Furniture And Decoration

During the sixteenth century and the early part of the seventeenth the articles of furniture in common use were somewhat restricted in number. Chests of all sizes and of all degrees of ornamentation were to be found everywhere and may be regarded as the standard mobiliary unit of •the period. It was not until the early days of the Stuarts that tables became really common; prior to that time long boards on trestles often served in lieu of the long, narrow refectory tables with heavy legs, nnderframing and stretchers close to the ground. The wall furniture comprised hanging cupboards, credences or buffets (Plate 136) and hutches in the earlier days and, in the greater houses, there were often cabinets of more or less elaboration in the matter of carving. Bedsteads with heavy carved posts supporting cumbrous panelled and carved tops were the most imposing items of mobiliary equipment. The seating furniture consisted mainly of backless benches or forms and joint stools. Chairs, most commonly with arms, panelled backs and carved cresting, were few in number and usually reserved for the heads of families or for guests of honour. It was not until the fore part of the seventeenth century, during the reigns of James I and Charles I, that there was much variety in the kinds of pieces in general use or that houses were furnished in at all an adequate manner according to our notions. Both in the time of Queen Elizabeth and also through the reigns of the first two Stuarts and the Commonwealth period the furniture, almost without exception, was heavy in structure, robust in its proportions and rectilinear in contour, in all of these respects coinciding very fully with the architectural background (Plate 136). So universally was this the case that the mobiliary creations of the period have been not inappropriately referred to as being, for the most part, a kind of movable architecture. While the paragraphs immediately following are to be understood as applying mainly to the furniture of the first sixty years of the seventeenth century, they may be taken as applying also to the furniture of the sixteenth century so far as the pieces therein discussed existed during the earlier period. It is, however, necessary to remember that certain items of decorative detail and ornamentation that had been characteristic in the time of Queen Elizabeth either almost or entirely disappeared very early in the reign of King James. Such an item of difference, for example, was the "Romayne work." This consisted of human heads carved in relief on roundels or medallions and was popular in the sixteenth century but virtually disappeared at the beginning of the seventeenth. Human figures in ornamentation also dropped almost completely out of fashion.

The pieces of furniture in common use during the reigns of James I and Charles I and the period of the Commonwealth were cupboards of various sorts, cabinets, buffets and dressers, chests, hutches, bedsteads, day-beds, tables of many varieties the most characteristic of which, perhaps, were the long narrow refectory tables, settles and settees, chairs both with and without arms, forms or backless benches, joint stools and footstools. The wood of which these pieces were made was almost invariably oak, although other less durable woods were occasionally used for furniture in humbler houses. The decoration consisted of carving, panelling, inlay or marqueterie, painting and, towards the middle of the century, the application of turned ornaments such as oval bosses, lozenges, split balusters and maoes, and the formation of intricate geometrical panels by means of applied mouldings.

Carving of several sorts was used (v. pp. 55 and 5d, "Practical Book of Period Furniture": Eberlein & McClure), but the most usual kind was in low but strong relief, often on a sunk ground. The motifs included strapwork, diaperwork, guilloche patterns, lunettes, tulips, hearts, roses and rosettes, acanthus leaves, foliated and floriated scrolls, grapevines with fruit and leaves, gadrooning, channelling, reeding, fluting, nulling, lozenges, laurelling, palmated chains, pomegranates, notching, "jewelling," geometrical designs and similar devices, all of which were practically echoes of the motifs employed in connexion with the panelling or in the embellishment of one or another part of the fixed woodwork. 2