Sham Antique Furniture - Mistaken Ideas about Old Furniture - Furniture in Tudor Times - Development of Furniture - Carving on Old Furniture, and Restorers' Practices - Furniture of the Georgian Period - Introduction of Mahogany - Chippendale and Chippendale Furniture - Man-waring - Heppelwhite - Sheraton - Architects-Furniture of the first half of present Century - Modern 'Art' Furniture - Furniture Designers - Influence of Sir Chas. Eastlake - 'Early English' - Recent Changes - Cause of Changes - Old and Modern Furniture contrasted - Superiority of good Modern Work over Old Furniture.
The important position occupied by furniture at the present day seems such a matter of course in the appointments of our homes that one seldom stops to consider that cabinet-making, as we understand it, is a craft of comparatively recent origin. We know, of course, that some things are old-fashioned, but beyond them all is chaos, so far as furniture is concerned, unless, indeed, we are aware of certain contrivances made of oak, usually more or less carved, and vaguely known as 'antique.' It is marvellous how antique some of these things are, in the opinion of their owners, founded, more likely than not, on the assertion of the broker or curiosity dealer who sold them the valuable articles. This gentleman, by the way, is often very accommodating, and will fix a date to suit his customer. We thus find 'grandfather* clocks of a date long anterior to that of the great discovery of Huyghens. Wonderful pieces of mechanism, those old clocks. 'Three or four hundred years old, my dear sir, and keeps better time than any other in the house.' The latter part of the assertion may be true, but the former cannot be accepted, if one pays any regard to the date of the application of the pendulum to time-keeping purposes. No, my friend, the age of your old clock is probably expressed by two figures, although it may run into three, the first of them being a I. Not by any chance can it be much over 200 years old, and even then it must be a very early specimen, a great rarity. Clocks, or rather the clock cases, it must be remembered, were one time made by cabinet-makers, or they would not be mentioned here.
It is almost a pity to disturb the equanimity of the dear old gentleman who shows us with pride a sofa which King Henry VIII. is said to have used, and it is, moreover, a ticklish matter to sweep away fancy with facts. The general style of the thing shows it to have been made early in the present century, but as that is not convincing enough, it has to be pointed out that the wood is mahogany, which was unknown in this country till within the last decade of the sixteenth century, and was not used by either royalty or populace till more than a hundred years later. History tells us King Henry died considerably before the dates mentioned.
Then there is our friend the popular actor, who one time acquired a veritable curiosity in the antique furniture line, nothing less than a genuine (?) old sideboard, oak covered with carving, with plate-glass back, cellarette and all complete, a modern sideboard in antique garb. Goodness only knows what the wonderful history attached to it was, but it did credit to the imagination of some one, even if it did not proclaim his veracity. The chief indictment against that piece of furniture was that our Elizabethan ancestors did not have sideboards, except in the literal sense of side boards, boards at the side of the room, and they never, for the best of all reasons, had large pieces of silvered plated glass above them.
The word 'Chippendale' is responsible for much disappointment to those who collect or set store by old furniture without knowing anything about it. There seems something in the name which renders it more adaptable to old pieces of furniture than any other. Witness the fortunate owner of some Chippendale chairs 'black with age, two or three hundred years old, and made of mahogany.' I never saw those chairs, but there is something in the description which is not accurate. If as old as stated, they were not made of mahogany, nor could they in the widest sense be considered 'Chippendale.'
Somewhat nearer the mark was the man who had picked up somewhere a set of chairs, and described them as perfect 'shield-back Chippendale chairs.' They might have been either 'Chippendale,' or with shield-shaped backs, but they could hardly have been both, and if he had described them as Heppelwhite chairs would probably have been correct.
Such instances of popular misconception about furniture might be multiplied almost indefinitely, and it is of course impossible, in a limited space, to do much more than hint how the reader may, if he will, form a tolerably correct idea about English furniture. Even those who might be supposed to know something about its history, cabinet-makers themselves, have usually devoted little attention to the subject, so that it is hoped this short attempt to trace the development of furniture may not be without interest to them as well as to the general reader.
To deal with the furniture of the older civilisations, or even with that of other European countries, is, of course, out of the question here. The remarks must be taken solely as referring to that of England, or, if the reader prefers it, of Great Britain, and more as having a general bearing on that of the present day than of being an attempt to give a detailed history of that of bygone years.
To all intents and purposes, there was little or no furniture made or required prior to Tudor times for the great bulk of the population. Of course, no doubt people had seats and tables, or substitutes for what we should consider such, but domestic comfort was not studied to any great extent. Even the higher grades of society had very limited ideas on this point, and their furniture seems to have consisted chiefly of chests. To the manufacture of these some degree of attention seems to have been given, but the woodwork otherwise was principally in the form of fixtures, that is, it formed part of the building, or else it was of a more or less temporary character, tables, for instance, being often no more than loose boards laid on movable trestles. That there were exceptions is not denied, but the bulk of the furniture, even if, according to our present meaning of the word, it existed at all, was of the rudest and crudest description. Earthen floors strewn with rushes did not conduce towards refinement, and the general conditions of life were such as to prevent anything beyond coarse, rough furniture of the simplest kind being required. The builder, the joiner, and, when decoration was wanted, the carver were the important wood-working craftsmen, for the cabinet-maker was non-existent; nor is it clear when his business originated as a separate one. That wood-working was a craft which had made considerable advancement, but not in the direction of furniture making, is undoubted, and as the years roll on we find that comparatively small wooden construction received more attention. As civilisation increased so did the need for greater domestic comfort manifest itself, with the result that articles of furniture became more numerous and convenient. The history of a people may almost be said to be written in their furniture. It shows clearly their progress, altering with their habits and customs, adapted to them in fact. Leaving the past for a moment for the present, we recognise this, not only in the differences which are found in different countries, but in the adaptations to peculiar needs. Thus, though the same style may more or less prevail in both, the characteristics of the furniture of a ship's cabin and of a dwelling house are very decided. So has it always been.