Of the two factors referred to above, the homogeneity of a trade is the most important. The leisured classes could not originate; they could only patronise existing industries, and promote their development; wealth alone was unable to make finished craftsmen from agricultural labourers. We do not speak of the similarity between the furniture produced in England and Finland at the present day, because interchange of ideas between the craftsmen of the two countries is rare, and the influence of the one on the other is practically nil. This is exactly the condition which must have prevailed during the early part of the sixteenth century and before that time. Towns and villages were scattered; one county was far removed from the other, - often relatively farther than Berlin and London are at the present day, - and the artisan who roamed from his native place or county was in danger of being taken up for a rogue and a masterless man.
It will be seen, therefore, that to take a piece, irrespective of its place of origin, and to attempt to found a theory as to its antiquity, solely from certain characteristics of its design, is absolutely hopeless. The chair made in Middlesex in 1550 might be copied, - and probably was, - in Hereford some fifty years later. At the present day the two placed side by side would be referred to the same date. There is a strong reason for supposing that this copying, at subsequent periods, actually did take place. The nobles possessed their town houses, and probably several country mansions in addition. Until the end of the sixteenth century, furniture of any kind was exceedingly rare; it was no uncommon practice, when a noble family removed from London to its country seat, to take much of the furniture from the town house with it. Chairs were specially liable to such removals, as we shall see later. It was, therefore, quite probable that the country joiner would come into contact with the work of his fellow-craftsman in London, and would either be directly commissioned to copy his productions or would assimilate his ideas by association.
The general nature of the problem, of resolving the subject of English furniture and woodwork into an orderly progression, has been outlined in the foregoing. Three subdivisions suggest themselves in logical sequence, namely, panelling, movable furniture, and chairs, stools, settees and the like. The reasons for the distinction of the first two are evident, and in all three the liability to overlapping of examples can be imagined. With the third category, that of chairs, with their kindred pieces, settees, stools, benches, forms, etc., the separate character is not so obvious, yet they occupy a place apart, not only during the early period, but practically throughout the entire history of English furniture. This is a demonstrable fact, and for several reasons. If furniture of any kind was rare until the end of the Tudor period, chairs were so in even greater degree. As before stated, the bench or stool was the usual substitute at the table; chairs were seats of honour, reserved for the lord and his lady, sometimes for the exceptionally honoured guest. The long refectory tables of the period were flanked by benches or stools. On the dais, facing the hall - for meals were usually served in the Great Hall, which is such a general feature of the early Tudor house, - two chairs were placed for the lord and lady of the house. These chairs were greatly prized, for their associations rather than for their intrinsic worth, and were often removed from house to house. This esteem is suggested by the fact that chairs were often dated; an honour shared, as a general rule, only by the Court or standing cupboard and the chest, two important pieces designed to hold the family valuables both while in residence and in transit.
The stool continued to be the usual seat for meals until almost the close of the reign of Charles II, and the great store set by the chairs of the family is also indicated by the amount of fine carving lavished on them at this period. With the accession of William the Stadtholder in 1689, and even some years before, when the persecution of the Huguenots of France, following on the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, exiled many thousands of the French weavers, who brought their art to this country, a fashion for gorgeous fabrics was inaugurated. Again the chair, the stool and the settee were exceptionally favoured, as being particularly suited for the display of elaborate silks and velvets. During nearly the whole of the eighteenth century the craft of the chairmaker was quite distinct from that of the joiner, and was a much more favoured industry-It is nearly always chairs which originate the fashions, and mould them for other furniture to follow. We get the cabriole leg, in its many forms, with them, long before it is adapted to tables and similar articles of furniture. The design, especially of the carving, of chairs of the earlier periods is nearly always finer, and certainly more spirited than with other furniture. Greater originality is frequently displayed, and novelties of construction attempted (such as, at a later date, with the hoop-back chair of Queen Anne days) which are either quite unknown to, or unpractised by, the joiner.
It is these reasons, the distinct character of the chairmaker's craft as compared with that of the furniture joiner, and the difference between the work of both, in their nature, and that of the maker of panelling and semi-constructional woodwork, which have dictated the three subdivisions of this book. Here and there it will be found that they coalesce, but as .1 general rule it is remarkable how the stream of development flows without any serious deviation into side channels.
One of two methods remains in the orderly statement of our subject; to take examples in their periodic progression irrespective of the three subdivisions referred to above, the other to consider each in turn with due regard to the homogeneity of the book as a whole. It will be found that the latter method is the best in practice, if for no other reason than because panelling, furniture and chairs influence each other in only a slight degree, whereas the true evolution of English furniture is threefold, along each of the three channels before mentioned. This plan has the necessary drawback of requiring periodical returns to a previous starting-point, but it will be found to make for a better understanding, not only of when English furniture and woodwork developed, but why each phase came into being and the factors which caused it to arise.