This section is from the book "Hints On Household Taste In Furniture, Upholstery And Other Details", by Charles L. Eastlake. Also available from Amazon: Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery and Other Details.
The general arrangement of an ordinary English sideboard is reasonable enough. It consists of a wide and deep shelf fitted with one or two drawers, and resting at each end on a cellaret cupboard. If this piece of furniture were constructed in a plain and straightforward manner, and were additionally provided with a few narrow shelves at the rear for displaying the old china vases and rare porcelain, of which almost every house contains a few examples, what a picturesque appearance it might present at the end of a room ! Instead of this, fashion once more steps in and twists the unfortunate buffet into all sorts of indescribable curves. It is bowed in front and 'shaped' at the back : the cupboard doors are bent inwards; the drawer-fronts are bent outwards; the angles are rounded off; tasteless mouldings are glued on; the whole surface glistens with varnish, and the result is - eminently uninteresting. To fulfil the first and most essential principles of good design, every article of furniture should, at the first glance, proclaim its real purpose; but the upholsterers seem to think it betokens elegance when that purpose is concealed. Having already touched on the subject of wood-carving, as applied to the decoration of such objects, I will only add that whatever the faults of its modern treatment may be, they are rendered doubly objectionable by the application of varnish. The moment a carved or sculptured surface begins to shine, it loses interest. But machine-made ornament, invested with an artificial lustre, is an artistic enormity which should be universally discouraged.
I know no better examples of dining-room chairs than some made in the early part of the seventeenth century which still exist in excellent preservation at Knole (near Sevenoaks), the seat of the late Earl De La Warr, to whose courtesy I am indebted for permission to make several of the sketches which illustrate these pages. If any of my readers wish to see furniture designed upon thoroughly artistic principles, they should visit this interesting old mansion, where they may walk through room after room and gallery after gallery filled with choice and rich specimens of ancient furniture, most of which has remained intact since the reign of James I. I had the good fortune myself to discover a slip of paper tucked beneath the webbing of a settee there, and bearing an inscription in Old English characters which fixed the date of some of this furniture indubitably at 1620. The sofas and chairs of that period are constructed of a light coloured close-grained wood, the rails and legs being properly pinned together and painted, where the framework is visible, with a red lacquer which is ornamented with a delicate foliated pattern in gold. The stuff with which they are covered was originally a rose-coloured velvet, which has now faded into a scarcely less beautiful silver-grey. The backs and seats are divided into panels by a trimming composed of silk and gold thread woven into a pattern of exquisite design, and are also decorated horizontally with a knotted fringe of the same material. The armchairs of the same set are of two kinds - one constructed with columnar legs like the smaller chair; the other framed after a more picturesque fashion, but painted in the same style. The side-rails which support the back are studded, over the velvet, with large round copper-gilt nails punched with a geometrical pattern, while a larger quatrefoil-headed nail marks the intersection of the framed legs below.
The back consists of three rails, one at each side and one at the top, the lower rail being, evidently for comfort's sake, omitted. Between these three rails a stout canvas bag is stretched, stuffed like the seat - which retains its elasticity to this day - with down or feathers, but to scarcely a greater thickness than an inch. Thus, without assuming the padded lumpy appearance of a modern armchair, the back so constructed accommodates itself at once to the shoulders of the sitter, and forms a most luxurious support. The egg-shaped finials at each angle of the back are composed of wood whipped over with thread silk, and decorated with gold braid and gilt nails.
I give a full description of this chair because I consider it one of the most perfect examples of its class which I have ever seen. The costliness of its material and mode of decoration may indeed render it unlikely that such furniture will ever be revived for ordinary use in our own day. But the general principle of the design need involve no more expense in execution than that which is incurred in any good upholsterer's shop.
There has been a slight improvement of late in the design of modern dining-room chairs, but they are still very far from what they ought to be, and the best are absurdly expensive. Perhaps the most satisfactory type is that which is commonly known in the trade as the 'Cromwell' chair. Its form is evidently copied from examples of the seventeenth century. The seat is square, or nearly so, in plan; the legs are partly square and partly turned; the back slopes slightly outwards and presents a padded frame, stretched between two upright rails, to the shoulders of the sitter. Both the seat and shoulder-pad are stuffed, or supposed to be stuffed, with horsehair, and are covered with leather, studded round the edges with brass nails. Sometimes the material called 'American cloth ' is substituted for leather. Some time ago I saw a set, or (as the shopkeepers delight in calling it) a 'suite,' of this kind in Tottenham Court-road, at two guineas per chair. There were also some armchairs corresponding in material (though not exactly in design) which were offered at 5l. apiece. Considering that the wood employed was oak, this was certainly cheap compared with the prices of more fashionable establishments. But not long afterwards an architect showed me a design which he had made for an armchair cleverly carved in oak and very comfortably padded. It was well executed in the country for five guineas; in London the order would not have been undertaken for less than ten.