IN the attempt to write a history of English furniture and woodwork showing its development in an orderly progression, one is confronted by an initial difficulty; where to begin. Of woodwork prior to the fourteenth century we know very little, and of furniture practically nothing. Even if isolated specimens, for illustration, were available, - which is not the case, - they would be useless for our present purpose. I have pointed out, in other books on the subject, that an account of the evolution of furniture types, - especially when an attempt is made to date examples, - must be a chronicle of the fashions which prevailed at various periods. A solitary piece which has survived from very early times may, or may not, be indicative of the fashions of its time; we cannot know unless we can produce others of corresponding date and type, which establish the fact. We must always bear in mind also the possibility of a later copy of an earlier original. Thus, oak dressers and square-dial long-case clocks were made as late as the last quarter of the eighteenth century, but it would only make for confusion to illustrate such pieces as examples of late-eighteenth-century furniture, although made at that time. They are of the period but are not typical.
Modern furniture, even when made from that most durable material, English oak, and when constructed in the logical and stable manner which is so characteristic of the Tudor and Stuart periods, is, nevertheless, perishable, even with judicious wear and usage. When neglect and ill-treatment are added, it is not remarkable that so little, comparatively, of the Tudor and Jacobean furniture has survived to our day; the wonder is that any has persisted, even in the great treasure houses of England. With fashion always as capricious as it is at the present day, out-of-date furniture, in any form, must have been frequently in jeopardy during the chequered career through which so much of it has passed.
For practical purposes, we are compelled to begin somewhere, and it is hazardous to carry our enquiries much further back than the fourteenth century, in the case of woodwork, and the fifteenth as far as furniture is concerned.
Closing, as this book does, with the end of the seventeenth century, we are confined to a period of rather more than three hundred years, and, with certain rare exceptions, it is oak furniture or woodwork with which we are exclusively concerned.
To justify the existence of this book as a contribution to the subject of English furniture and woodwork, it has been necessary to break new ground, apart from such persona] predilection and bias from which no authors are free. In the case of the earlier pieces, some pioneer work has been attempted, by not only dating the period of the inception of the particular fashions of each example illustrated, but also by endeavouring to indicate, where practicable, and where one could be reasonably sure of one's own knowledge, the county or Locality of origin. Apart from the interest attaching to such information, it is necessary in determining periods either of fashion or manufacture, as the East Anglian counties, for example, were often the first to adopt designs and methods from Holland, which the Western districts only copied at a much later date.
It must also be remembered, in the attempt to view the early part of our subject in its proper perspective, that, at least until the end of the first half of the seventeenth century, if not to its close, intercourse between towns, and more especially between the remoter country districts, was very meagre.1 Trade traditions were preserved chiefly by the town apprentice, who became, frequently, the roving " journeyman," or settled in the country districts as a small master. It followed, therefore, as a logical conclusion, that fashions originated from the large towns and were perpetuated in the provinces, often long after their vogue in London had departed.
The only system of dating, therefore, which can be attempted with any approximation to truth, is that of the inception of fashions, not that of the actual manufacture of pieces themselves. This point can hardly be over-emphasised. To date an oak chair as closely as a semi-decade, for instance, would be obviously absurd if this implied the actual date when the chair was made. When, however, we learn from history that events occurred at this period, which led to the introduction of a foreign fashion or detail which the particular chair exhibits, such close dating begins to possess a real significance. This system acquires a further advantage as indicating only the inception of a type. It must not be forgotten that, frequently, the provinces copied the metropolitan fashions at intervals varying from twenty to thirty years after they had ceased to be made in London.
With the earlier examples, until almost the end of the sixteenth century, it is more than doubtful if fashions existed at all, in the sense in which the term is used here, if we except the ecclesiastical Gothic. England, from the point of view of furniture production, was a collection of counties rather than a country. Each locality was influenced by another according to inter-association and proximity, and between such counties as Gloucestershire and Suffolk, for example, such intercourse was probably non-existent. Each locality, therefore, in greater or lesser degree, must have possessed its own furniture and woodwork characteristics, favourite or peculiar details, dictated by trade traditions or abnormalities of timber growth or texture.1
1 It is, also, important to remember that this paucity of intercourse did not exist in the case of early monastic institutions. The significance of this will be elaborated in Chapters II and III.
No writer on the subject appears to have dealt with this question of origin at all, as, at first sight, there appears to be little or no data to commence with. Although there is every reason to suppose, for example, that some proportion of the furniture made in Cheshire would remain in its place of origin, yet, when we have to consider a period of from two to three hundred years, this amount would be so likely to be augmented by the productions of other counties, or diminished by removal or breakage, that it becomes a nice point, at the present day, at least with secular furniture, to distinguish the indigenous from the imported specimens.