Such is a brief and only a very curtailed outline of the changes which have taken place within the last five-and-twenty years, for it has been impossible to do more than glance at some of the principal features of the furniture made during that period. It will, however, serve to show the young cabinet-maker that changes are constantly going on, and that to adapt himself to them it is necessary to be able to do more than one kind of work. Thus it would be little use for him to be able to do only solid work, and to know nothing about laying veneers, although these for a time might seem to have gone out of use. As the outline of the development of furniture has been necessarily of a very sketchy nature, it may be advisable to warn the student that there is no such thing as an abrupt transition from one style to another; the changes are so gradual that while they are going on around us their progress is hardly noticed. By degrees we awake to the fact that the fashion has undergone a change, but exactly how or when who can tell? It is sometimes urged as a reproach that we moderns invent no new style; that all we can do is to modify those which have existed, even, as some say, to copy them. They tell us we are reverting to the work of the old masters of the craft and copying it. That now and then a piece of furniture may be copied is not to be gainsaid, but the furniture-designer must do far more than this, for there is very little indeed of any old style which is copyable for ordinary purposes. All that can be done is to seize the leading features of any given style, and incorporate them in a design adapted to modern requirements. This is an altogether different matter from mere copying, as any novice who tries will soon find out.
The beginner is advised not to try and invent something quite new in style, but rather to acquire a good knowledge of what has gone before. He will then have comparatively little difficulty in producing sufficient novelty. The remark of Sir Joshua Reynolds is well worthy of note, that 'Invention, strictly speaking, is little more than a new combination of those images which have been previously gathered and deposited in the memory.'
It is the custom in some quarters and by some writers to urge that furniture is not made so well now as in times gone by, and were this the case it would certainly be a slur on the capability of the modern cabinet-maker. Over and over again antiquated forms of joints and methods of construction have been advocated in preference to those usually adopted. The reasons given for such advocacy are apparently based on an entire misconception of modern work of the better kind, with which alone we have to do. Thus one well-known writer states as a remarkable fact that he was asked more for a piece of furniture made of solid wood than for the same pattern veneered, and argues from this that veneering is bad instead of being merely a question of price. Another writer (Eastlake), in the book already referred to, notes that he had a substantial oak table made for less money than one veneered with walnut or rosewood would have cost. This, of course, is only what any cabinet-maker would expect if the veneered table was to be made of equal quality with the solid one, for the cost of the veneers and of the extra labour must be added. Many of those who have not sufficiently considered the subject would have cabinetmakers adopt obsolete methods of construction on the plea that they are so much more durable than those mostly resorted to. As it is desirable that the cabinetmaker should be able to refute such arguments, it will not be amiss to devote some space to their consideration.
The first reason which may be taken up is the alleged superior durability of old furniture, and at the first glance it seems a very good one, though when looked into, there is a good deal to be urged against it. I think we may safely conclude that the specimens which are found remaining were fairly well made; that is to say, substantially put together. The inferior things have been and are being gradually destroyed. The better ones have more care taken with them, and naturally last longer. In other words, it is a case of the survival of the fittest. The rubbish that was made in, let us say, the seventeenth century, has long been destroyed; only the best remains, and it seems but reasonable to suppose that this applies to anything made since. As every one must be aware, it is not the common furniture of the kitchen which has the most care taken with it, but the more costly and highly finished articles. These will remain when the others have been broken up and destroyed, so that it is not at all improbable, when all the poor stuff of to-day has ceased to exist, in time to come the superiority of the furniture of the latter part of the nineteenth century may be proclaimed as forcibly as that of past generations now is. We are frequently told that old work was so much more substantially put together than the modern is that we are rather apt to forget that the weakest of it must necessarily have perished first. A great deal of what remains, even from the last century, is in a very rickety condition, unless it has either had considerable care taken of it or has been restored and repaired since. We look in vain for the overwhelming superiority of old work when it is examined.
Although a great quantity of very poor stuff, rubbish in fact, is made now, it must not be forgotten that there is also a great quantity soundly and honestly constructed, and that it is increasing. By this rather than by the other should the capability of the modern artisan be judged. There is no doubt whatever in the minds of those who have an intimate knowledge of furniture that at no time has better work been done. Of course, if buyers will hunt around for so-called bargains and buy the cheapest furniture they can get, it is not to be expected that they will get hold of really good work. They should not form an opinion on the quality of modern work from experience so acquired; and it may be a matter worth noting that those who prate most about 'good old work' and the paltriness of the modern are not always the most liberal with their tradesmen. They want 'things for next to nothing,' and they get quality accordingly. If people will pay for it they can get furniture quite equal in quality to that made by those who are dead and gone. The skill of the modern cabinet-maker has in no degree departed, but, on the contrary, it has improved. Compare the crude, rough work which was made in the seventeenth century with the neatness and superior finish of that of to-day and note the advances which have been made.