A History of Woodworking ~ Raymond McInnis

Renaissance Furniture: Low Countries, 1500 - 1630

Preliminary note: If I live long enough -- I'm 77 now -- I intend upon conducting research on and writing up histories of woodworking technology and furniture design and production in Renaissance Italy, France, Germany, etc., but -- at the moment -- I intend uopn concentrating solely upon the so-called Lowland Countries, the Flemish and Dutch nations. As you read details below you will realize that, more than any other area of Europe, whether Italy or countries north of the Alps, conditions in the Lowland Countries have a greater impact upon Britain than any other European area. Commerce is one of the primary reasons, but an impact upon ideas also: I am especially considering this in light of Benno Forman's claims about the Northern European origins of the Chest of Drawers .

Very similar to conditions in Britain -- see origins of forms medieval -- materials are too meager for us to learn much about domestic interiors during the medieval period. With the social and economic changes the 15th-century, the paucity of evidence about such markers of living conditions as interior decoration and furnishing begins to change.

Political Flux

In the 15th-century the feudal states of the Low Countries are under the control of the Dukes of Burgundy. The richest communes of Flanders – Ghent, Bruges and Ypres – are centers the weaving industry and related activities. In Lowland Countries cities -- Antwerp, Louvain, Brussels, Namur and Cambrai -- the textile industry supports thriving communities. It is the wealth of these centers of industry which sustains the glories of the Burgundian Court, famous throughout the Continent for its luxury and splendor.

With her 1477 marriage to Maximilian of Austria, Mary of Burgundy (1457-1482) brings the Low Countries first under Austrian rule, but later under the Spanish. In 1494, Maximilian of Austria is elected Holy Roman Emperor. Torn by religious strife during the 16th-century, the Lowland Countries reach a solution to these bitter struggles in 1579, when the southern provinces form themselves into a league to defend the Catholic faith, but the northern provinces – already more or less independent – retain their freedom and in 1609 become a republic.

The Appearance of Pattern Books

In their own right, pattern books represent a topic worthy of extended investigation. For more on pattern books, click here.

Remember, the principle elements of Classical architecture are the Five Orders, and a knowledge of these is essential to anyone with pretenses designing a Renaissance building. Thus, it is not a mystery why, by 1539 a Flemish translation of the Italian architect Serlio's Fourth Book of Architecture appears in Antwerp.

In turn, these translations inspire natives, such as the Flemish designer, Hans Vredeman de Vries, to prepare publications on the Five Orders – but translated into the needs of native craftsmen. Read more details here.

But works such as these pattern books are also indispensable to furniture makers and carvers. And, as late as 1754, Thomas Chippendale is featuring the Five Orders in his pattern book, The Gentleman and Cabinetmaker's Director: being a large collection of the most elegant and useful designs of household furniture in the Gothic, Chinese and modern taste.. .

1754: Thomas Chippendale,The Gentleman and Cabinetmaker's Director: Being a Large Collection of the Most Elegant and Useful Designs of Household Furniture in the Gothic, Chinese and Modern Taste

Title Page of Chippendale's 1765 Director


(Reprinted by Dover in 1966. digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/DLDecArts.ChippGentCab)

On the right is a reproduction of the orignal title page for the book's 3d edition :

The images below are from page 7 of the plates in Chippendale's book; from left to right, the vertical columns illustrate, respectively, Tuscan, Doric, Tonick, Corinthian, and Composite designs.

chippendale_design_page [iframe location -- move to bottom?]

With Basic Flemish Renaissance Designs for Furniture Forms Also Comes Innovative Ornamentation as Embellishment

Furniture of Burgundian School: The Decline of the Gothic, the Rise of the Italian Renaissance

armoire of the burgundian school 16th-century.jpg

At this time in European history, not only are the designs of the Burgundian Court style a model for other royal households, but the collections of Philip the Good (1419-1467) and Charles the Bold (1467-1477) also comprise tapestries, gold, silver, jewels, embroideries, illuminated manuscripts and printed books, all of which create interest among the visitors to the court or others who are chroniclers of this age.

It is in this setting – towards the latter half of the 15th- and into the 16th-century – where the Gothic tradition achieves its final flourish. This residue of a medieval world can not withstand, however, the push of new trends in thought, of new modes of expression, that are coming out of the Italian Renaissance.

Definitely by the turn of the century, in the House of Burgundy's last days, an intellectual vibrancy is apparent, for the sheer energy of the school of the Loire under Charles VIII cannot be confined just to France. Flanders itself is invigorated by the Italian Renaissance example.

Indeed, in these years of transition into the modem world, Italy's Classical columns and pilasters are combined into a Gothic framework, with grotesques and arabesques decorating numerous surfaces.

