Not till towards the end of the Tudor period or the commencement of the Stuart dynasty can it be considered that any marked advance had been made in furniture, so that for all practical purposes its history may be said to date from the latter half of the sixteenth century. At that time, during the reign of Elizabeth, considerable attention was evidently paid to the construction and adornment of movable wooden constructions, i.e., articles of furniture, though according to modern notions these were anything but comfortable or convenient.
It is from this and slightly subsequent periods that much of the spurious antique oak furniture so frequently met with purports to belong, if one may judge from the carving which has been so liberally bestowed upon it. Although much of the furniture, such as it was, and principally consisting of chests, chairs, settles or long seats to accommodate more than one person at a time, with here and there a cabinet or wardrobe or a table, was no doubt carved, it must not be forgotten that most of it was comparatively plain. The furniture was more for use than for ornament, and only in the choicest work belonging to the wealthy could much carving be indulged in. Somehow or other the notion seems to be prevalent that all or nearly all of the furniture of the period referred to was carved. It seems very unreasonable to suppose that it was so, for otherwise one is at a loss to account for the existence of so much plain or very slightly carved pieces of old oak furniture which are to be met with in almost any part of the country. True, in the absence of dates on them, it is difficult, impossible indeed, to say exactly when such things were made, though there are often sufficient indications to indicate that they are seventeenth century work, and that, therefore, they ought in the opinion of many to be carved in characteristic style. If any one doubts the existence of so much plain or uncarved oak work, let him just note what goes in to any considerable antique furniture dealer's workshop. He will find that comparatively little of it is carved, and that coffers or chests, settles, chairs, and suchlike things, are in the majority, though among the more modern articles will be bureaus, clock-cases, etc. By-and-by these all make their appearance in the show-rooms or are offered to the purchaser, but no longer plain. No; they are, to use an expressive though not very elegant phrase, 'smothered with carving' If the original maker left the things plain, according to the restorer he made a mistake, and it is one which he, the restorer, considers it his duty, or perhaps I should rather say, his interest to rectify.
I am hardly going beyond the mark when I assert that it is almost impossible to obtain a really genuine unspoiled piece of old oak furniture which has had the misfortune to pass through the hands of a dealer or restorer. That some of these may be conscientious in their work I do not deny, but it is a lamentable fact that mostly they do far too much of what can only be called by courtesy restoration and repairing. That old things, when they come into their possession, are often sadly in need of repairs is undoubted, and if the work were limited to doing what is necessary, no objections could be raised; in fact, the restorer or repairer would occupy an honourable position. When, however, he alters the style of the thing entirely by carving it when the original maker left it plain, or as is not uncommonly-done, pulls it altogether to pieces and forms an entirely different article with them and portions of others, the work is not honest. The thing is palmed off as a piece of genuine old work, repaired and cleaned up. Nor is the restorer or ' faker' of old work content with structural alterations merely, for either from his own ignorance or from a desire to pander to that of his customers, he does not stop short at simply cleaning the wood from dirt, but darkens it and varnishes it till both the colour and figure or grain of the wood are hidden.
Oak of a moderate age is not black, but a brown more or less deep, and altogether different from the colour which the restorer gives it. The blackness, when it is not some stain purposely put on, simply results from dirt and smoke, and should rather be washed off than be added to. By means such as these innumerable articles of old furniture are utterly ruined every year by the vandals who deal in 'antique.' I do not now refer to the fabrication of sham antique furniture in its entirety, that is entirely new articles made and sold as old things, an industry unfortunately of considerable extent, so much as to the alterations which are made in really old work. The things themselves are old, so that the dealer may be correct in selling them as such; but, unfortunately, he does not think it necessary to explain that much of the work is entirely modern. As many of those who devote themselves to this kind of work are exceedingly skilful in imitating common rough old carving, it is not always an easy matter to distinguish between the genuine and the false, though there are usually sufficient indications to guide those who have studied the subject in arriving at a correct opinion. It may be easy enough comparatively for the student of old furniture to do so now while the work is fresh, but as it gets assimilated to the genuine the difficulties of distinguishing between the two will be greatly increased. In time it will be impossible to decide which is false and which is real.
Wardour Street enjoys a reputation of a kind for antique furniture as well as for other articles which are sought for by the curio-hunter. Even in it, now and then, a piece of genuine unsophisticated old oak furniture may be met with, but even when the basis of its construction is what it purports to be, it too often happens that the whole article has been tampered with to an unwarrantable degree. Those who wish to study old furniture need not think of being able to do so in any dealer's establishment unless in the workrooms, a part of the premises not usually shown. But perhaps the novice may think that in country districts he may be able to meet with genuine carved oak-work even in the hands of dealers. He may be. In my experience, however, and it is an extensive one, it is seldom possible to buy any piece of antique oak furniture which has been restored for purposes of sale, with any expectation of its being a genuine specimen of old work. The system of falsification is pursued as thoroughly in remote towns and villages of country districts as in London itself. If a piece of old oak furniture is plain there is a chance that not much has been done to it in the way of 'faking it up,' but as soon as he comes across an elaborately carved piece the novice should, at any rate, be careful to ascertain its history. Of course, this can generally be got from the dealer, but after what has been said the probability of its being authentic or otherwise need not be dilated on. Of course, I am not alluding to furniture in antique style made and sold by cabinet-makers of repute, for they would not endeavour to sell it for other than what it is, viz., modern work produced in the Elizabethan or other style. This, of course, is perfectly legitimate, and altogether different from the fabrication of sham antiques. Even dates are not altogether to be relied on as proving the genuineness of the work, for there is no more difficulty in carving them than any other device.