It may seem somewhat contradictory to these remarks to attribute any important share in the upward movement to the late Sir Charles Eastlake, but there is no doubt that his book, modestly called Hints on Household Taste, had much to do with it. As an exposition of art-principles applied to furniture, I know of nothing superior to it, and those readers who wish to design furniture for themselves cannot do better than study it. I must, however, caution them that all the arguments, plausible though they may seem, must, when they concern practical matters, be accepted with the greatest reserve. This is notably the case in connexion with veneering, for there is much that is incorrect when regarded from a practical point of view, and altogether apart from the broad principle that this mode of finishing is open to abuse. Notwithstanding these blemishes, and they are commonly met with in all books, however otherwise valuable, written by those who have little or no acquaintance with the practical side of furniture, with its actual manufacture, the young cabinet-maker may be recommended to read the book referred to. In it will be found the germ of the so-called 'Eastlake' style of American furniture, though much of it is only so in name.
Our own 'art' furniture of twenty years or so ago, though with certain modifications it has remained in favour ever since, was more truly ' Eastlake.' The distinguishing features may be said to be plainness and severity of line with solidity of construction - a solidity often more apparent than real. Of course, when carried out in its integrity, furniture in the 'Eastlake,' or, as it was more generally though erroneously called in this country, the Early English' style, was, and is, soundly constructed, but there is no greater difficulty in making cheap common work in it than in any other. Our art-furniture critics often seem to forget this, or to be unaware that the solid, severe - looking articles of furniture, call them Early English, Jacobean, Queen Anne, or anything else, may be, and often are, as flimsy and deceptive in construction as the greatest rubbish of pine and 'knife-cut' veneer put together to imitate the lordly Spanish for sale 'on the hawk' in the Curtain Road.
The 'Early English' furniture, or, more correctly, furniture in Old English styles, of recent years - there was, as I have endeavoured to show, none to speak of in the times which its name would indicate - was plain and severe. Such decoration as there was consisted of beads, small mouldings, and chamfered edges with a little carving, distinguishing features which are still much in vogue. Veneered work seemed a thing of the past, unless for small fancy articles and common things. The taste of the times was altogether against the large veneered carcase work of mahogany. For almost the first time since its introduction this wood ceased to be popular; it was no longer the wood for good furniture. In place of it ash and American walnut were used in bedrooms, oak, often fumigated and wax-polished, for dining-rooms, and black, or, as it is generally called, ebonised furniture for drawing-rooms.
It is interesting to look back and note the changes which have occurred even within a few years, not so much in the general construction of furniture, as in the decorative details. First, there was the rage for gilded incisions and panels, the latter with painted ornamentations, which, when well done, often added greatly to the beauty of the.furniture. The black and gold painted panels did not, however, enjoy a long run of popular favour for the best furniture. The paintings became worse and worse, till, instead of adorning, they spoilt the effect of furniture which was perhaps otherwise well designed. Black and gold decoration got common in fact, and therefore became, or was considered, unsuitable for good things. This is also the reason, or one of the principal ones, for the rapid changes which have taken place in recent years.
A style or feature of decoration has scarcely been well introduced in furniture of the best class than it is repeated in the commonest work without discretion. It gets overdone. Thus at one time turned spindles were all the rage; hardly a piece of furniture was made without one or more rows of them. The turners had a good time then in the wholesale furniture - making districts. Turned spindles are all very well in their way, but one does not care to see them here, there, and everywhere. People got tired of them, so they went. Then the places which were previously fitted with them were filled with fretwork, and the fret-cutters of Bethnal Green had their innings. As time went on, ebonised work palled. American walnut ousted it from our drawing-room so completely that it very rapidly became old-fashioned. The same kind of walnut was also more extensively used both for bedroom and dining-room, and, of course, for other furniture, till the consumption was such, that from having been an almost valueless timber, it was in considerable demand, and has remained so since, though apparently it is no longer used so much as formerly, for it, in its turn, has been displaced to a considerable extent. Rosewood, for a long time almost forgotten, except as an old-fashioned wood, gradually came to the fore, mostly inlaid with marquetry adapted from the style of the Italian Renaissance. The marquetry-cutters then became the masters of the situation, and even very young cabinet-makers may remember what a difficulty there was in getting the inlays, and how often a job was kept waiting for them. Of course, that soon righted itself, only at the same time marquetry, which at first was only seen in good work, was gradually reduced in quality to correspond with much of the furniture in which it is now found. Along with rosewood, which is much used for drawing-room furniture, mahogany, mostly darkened in colour by staining or fumigating, has been more extensively used again.
The extreme seventy of line apparent a few years ago has also been considerably modified, and running from one extreme to the other, it almost seems that in the immediate future we may expect a return to the curves of the Chippendale period, though doubtless somewhat less exuberant.