition make it an excellent example of that unpretentious beauty which is so English.
This magnificent table was made in about 1830; style wise, it is typical of the late Regency period: the lion’s paw feet are beautifully carved, with a great depth and clarity. The tulip-shaped carving on the pedestal is a nod towards the symmetrical, foliate designs that became so popular during the reign of William IV, from 1830 to 1837.
William IV was a wonderful period of furniture making. It was characterised by strong, masculine design. Pieces tended to be more substantial than some of the delicate designs from the preceding Regency era; the feet on this table are broadly spread, making it particularly robust – it won’t move when you lean your elbows on it!
Exotic woods such as Rosewood were still popular at this time. The figured top of this table is a spectacular example of the dramatic figure of “Rio”, or South American, Rosewood [named for the smell when it is freshly cut]. A tropical hardwood, Rosewood is very dense and polishes to a lovely shine.
Now is a good time to buy! Antique furniture is cheaper in real terms than it has been for many years. It is often the same price, or cheaper, than a modern piece which is worth next to nothing by the time you get it home.
There are several reasons for buying antique furniture: it is much better quality, and it holds or increases its value. Antique furniture has generally been undervalued in relation to other arts, so if you’re buying something you love that is in good condition, the chances are it will be a good investment.
How to go about buying antique furniture? Firstly, and most importantly, only buy pieces you like: you will be living with them and enjoying them everyday! Trust your instincts and your “eye”, which will become more skilled with practise: stand back and look at the proportions – does it “stand” well? Examine the finish or “patina”: has it been sanded down and repolished, which would devalue the piece to some extent. Are there any loose joints or veneers?
Where to buy? Quality antique fairs, auction houses and specialist antique dealers are the best sources. Don’t forget, when buying at auction, that they add from 18% to 24% buyers premium to your bid, plus 20% VAT! There is also no guarantee that what you’re buying is what it pretends to be – does the top belong to the base, has it been cut down, is there woodworm under the upholstery?
If you buy from a dealer who is a member of LAPADA [The London and Provincial Antique Dealers Association], you will have peace of mind: members adhere to a strict Code of Practise, ensuring accurate descriptions and proper documentation of any restoration work.
This Georgian linen press is a good example: hand made and nearly 200 years old, it is useful as well as beautiful – it has the clean, simple lines of pieces from this period, and costs no more than having a built-in wardrobe made for your bedroom!
Walnut was the most popular cabinet timber during the first quarter of the 18th century. Much prized by cabinetmakers for its strength and decorative figure, “Juglans Regia” or English walnut, was not in fact native to England, but was introduced from Europe, possibly by the Romans.
The “curl” figure is found where branches or roots separate from the main trunk; “burr” walnut, with its distinctive speckled grain, is actually cut from a growth or burr on the side of the tree. These decorative sections would only be used in veneer form, but walnut was also used in the solid for chairs etc.
Veneers from this period were laboriously cut by hand, and are typically 1/16th of an inch thick – paper thin veneers are one of the first indications of a Victorian copy, or a reproduction!
On this lovely chest on stand, dating from about 1740, the drawer fronts have been “quartered” – where four consecutive slices of veneer are laid out to mirror each other. These are framed by “featherbanding”, when two lines of banding are laid in a herringbone pattern. Oak or, as in this case, pine was the timber of choice for carcasses, as its strong tight grain provided a perfectly stable ground to support the fine veneers.
This lovely, faded “honey” colour is typical of an early period walnut piece.