After visiting Italy in 1508, for example, the painter Jan Gossaert (c. 1478 – 1532) -- also known as Jan Mabuse -- comes back to Flanders with fresh ideas. It is Mabuse who introduces into Flemish painting the nude Classical figure, and those architectural vistas and Italianate poses. With such developments, patrons in the Lowland Countries become enthused enough to commission Italian architects. Engravers, too, spread the new motifs of the Renaissance. In the 1520s, for goldsmiths and for wood carvers, Lucas van Leyden (1489-1533) is publishing engraved designs for decorative panels of grotesques.

It is generally conceded that the Burgundian style owes its character to Hughes Sambin, an architect and master carpenter, born about the beginning of the sixteenth century. In 1535, he finished the porch of St. Michel's in Dijon, and in 1572, publithed in Lyons, after a period of study in Michael Angelo's studio, a book filled with wood engravings, and entitled Oeuvres de diversite des termes dont on se serf en architecture, reduit en ordre par Maistre Hughes Sambin, architecteur en la vile de Dijon. See more about this book in glossary-pattern books

The Low Countries Cupboard -- The Beeldenkast -- Appears

In the first half of the 17th-century, furniture in the northern Lowland Countries began to acquire a distinctive native character.

At the time, French design is fashioned by the will of kings -- The Louis's, while in Flanders and Holland, design is under the influence of the demands of perhaps the richest merchant class of Europe -- the burghers. Conservative but rich, their furniture features lavish veneer, often with intricate, dark-brown-toned marquetry integrated into the design of opulent chests of drawers. The Lowland cabinetmakers carefully exploit the wood found on their trading routes such as padouk, acacia, and kingwood, and using them in their marquetry, often in panel pictures of floral groups.

[image] The Guild system itself encourages styles that have local elements of design [example?], where at least the main provinces developing their own interpretations of late Renaissance motifs. The cupboard – it gradually assumes the role of the chest – becomes the cabinetmaker's main product. For example, in the Holland province – home to the Lowland republic – several characteristic types appear, the most spectacular being the “Beeldenkast”. The Beeldenkast derives its name from the intricate carved figures on the panels of its doors. These cupboards are divided into two stages, and on rich examples both parts have carved caryatid supports.

[The example illustrated bears upon the upper stage the figures of the Christian virtues, Faith, Hope and Charity. Charity – represented by a woman with children -- occupies the position of honor in the center. Since this is a marriage press, the doors are carved with stories of maidenly virtues, while upon the frieze scenes of manly valor are depicted. The carver would base his reliefs on contemporary engravings, among which those of Maarten van Heemskerk were popular. ]

The carving for these cabinets is not the domain of the cabinetmaker himself; instead, the carving is the responsibility of a carver.

The technique of joining large boards together by means of dovetails, to form a box, may be referred to as "cabinetwork". Although it formed part of their legal prerogative, large-scale cabinetwork was not a popular technique amongst the English joiners during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Instead, it seems to have been practised here mainly by immigrant Flemish joiners (skrynemakers, from the Latin scrinium, a chest). The main centres where these congregated were London and Norwich, and in particular Southwark harboured a great many 'stranger-artificers', most of them Dutch, Flemish, German and French. One class of work produced by them would seem to be the so-called 'Nonsuch' chests, and similar marquetry work such as the panels of the so-called 'Great Bed of Ware' at the Victoria and Albert Museum. These are all analogous to contemporary work from Cologne and the Rhineland.


In other words, a cabinetmaker is responsible only for constructing the form's basic structure; he leaves the responsibility of the elaborately carved figures to a specialist. This division of labor – where the responsibility of each craftsman is laid out -- is confirmed in Guild regulations that survive. In many cases, the cabinet-maker did not have to call on the carver. This would not have been necessary, for example, where the cupboards were only ornamented with pilasters or columns, and decorative carving is limited to the panels. In general demand in Holland, such cabinets are much less expensive than the Beeldenkast, which is intended for the wealthier clientele.

Typically, the Zeeland chests are also divided like the Beeldenkast, into an upper section and a lower section. The doors, however, are broader in relation to the height, making them each practically square. Here, too, caryatids have their place.

This characteristic Renaissance feature is also found in Brabant, where the low Zeeland-type chest seems to have been readily accepted. In general, the decoration of the Northern examples is simple and severe. In the South, on the other hand, the doors are ornamented with carved and applied mouldings arranged in geometrical shapes. These angular patterns recall Arabic motifs – introduced to Spain by the Moors and thus more than likely introduced into the Low Countries during that area's occupation by Spain (dates). Cupboards from Zeeland province have little decoration, except occasionally where the panels in doors are carved in the form of an arch.

Late 16th-Century, Early 17th-Century Developments, Including Intarsia and Marquetry


By the 17th-century, Middelburg – the capital of Zeeland – evidently has major furniture workshops. Many Zeeland chests and cupboards of this era are ornamented with intarsia and marquetry. In addition to carved features these chests and cupboards also have intarsia panels, many with architectural scenes. Similar work with intarsia and marquetry is recorded in South Germany. In paintings of Antwerp interiors, cupboards and chests related in style to this example are often found, the friezes carved with griffins and trailing leaves.

Antwerp itself acquires renown as a center for the production of veneered and painted cabinets, each intended as a work of art in its own right. Often, too, these cabinets contain small drawers specifically designed to store precious stones, jewels and perhaps collections of shells or other natural objects are stored.

Like Amsterdam, these early 17th-century Antwerp craftsmen – they work in ebony – form a distinct group amongst that city's furniture makers. Ebony veneers are well suited for decorating of the fronts of numerous little drawers. Often, too, these drawers and the insides of the cabinet doors are painted.

oak ebony cupboard zeeland c-1640

The Forchoudt family play a notable part in establishing a market for this type of furniture. Business letters in the files of the Forchoudt family show how these ebony cabinets are exported to London, Paris, The Hague, Vienna and Lisbon. Often the ebony veneer on these pieces of furniture is combined with tortoise-shell mounted against red foil, so that the color of the tortoise shell is enhanced, and contrasts with the black of the ebony.

Or in other cases, the entire form is veneered with tortoise shell. The grouping of the drawers and small doors is sharply defined by the introduction of ivory fillets, something which produces a disciplined effect.

When cabinets are made for foreign patrons, stands are not provided, for these are made locally in the country of destination. This is one of the reasons why the Antwerp cabinets found in most European collections, often remain unidentified.

Flemish Style Chairs

Chairs also acquire their own specific Netherlandish character early in the 17th century. They are constructed on a rectangular plan, and have a high or low back of the same shape.

The most common Flemish/Dutch chair of the 17th-century is a simplified form of the so-called "Spanish chair." An early example of this model is in [Singleton Plate XXVIII] in the Cluny Museum, Paris. Notice that the heads on the back posts are carved, while the legs are shaped and turned and the rails are grooved. As the furniture historian notes, “The ordinary form of this chair appears on either side of the chimney-piece in Plate XXIV”.

This type is also known in Antwerp, and the Dutch painter, Peter Paul Rubens (1577 - 1640), himself owned such a chair. They are usually of walnut, those of ebony being rarer and more expensive. They are upholstered in leather, velvet or cloth which was attached by means of large brass studs. Ebony, which is extremely hard, allowed for the use of very slender members without weakening the chair.

The Dutch painter, Frans Hals (c. 1582 – 1666), shows us that they are capable of bearing great strain; for example, Hals' image of a sitting Willem van Heythuyzen portrays the man tipping his chair back, and more or less putting great stress on the chair's back legs. Fine quality chairs are also made of rosewood. In a pattern that follows both Italian and Spanish styles, legs on chairs are secured by stretchers that are carved and pierced, while armrests sometimes terminate in volutes or in animal heads.

In emulation of Classical architecture, the back is sometimes composed of two carved arcades placed one above the other. In the first half of the 17th-century, folding chairs – as shown in portraits by Rembrandt and van der Heist – also acquire a characteristic shape.

Flemish Impact on Renaissance Table Designs


British table and benches, ca. 1580. The table featured in the image is in a room in a London (demolished) building known as the "Bromley by Bow". The bulbous legs of the table reflect Flemish and German influences, introduced by immigrant craftsmen and pattern books. The joined stools -- with plain wooden tops --are made of oak.

Like the cupboards and sideboards, tables are solid and sturdy. Usually of oak, these tables are sometimes enlivened by small fillets of ebony. Some are constructed on the draw-top principle -- as shown on the left -- where the table's top can be almost doubled in length. Their construction is strengthened by iron screws introduced above and under the legs.

By studying contemporary paintings and engravings which depict the interiors of Netherlandish burghers' homes, we are able to learn a good deal about the designs of their furniture.

Sources: Esther Singleton, Dutch and Flemish Furniture New York: McClure's, 1907; Theodoor Herman Lunsingh Scheurleer, “The Low Countries, 1500 – 1630”, in Helena Hayward, ed., World Furniture London: Hamlyn, 1971, pages 53-56; [Anne Charlish], The History of Furniture New York: Morrow, 1976; Ronald Pearsall, Connoisseur's Guide to Antique Furniture, New York: 1997. page 41-47.